The director Takashi Miike, who may be most famous for directing the horror film Audition, is the director of this epic samurai period film. 13 Assassins is set in 1844 toward the end of the Edo era that Tokyo Japan once was, when finding a true samurai warrior was growing more difficult. It is a remake of the 1963 film done by Eiichi Kudo that shares the same title. 13 Assassins is a foreign film whose premise is similar to that of the film 300, but overall they are on a different playing field, this one is much better.
The beginning warns us that Lord Naritsugu Matsudaira (Gorô Inagaki) is sadistic in nature, the warning was nice but grossly understated. Lord Naritsugu is the half-brother of the shogun looking to rise in power. It is not uncommon for him to kick around severed heads and rape anyone he chooses just for fun. In one instance, a victim not only gets their arms and legs amputated but also their tongue.
This is why the noble advisor to the Shogun, Sir Doi (Mikijiro Hira), has plans to assassinate Lord Naritsugu. Doi seeks out help from one of the last true samurai, Shinzaemon Shimada (Kôji Yakusho), and to gather another dozen samurai warriors to join him on his quest.
For better and for worse, the film gives a background story on each one of the recruits. The result of this provides good character understanding and development but also makes the first hour of the film go by fairly slow. Some people may not be able to handle that first hour and that fact that it is all subtitled does not help matters but if you enjoy epic battle scenes enough, your patience will be rewarded.
The group of 12 samurai warriors are willing to gamble their lives in order to prevent Lord Naritsugu from ascending to the throne and bringing the entire country into a war zone. Because the title conveniently states the number of assassins, we know that the group of 12 will eventually find one more. They unexpectedly find the last assassin on their journey through a thick Japanese forest. Koyata (Yûsuke Iseya) is a hunter who does not believe in the samurai code but is a natural born fighter. He provides comic relief to an otherwise completely serious toned film, which I think really helped it. I am not sure if it was Miike’s intention but Koyata ended up being the one you care about the most even though he may seem like an afterthought at first.
Odds are not in these 13 assassin’s favor and they know that going in. They choose to fortify a small town that they believe Lord Naritsugu and his men will pass. Like a chess game, they carefully plan out each move in order to defeat their opponent. The assassins soon find out that Lord Naritsugu brings 200 of his men to fight, thus begins the 13 versus 200 battle between good and evil.
Basically the entire film is a set up for the one large epic battle at the end. This battle is undeniably amazing and extends close to 45 minutes in length. To choreograph fight sequences for that length must have been a grueling task. However, it did feel like we had to sit through each one of the nearly 200 deaths. Although the film finds a few clever ways, there are only so many different ways you can skill someone with swords so by the end it felt monotonous.
In an addition to that excellent fight sequence there are a few memorable subtexts and metaphors. The best and most obvious one comes when an assassin tells Lord Naritsugu that he is just like his sword he carries, decorated and only for show. The overall theme of 13 Assassins is the dedication of one’s life that the traditional samurai code demands.
There a couple of scenes that seemed out of place slightly, however, there are two different versions of the film and I believed I watched the international copy which has a few scenes cut for a shorter runtime. I will admit I did not fully understand one of the assassin’s death. After watching the film, you should know which one I am talking about, however, going into too much detail may give away some spoilers. There is a chance I missed something fairly obvious but I would like to assume that most people will be a little perplexed as well.
It would be tough to argue that 13 Assassins is not a terrific samurai film and that it is easily one of the better ones made within the last 5 to 7 years. Having said that, samurai films in general do not typically interest me all that much. That is why for me the film is good not great. However, the fact that I can enjoy it does prove that the film stands out among its kind.