13 Assassins is a samurai film directed by Takashi Miike that takes its cue from Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. Similar to Kurosawa’s classic, it is about a band of warriors who takes on a monumental task that necessitates wit and cunning in addition to physical prowess in order for them to succeed. Its story is already familiar and it doesn’t really add anything particularly new to the genre, but this movie is executed well and satisfyingly told. And for that, it is successful.
The leader of this group of samurais is named Shinzaemon (Koji Yashuko), and he is enlisted to assassinate the Lord Naritsugu (Goro Inagaki), the cold-blooded, maniacal heir to the shogunate. Naritsugu is a character of pure, unbridled evil that he almost seems like a caricature. He unexplainably gets off on committing cruel, inhumane acts of violence, and there is a childlike quality to him as he enjoys killing and maiming his subjects. In order to stop him from becoming the next shogun, Shinzaemon and his twelve companions take on Naritsugu and his private army of two hundred men.
This movie follows a traditional three-act structure. The first act consists of major exposition and the establishment of the urgency to assassinate Naritsugu. We are shown his victims, including one brilliantly rendered girl whom he mutilated, and the constraints the feudal justice system faced that prevented it from stopping Naritsugu. The second act is where things start to get a little problematic. Shinzaemon recruits his samurais and they go about planning their assassination. Very little is given to distinguish each member of the group from each other, and for the rest of the movie, they are practically interchangeable. This is where the movie also slows down considerably and loses the momentum it generated during its first act. The exposition here becomes careful and precise, maybe a bit too much so that at times it already feels dragging and unnecessary.
It ends, however, on an explosive, beautiful final battle scene. Sure, the way the thirteen assassins take on the larger army of two hundred borders on the implausible, but there is something oddly cathartic about the relentless blood and gore. Shinzaemon’s group turns an entire town into a death trap, relying on inventive means to kill Naritsugu’s entourage and making it one of the more memorable encounters in recent history. While it was beautifully shot, the battle scene does become repetitive at certain points as one becomes desensitized to the sheer amount of violence on screen.
There is some depth to be found in this movie. There is a lot of philosophizing on what living a good life is and how to die honorably. It examines and critiques the ethics of being a samurai, pointing to the pitfalls of strictly adhering to what now seems like an archaic code of values. This is most evident in the character of Hanbei (Masachika Ichimura), Naritsugu’s right-hand man. His skill as a samurai is equal to that of Shinza’s and he is a great military strategist able to predict his opponent’s every move. But his tactical skills are put to waste because of his blind adherence to the hierarchy above any other moral consideration. This brings to mind Arendt’s concept of the ‘banality of evil’, where atrocious acts are deemed acceptable because of the way the system has normalized them.
Ultimately, 13 Assassins is a good throwback to the classic samurai epics that has its moments of brilliance. The action sequences are inventive and unforgettable, and the tale of revenge and upholding one’s honor satisfying. More restraint and finesse could have been used in telling the narrative, but it is a good addition to the genre.
Bottom Line: While dragging at times, 13 Assassins is a good throwback to classic Japanese samurai epics.
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