Title: 13 Assassins
Director: Takashi Miike
Starring: Koji Yakusho, Takayuki Yamada, Goro Inagaki
Combining extreme violence, bloodshed and the sentimentality of career criminals in an effort to push the boundaries of censorship has been Japanese director Takashi Miike’s claim to fame since he started his film career in 1991. Unsurprisingly, his latest action film, the Magnet Releasing movie ’13 Assassins,’ doesn’t fail to live up to his controversial reputation in terms of special effects. But the creative director also proves what a captivating filmmaker he is with his latest release, as he expertly includes a unique story and shocking themes.
Set during the end of Japan’s feudal era, ’13 Assassins’ follows respected samurai Shinzaemon Yakusho (played by Koji Yakusho) as he is secretly hired to assassinate Lord Naritsugu Matsudaira (portrayed by Goro Inagaki). As the Shogun’s younger brother, Naritsugu can’t be politically punished, so he rapes and kills innocent people whenever he chooses. Shinzaemom fears that after Naritsugu is promoted to a higher political position, he will commit even more heinous crimes.
Shinzaemom recruits eleven more samurai, including his nephew, Shinroukuro (played by Takayuki Yamada), to bring with him to kill Naritsugu. The 12 samurai devise a plan to kill Naritsugu as he makes the voyage home to Edo. Along their journey, the samurai take on hunter Kiga Koyata (portrayed by Yusuke Iseya), who they find in a forest, to help them find the village they have chosen to fight Naritsugu in. Once they reach the village, they discover Naritsugu has a much larger army than they anticipated, but the 13 assassins don’t back down from the challenge.
Miike, who is also known for dazzling audiences with his black humor and bold style, has said he tried to respect the original ’13 Assassins’ movie, which was released in 1963 by director Eichi Kudo. Miike achieved his goal by creating stunning visual effects and stunts, particularly during the scenes when Shinzaemom and his fellow samurai are fighting Naritsugu and his men. With the help of screenwriter Daisuke Tengan, the director was able to create a jidaigeki (which means period drama in Japanese, and usually refers to the Edo period) action film that perfectly balanced a well-developed story with justified, and perfectly-executed, action and violence.
With his version, Miike added that he wanted to recreate Shinzaemon’s journey to prove that samurai didn’t “fear risking their lives, and they fought against their enemies regardless how many there were.” The actors who portrayed the 13 samurai proved their characters weren’t afraid of Naritsugu’s much larger army; they were determined to defeat their enemies, no matter how many of them there were. Yakusho understood that Shinzaemon needed to be strong for his samurai and his country, and he couldn’t worry about his own well-being if he wanted to defeat Naritsugu.
Though Miike achieved his goal of showing the universal themes of a jidaigeki movie with ’13 Assassins,’ including the belief that people seek revenge in the name of love and use violence as a way to get justice, he spent a tremendous amount of time trying to showcase the backstories of all the characters. While it’s important for the audience to connect to the characters before they engage in battle, Miike’s continuous focus on their personalities slows down the movie’s momentum. The audience will undoubtedly want to see the samurai actually fighting Naritsugu and his men, instead of Shinzaemon continuously debating what course of action his samurai should take.
Miike created a compelling story in ’13 Assassins,’ showing that the samurai of the Edo period only sought justice and revenge and used violence when it was for the greater good of their country. While the action film deserves credit for balancing character development and effects, the inclusion of so many characters and their backstories can at times leave audiences unfamiliar with the jidaigeki genre somewhat confused about who’s who.
Written by: Karen Benardello