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13 Assassins Reviews

Ever since the climax of Audition caught moviegoers completely off guard back in 1999, the name Takashi Miike has become virtually synonymous with shock cinema. It was a reputation that the director seemed eager to live up to as he delivered a sadistic, nonstop bloodbath in Ichi the Killer, instilled the tired yakuza genre with a fresh blast of surrealism in Gozu, and helmed the only episode of Masters of Horror that pay-cable giant Showtime outright refused to air. Though more recent efforts such as the endearing Zebraman and the kid-friendly remake The Great Yokai War found the prolific cult icon flirting with mainstream success and courting a wider audience, Miike’s penchant for unseemly stories and subject matter conspired to keep his popularity constricted to genre junkies and hardcore cinema fans. With 13 Assassins, that phase of Miike’s career comes to a spectacular end. The director’s first “conventional” masterpiece, 13 Assassins finds Miike striking an intensely satisfying balance of classical storytelling and contemporary style. Though it’s common for filmmakers to sacrifice at least some of their integrity to gain a larger audience, Miike’s artful take on the samurai genre retains his trademark gruesome sensibility and dark humor -- just in slightly smaller doses. Save for one small yet explosive swordfight, the first 90 minutes of 13 Assassins are virtually action-free. In most swordplay movies, that would prove to be as deadly as a samurai’s blade to the jugular; here, however, Daisuke Tengan’s adapted screenplay affords the maverick director the unique opportunity to indulge his penchant for the extreme in a way that simultaneously drives the story and raises the stakes. Japan, 1844: as the era of the samurai winds to a close, sadistic young Lord Naritsugu Matsudaira (Goro Inagaki) uses his powerful political ties to commit heinous atrocities against the common people. Recognizing the dangers to both his country and its citizens should the lord manage to gain any more power, concerned government official Sir Doi (Mikijiro Hira) secretly recruits famed samurai Shinzaemon Shimada (Koji Yakusho) to assemble a task force for a suicide mission to assassinate Matsudaira. But reaching their target won't be easy because the elusive lord is constantly flanked by legions of fearless bodyguards. Realizing that the bodyguards would decimate his modest task force in a traditional battle, Shimada lays an ingenious trap that will give his men the upper hand, and they wait patiently for their prey to take the bait. 13 Assassins may take its precious time working up to that final battle, but thanks to Tengan’s masterful pacing and colorful characters, the buildup is nearly as exciting as the big payoff. Opening with an act of seppuku that comes in protest to Lord Naritsugu’s reprehensible actions, the screenplay builds intensity by showing us precisely what’s at stake for the future of Japan should he manage to become the next shogun, then it permits us to watch as Shinzaemon assembles a crack team of master swordsmen to prevent that from ever happening. In showing us Lord Naritsugu’s inhumanity at the onset, Tengan and Miike create a villain of epically evil proportions. A cold-blooded beast whose wickedness knows no bounds, Naritsugu is precisely the kind of depraved savage that is always lingering in the back of parents’ minds when they tell their children that monsters don’t really exist. His obscene malevolence is counter-balanced by Shinzaemon’s deeply humanistic and good-humored samurai who values honor over blind loyalty, a position that puts him in direct odds with Hanbei (Masachika Ichimura), his former classmate, and the man who now acts as Lord Naritsugu’s head bodyguard. That conflict, as well as the involvement of Shinzaemon’s nephew in the mission, keeps the viewer involved by adding a few distinctive personal connections to the proceedings. Likewise, by having the characters speak in a slightly contemporary dialect, Tengan effectively closes the time gap that might otherwise distance us from the action, giving the film an endearingly timeless quality. From the villains to the heroes and everyone in between, the cast of 13 Assassins is uniformly strong: Yakusho is the kind of benevolent warrior that all good men would aspire to be in times of great strife; Inagaki makes one’s skin crawl every time he appears onscreen; and as the former playboy in search of nobility, expressive Takayuki Yamada conveys the profound impact of bloodshed on innocence in a way that truly hits home -- especially during the first swordfight and the apocalyptic climax. As the 13th assassin, a feral hunter who displays the deathless tendencies of a “tengu” (supernatural being of Japanese folklore), Yusuke Iseya provides the latter half of the film with some of its most memorable moments. Though not a true samurai like the warriors he falls in with, his filthy, free-spirited character is a sight to behold as he proves that rocks are just as effective as swords by smashing his way through Naritsugu’s bodyguards. Likewise, his refreshingly unconventional presence serves as a reminder that not all noble warriors of the time were necessarily of the samurai class. 13 Assassins is a great introduction to Miike for mainstream movie fans who have yet to discover the director, or find his massive, eclectic filmography a bit intimidating. It shows unmistakable flairs of his distinctive personal style within the context of a brilliantly executed, fairly traditional samurai film. By raising questions about the value of dying an honorable death and the meaning of loyalty when your master is the personification of evil, one of Japan’s most unconventional filmmakers displays an acute understanding of the country’s most conventional subgenres. For that reason, 13 Assassins not only ranks among Miike’s personal best, but also stands as one of the most satisfying samurai films of the last few decades.