11:00 - 7th July 2013, by David West

13 Assassins

It is 1844. The age of the samurai is coming to an end. Japan is a country at peace and most of the warrior class are now bureaucrats and pen-pushers. "These days, swords are only good for cutting radishes," scoffs a wealthy merchant, looking down on the top-knot brigade. But one man threatens to bring the country into chaos. Lord Naritsugu is brother-in-law to the Shogun, born to privilege and power. He also happens to be a psychopath who leaves a trail of misery in his wake, raping women, murdering at whim and using a family as targets to practice his archery.

Naristugu's excesses threaten to bring the regional lords into revolt when the Shogun wants to appoint his unhinged brother-in-law as his senior advisor. Consequently, a member of the council, Lord Doi, recruits a veteran samurai, Shinzaemon, to eliminate Naritsugu. However, Shinzaemon's old rival Hanbei is now Naritsugu's bodyguard and even as Shinzaemon is gathering his squad, Hanbei moves to stop their plan in its tracks.

Audition director Takashi Miike has turned his hand to just about every genre cinema has to offer, from westerns to J-horror and superhero adventures. Now, his foray into the chanbara genre has produced one of the most exciting samurai films to come out of Japan since the heyday of the trend back in the 1960s. Indeed, the film is actually a remake of an obscure chanbara by Eiichi Kudo from 1964. Miike's version feels both rooted in the tradition of the genre and yet is totally fresh and vital, breathing new life into a form that looked to be limping along in recent years.

Miike takes his time setting up the two opposing sides and establishing just how high the stakes are. Shinzaemon and his conspirators know that they may be defending national security, but attacking a senior government figure like Naritsugu is sure to be treated as treason, even if they survive the attempt. Naritsugu, played with chilling detachment by Goro Inagaki, is a sadistic monster and, just like the grotesque yakuza in Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo, it is impossible not to actively root for his death. Shinzaemon's only chance to kill Naritsugu will be when the lord is travelling from the capital city Edo back to the domain of the Akashi clan. If he reaches his home territory alive, they will have failed.

The first half of the film piles up the tension as Shinzaemon and Hanbei engage in a battle of wits at a distance, each trying to anticipate the other's next move. When Shinzaemon and his 12 accomplices launch their ambush on Naritsugu, the result is a battle that lasts the better part of an hour - and is utterly thrilling. The assassins are vastly outnumbered, but their trap has been carefully prepared, and the resulting mayhem is bloody and inventive as they inexorably slice their way ever closer to their target.

The assassins themselves do not all receive equal screen time, but each one receives at least enough attention to give them some sort of personality. The standouts are the lethal ronin Hirayama, who is reminiscent of the character Kyuzo in Seven Samurai in his devotion to swordsmanship, and Shinzaemon's nephew Shinrokuro. His life has been going nowhere as he spends his time gambling away what little money he has, until his uncle comes to him with the offer to do something worthwhile. Koji Yakusho is terrific as Shinzaemon, a man given the chance to put his years of training into practice. "How fate smiles on me," he says when Lord Doi first charges him with his mission of death, "As a samurai in this era of peace, I've been wishing for a noble death. Now fate has called me here."

Takashi Miike has always had a gift for genre films, and he is clearly right at home with the chanbara. His script condemns Naritsugu as a vile excuse for a human being, but the movie lacks the humanist outlook of his predecessors like Kihachi Okamoto, Hideo Gosha and Akira Kurosawa. Miike uses the situation to look at bushido from two different perspectives. On the one hand, Shinzaemon is acting on behalf of the nation, fighting to keep the peace. His opposite number, Hanbei, is also guided by bushido. He knows his lord is a repulsive creature, but he fights to the last to defend him, simply because that is his duty as a samurai. He can not abandon Naritsugu to the assassins, whatever he may have done, because his purpose in life is to serve his master.

The script does not offer the same kind of scathing condemnation of bushido and the feudal system found in Hara-kiri or Samurai Rebellion, but the classic samurai films of the 60s were attacking the imperialism of the government during World War II, a message no longer so relevant to modern audiences. While the first half of the movie explores issues of loyalty and subservience to those in power, the second half is a pure adrenalin rush of action as socio-political commentary takes a backseat to bloodshed. And what magnificent bloodshed it is.

13 Assassins is the best chanbara film to come along in a very long time. Takashi Miike has outdone himself and created an action masterpiece, it's a bloody blast of fresh air for the samurai movie. Do not miss it on the big screen while you have the chance. It is the first must-see Japanese release of the year.
SCORE: 5/5
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