13 Assassins Movie Review
In 1844 Japan, young Lord Naritsugu (Inagaki) is such a sadist that he's about to end a long period of peace. And his merciless rampage of rape, torture and death goes unchallenged because he's the Shogun's half-brother. Shocked by where this is heading, top samurai Shinzaemon (Yakusho) assembles a team of 12 warriors to take him out. It's clearly a suicide mission. And they pick up a wild-eyed 13th colleague (Iseya) on the way to setting an elaborate trap for Naritsugu and his 200-strong entourage.
Miike clearly enjoys shaking up movie genres, and the first half of this film is an impeccable samurai costume drama, as we learn about the characters and the politically charged situation through encounters that add increasing levels of urgency, plus a few grisly Miike touches. In peacetime, it's not easy to find 12 samurai willing to face real battle; the young ones have never drawn blood with an intent to kill. So their first fights carry an extra sting. And the climactic showdown fills the film's second hour.
Through it all, there's the underlying fact that Naritsugu's top bodyguard (Ichimura) is an old classmate of Shinzaemon; so their increasingly tense face-offs revive and twist their school rivalry and strain their code of honour. The film is packed with these touches, as well as character details that make a few of these fiercely loyal men distinct figures. Although the crazed peasant is the most fun, especially when he throws comical barbs at samurai society.
The heroes' trap is sprung in a spectacular, sometimes exhilarating way. So it seems strange that Miike hasn't added many stylistic flourishes. Perhaps his challenge was to tell the story in a straightforward way, keeping his unnerving genius in check, although it escapes now and then. And while there are eerie parallels with modern society (think of Naritsugu as a politically ambitious banker), the film ultimately feels a little bit slow, by Miike standards at least.