by Hugo Gordon
Takashi Miike’s latest film begins with a samurai about to commit suicide. Not too surprising perhaps, given that Miike is most famous for incredibly gory films like Audition and Ichi the Killer. But what is surprising here is that rather than focusing in on the sword slicing through flesh, the camera settles on the anguished face of the samurai, with dramatic thunderclouds filling the sky behind him. It’s a good summary of how Miike has altered his usual style – 13 Assassins may be violent, but there’s a lot going on behind the gore.
13 Assassins tells the tale of a warrior group, led by an aging samurai (Koji Yakusho), who set out to kill the evil Lord Naritsugu (Goro Inagaki), their journey leading them to a climactic battle against Naritsugu’s army. The battle is violent in a typical war movie way, but (with the exception of one literal explosion of blood), it is not as gleefully extravagant as Miike’s previous efforts. But if Miike has toned down the bloodshed, he has not lost his flair for the disturbing. Naritsugu himself is perhaps the most terrifyingly evil character in cinema since No Country for Old Men‘s Anton Chigurgh. Inagaki is excellently cast, his soft features and languorous speech the perfect fit for a man who kills simply because he is bored. The film’s darkest scene sees Yakusho introduced to one of Naritsugu’s victims, who has had her limbs and tongue removed.
But to focus on the horror is to miss the surprising subtleties Miike injects into the film. The final battle represents not just a conflict between two warring sides, but old and modern Japan; the samurai fight to preserve a way of life that deep down they already know is gone. Even the geishas’ makeup is cracked, the real skin tone showing through the white mask – a romanticised ideal rapidly fading in the face of harsh reality. And for a film that could so easily have been a glorification of war, 13 Assassins often displays an anti-militaristic bent, portraying a conflict where heroic and evil men die painfully alongside each other in the mud.
Though thematically similar to Seven Samurai, it isn’t as good as Kurosawa’s masterpiece. The final battle, while initially exciting and choreographed with a skill that few, if any, Hollywood directors could match, runs to an overlong 45 minutes. 13 Assassins also suffers from awkward tonal shifts, with the occasional stabs at humour jarring with the atrocities on display. But it is nonetheless a film that demonstrates just how skillful a director Miike is – he has created a sombre, sinister epic that is nothing if not memorable.