If you’re familiar with the litany of brilliant cinematic grotesques that Takashi Miike creates, you usually have a certain nervous expectation when you walk into his films. After sitting through works like Ichi The Killer and Three… Extremes, there’s a definite gleeful dread that accompanies his films. 13 Assassins is both an unlikely departure as well as a welcome return for him.
Taking a 150 year step back, 13 Assassins takes place in feudal Japan in the time of lords and samurai, in a time of fragile peace after a lifetime of war. The lords of the land are trying to maintain order in a wild world, and the balance is threatened by an up-and-coming young Shogun’s brother, Naritsugu (Gorô Inagaki). He’s a warped, sadistic megalomaniac who glories in debasing and defiling the underclasses and torturing those beneath him. His dark and twisted hobbies have become a concern of a small group of lords, who fear for their nation’s future should it fall into his hands, and plot his demise in the face of the army of soldiers that support him.
The film’s pacing is beautiful, with a slow, powerful buildup that sets the stage for an epic finale that kept the audience in a state of permanent gasping. It fills its first hour with labyrinthine political machinations and determined, anxious plotting as Naritsugu’s actions become more and more dreadful — his unrepentant rampage of rape, murder and torture increasing with each passing day, as he becomes determined to demonstrate his unchallenged authority through steadily horrifying atrocities. Finally, the upstart lords can tolerate no more, and begin a gathering of warriors — ronin and samurai whose dedication goes beyond what is legal, and instead focuses on what is right.
Led by two determined warrior-masters, Shinzaemon (Kôji Yakusho) and Shinrouko (Takayuki Yamada), this gathering of soldiers is one of the film’s best segments, as they seek out men of equal dedication and skill to begin their campaign against overwhelming odds. As they finally settle into the number thirteen, Naritsugu becomes aware of their plans, and he and his henchmen and collection of mercenaries begin an equally complicated set of planning.
All of this culminates in an insane, breathtaking extended battle that takes place within the confines of a small secluded village, as the thirteen warriors take on an army of more than 200. It’s there that the film casts aside its dramatic cloak and transforms into a full-blown bloodbath of fierce and unflinching madness. There are no Yimou Zhang-esque battles of elegant beauty and wired-up acrobatics. Instead, it’s a muddy, frenetic slogging of swords and clubs, a realistic orgy of brutal violence. And it’s amazing to watch. As engaging as the film’s early political machinations are, the battle is equally hypnotic. The transformation from political plotting to raw and vicious slaughter is an amazing exhibit of cinematic honesty. Miike revels in creating as realistic a depiction of the era as possible, and the results are fantastic.
This dedication to historical honesty is bolstered by phenomenal cinematography and set design. The lush settings somehow make the drab browns and greens stand out, and the costume design is painstakingly careful. But amidst that attentive eye for detail is an even more arduous depiction of the times, as characters are dirtied and bloodied over time, and the land is slowly enveloped in mist and brackish gloom. As the weather declines, the plot speeds up, creating a total immersion in the film’s trajectory towards its grisly yet glorious climax.
13 Assassins isn’t another hideous glimpse into the darkness of the human condition from Miike. It doesn’t have the same nihilistic lunacy of some of his films. Instead, it’s an intelligent, thoughtful historical musing … for the first hour (interspersed with some genuinely horrific imagery), followed by a spectacularly inventive, wonderfully violent climax that still doesn’t distract from its sharp-eyed buildup. It’s a history lesson, a political thought piece, a Seven Samurai homage, and an orgy of swords and blood, all wrapped in one thunderous and satisfying package.