Film Review: 13 Assassins (2010)
My ‘ssassin Boys
by Ender’s Girl
(Sorry for the lame-o title-o, but a pun on the hit 2001 K-romcom My Sassy Girl was the best I could come up with – though I know not everyone can relate. My apologies.)
Yakusho Koji, Yamada Takayuki, Iseya Yusuke, Matsukata Hiroki, Inagaki Goro, Ihara Tsuyoshi, Sawamura Ikki, Furuta Arata, Takaoka Sousuke, Rokkaku Seiji, Matsumoto Koshiro, Namioka Kazuki, Kondo Koen, Ishigaki Yuma, Kubota Masataka, Ichimura Masachika
Directed by Miike Takashi / Toho & Sedic International, 2010
In a Nutshell:
A crack team of 13 samurai battles the odds – and an army of 200 elite guardsmen – in a suicide mission to dispatch an evil lord in late-Edo Japan.
(SpoilLert: Don’t worry, not saying who dies – or lives – in the end!)
“A good fort needs a gap. The enemy must be lured in so we can attack them. If we only defend, we lose the war.”
– Shimada Kambei in Seven Samurai (Kurosawa, 1954)
With 13 Assassins, master provoc-auteur Miike Takashi takes on a revitalized genre that, in recent years, has become the playground of veteran filmmakers like Yamada Yoji who favor quieter, deconstructed re-imaginings of samurai slumming it in the relatively bloodless years of the Pax Tokugawa.
In sharp contrast to Miike’s 2010 period opus (and, uh, 183,034th career feature to date lol), Yamada Yoji jidaigeki (Twilight Samurai, The Hidden Blade) are leisurely explorations of the minutiae of Japanese feudal society – samurai pass their time running office errands, dabbling in a trade, or perhaps, on more exciting days, refereeing (or figuring in) a domestic spat or two. In this era of peace, nobody has time to whinge about not having any civil wars to fight, or foreign armies to repel, or rival daimyo to vanquish (the daily grind of life is a battle in itself). And instead of traditional heroes and villains, Yamada Yoji protagonists are but regular blokes, and the antagonists usually snooty in-laws or petty, opportunistic bureaucrats.
Now enter Miike Takashi’s World, where: “If it ain’t about the killin’, then it ain’t worth filmin’!!!” His samurai and aristos are just. too. cool to trouble themselves with such mind-numbing mundanities; they loaf through the hated peacetime torpor with a bad case of the blahs, willing themselves back to the good ol’ pre-shogunate g(l)ory days of barbarism and bloodshed, when everyone and everything went by the credo “Fight-o ergo sum.” Robbed of their self-validating license to do violence, they longingly finger their idle swords while dreaming of honor and sacrifice, and nursing death wishes of an epic scale to match their own aspirations to immortality.
And the villains in Miike’s World? All ineffably twisted megalomaniacs stripped of every shred of human decency. If you’re wondering just how bad a villain ought to be in a Miike Takashi jidaigeki, suffice it to say that simple rape and pillage simply won’t cut it anymore – just ask Lord Naritsugu (Inagaki Goro FTW!!), the debauched dilettante-lord (and half-brother to the shogun, ohNOES!) whose uncontrollable bloodlust and sadistic (read: freakyshiyeeet) fetishes spark off the chain of events depicted in the film.
In fact, Lord Naritsugu is SOOOO EEEVOL, that when he’s on the road and stops the night at a local daimyo’s estate, his idea of “room service” is to exercise his droit de seigneur on the first pretty young thing he sees in the hallway; when the poor girl’s horrified husband rushes in, Naritsugu, blade in hand, skewers the young man and then calmly hacks his head off. And that’s not all!!! Lord Naritsugu is SOOOO EEEVOL, he plays soccer with people’s severed heads, not caring a whit if these heads once belonged to nameless prisoners or his long-serving deputies, tsk tsk.
And that’s not all!!! He’s SOOOO EEEVOL, that when a dissenting lord commits seppuku to protest Naritsugu’s, well, EEEVOLness, the maniac has the dead lord’s surviving family members – including a four-year-old boy! – rounded up, hogtied, and used for his archery target practice. And that’s not all!!! Lord Naritsugu is SOOOO EEEVOL, that he orders the “total massacre” of a rebel leader’s family – but he spares the daughter just so he can have her limbs and tongue cut off, to keep on for his sick amusement.
Well, at least no one can say that Lord Naritsugu didn’t have it coming; and if his endless rap sheet of atrocities weren’t already screaming for divine comeuppance one way or another, they certainly warranted the next best punishment: an elaborate liquidation plot secretly ordered by a veddy, veddy concerned bakufu official. For we know that in Miike’s World, there are few fates scarier than getting CREAMED!!! BY. A. BADASS!!! SAMURAI!!! HIT SQUAD!!!
Interesting premise, yes? The concept alone had me salivating for months, beginning with this anticipatory primer which I posted a while back. But halfway into the film, I realized I may have set my expectations a tad too high. (Memo to self: No more anticipatory primers!!! Ayayay!) Because surely there’s got to be a more dynamic way to set the stage and build narrative tension in Act I than by showing a bunch of middle-aged mandarins in a midnight conclave, trading Lord Naritsugu horror stories in hushed tones and matching expressions of revulsion and righteous anger – e.g. “OMG he’s sooo EEEVOL!!!” “IKR??? A total whack job!!!” “I mean this ain’t Ancient Rome, yo!” “He must be stopped before he plunges our land into chaos!!!” “OMG, we gotta take him out!!!” “Imma make sure Lord Naritsugu sleeps with the fishes!!!”
“Bad Goro! Bad Goro!!!” (Okay that last one was all me.) And for emphasis, cue intercutting shots of Goro (okay, of Lord Naritsugu) committing said acts of villainy, tsk tsk.
But Lord Naritsugu’s monstrous nature doesn’t quite jibe with the overall tone of 13 Assassins, which dyed-in-the-wool Miike Takashi fans might find too staid for the prolific filmmaker’s signature style, conspicuously lacking the mad, manic fingerprints of Japanese cinema’s favorite pulp anarchist, enfant terrible, and Energizer Bunny rolled into one. Naritsugu’s heinousness would work better in Miike Takashi’s less… temperate works, where the characters and scenarios are on a totally different plane of reality that you don’t really question why everyone and everything is so over-the-top kerreyyyzeee, you just accept it as the status quo. Whereas Lord Naritsugu’s EVOLness in 13 Assassins just feels absurd. We don’t even know how Lord Naritsugu turned out to be such a trigger-happy psycho – was he dropped on his head as a baby? bullied relentlessly
by SMAP in the third grade? catch his pops in the outhouse one afternoon dressed as a geisha? Meh.
Despite the thinly written role, Inagaki Goro impresses with his unsettling portrayal of Naritsugu. Behind each heavy-lidded gaze and malcontent sigh is a listless depravity that’s far more effective than face-scrunching, moustache-twirling antics. Naritsugu reminds you of those dudes who seem perfectly normal and sane on the outside but turn out to be cold-blooded murderers or rapists or something. (Some of the most memorable baddie roles usually fall into this mold, from Dr. Lecter to William Hinks (the serial killer/stalker on The Practice) to Moriarty from the more recent Sherlock BBC mini-series… and so on.)
It wasn’t much fun watching the first hour of 13 Assassins (rising action too inert, storytelling too straightforward for my liking), but dayyum I enjoyed the Bad Goro moments – like the time he remarks parenthetically to his rape victim while decapitating her dead husband, that “Monkey necks can be so tough, ne?” – and from his tone he could just have been discussing the price of tomatoes. Or take the archery target practice scene where he actually “tsks” (lol!) when his arrow deflects off the four-year-old boy’s trussed-up, quivering body. I’ve only seen Goro do comedy (whether it’s intentional, like the sketches he does on SMAPxSMAP – he’s pretty good at it, too; or, uh, unintentional – like, uh, every time SMAP share their stage with an international guest singer, bwahaha), so it was a welcome surprise to find him more than capable of handling serious material. (Good Goro, Good Goro!)
Lord Doi, the veddy, veddy concerned bakufu official who orders the hit on Naritsugu, actually does so with the shogun’s secret blessing – although obviously the shogun would never openly go against his own (half-)brother dearest as this would dangerously undermine his own legitimacy and authority. Since Lord Doi cannot denounce Naritsugu without implicating his boss, he delegates the job to the only man he can trust, a recently widowed samurai now living in gentrified semi-retirement out in the country. The name? Shimada. Shimada Shinzaemon.
Miike Takashi hit a bonanza by casting industry great Yakusho Koji as Shimada Shinzaemon, the seasoned leader of the titular assassins. Younger audiences may recognize Yakusho Koji from big Hollywood productions like Babel and Memoirs of a Geisha, but it’s the 1996 homegrown hit Shall We Dance? (yeah the one remade into the R-Gere/J-Lo starrer) that he seems best remembered for. Yakusho Koji doesn’t get to flex many acting muscles in 13 Assassins (nothing terribly challenging here besides the punishing stunt work), but he brings a good mix of righteous gravitas and stoic heroism (not to mention those lean, leathery good looks) to every frame he’s in, whether he’s swinging a katana blade or a fishing pole.
Since Shimada obviously can’t pull off such a crucial assignment all by himself, his first order of business is to assemble his A-Team by asking them, “Shall We Kill?” (lol) You’d expect the pace to pick up at this point, but… it doesn’t. As with Act I, there’s a lot of… sitting and talking that happens in Act II. Shimada doesn’t even go out to actively enlist his ronin; he just sits in his dojo and waits for them to come to him. And despite cursory attempts by the writer to tack on a backstory to one or two characters, the samurai are barely distinguishable from each other
because they all wear the same hairstyle because the viewer doesn’t get the chance to soak up the characters – it’s like marinating a slab of meat for only 3 minutes and expecting the flavor to go all the way in when you take a bite. Well, it doesn’t.
Perhaps Miike Takashi didn’t wish his remake to be a radical departure from the 1963 black-and-white original that he tended to play it safe in this film – both as a period piece and as a manly-man team action/adventure caper. But I wanted a team film with at least a little personality, a little flavor to make it memorable. I didn’t mean the raffish, wink-wink slickness of Ocean’s Eleven, or the bromo-erotic brio of Zac Snyder’s 300 (with its steroidal smorgasbord of chest bumps, war whoops and codpieces, oh my!), or even the clever, mindscrewy nonlinearity of The Usual Suspects. But I wish Miike and writer Tengan Daisuke had injected more creativity into the storytelling. Apart from the kickass battle sequence in the third act, there’s little else in 13 Assassins that really, really stands out.
13 Assassins also begs the inevitable comparison to Kurosawa’s genre-setting classic Seven Samurai, not only for its “Tiny band of samurai hole up in a village in a desperate last stand against the bad guys!!!” premise, but also for certain characters who were clearly inspired by the said epic. Despite being, oh, 43 hours long, Seven Samurai was a brilliantly edited piece of storytelling that had thematic depth, humor and real tension percolating between the well-defined characters; whereas 13 Assassins gives you a rudimentary framework of plot and characters but with very little of the meat – and thus very little of the satisfaction.
So who exactly are these thirteen would-be Goro-killers? (lol) Of course there’s Shimada the leader, who finds in the mission his samuraic raison d’etre (so he confides to Lord Doi). There’s also Shimada’s former protégé, a ronin who likes to practice some veddy, veddy cool slasher moves in Shimada’s dojo. There’s another recruit who’s candid enough to say he’s in it for the money; and then there’s the token rookie who looks like he’s nine or something, and who joins up to prove his worth with his first kill.
Yamada Takayuki plays Shimada’s profligate nephew who jumps on the Goro Must Go! bandwagon after Uncle Shimada makes him a sales pitch he can’t refuse:
“Do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life or come with me and change the world?” “Do you want to shag geisha for the rest of your life or come with me and change Japan? And oh yeah we gonna kill Goro too, kill him good!” Yet it’s pretty frustrating to see Yamada Takayuki’s mojo wasted here. I wanted him to at least have fun with the role, dang it. Instead his character plods along with the rest of the film. Where was my crazy-eyed little bugger from the Crows Zeroes? Gone. Gone!!!
Then there’s the cute dude who brings his small posse of all-look-same trainees (uh, Juniors? Lol) from the dojo owned by Shimada’s old buddy, a samurai who has pledged to help out with the mission. Now this geezer is quite a funny character: I call him The Count (yes, as in the Muppet from Sesame Street) because of his compulsive need to keep a running tally of their numbers with each new enlistee, as in: “ONE! One little samurai assassin! AH AH AH AHHH!!!… TWO! Two little samurai assassins! AH AH AH AHHH!!!…” – And so on and so forth; I could seriously picture him with the pointy cape and the thunder and lightning and creepy organ music in the background. (Or mebbe that was just me being bored. AH AH AH AHHH!!!)
There’s almost enough eye candy in this movie to make up for the meager character development – hellooo Takaoka Sousuke and your moobs (ohnoes keep your moobs!), hellooo Sawamura Ikki, hellooo Ihara Tsuyoshi, and yes you, Yamada Takayuki. (Spot the HanaKimi/Gokusen/Nodame Cantabile alums, too!) And let’s not forget
the flawlessly chiseled Iseya Yusuke as Kiga the fey forest dweller whom the assassins (at this point numbering – twelve! twelve little samurai assassins! AH AH AH AHHH!!!) come across on their journey and reluctantly admit into their ranks, not knowing what an asset he’ll prove to be in the decisive battle. Grubby, outburst-prone Kiga is an obvious nod to the archetypal Wildman of the Woods/ Offbeat Outsider character virtually patented by the great Mifune Toshiro in films like Seven Samurai. While Iseya is no Mifune, at least his character is the only one of the lot with a love life (albeit shown briefly in flashback), which at least humanizes him a little. Plus, you can never go wrong with those cheekbones.
Now Señor Miike isn’t exactly known for his “progressive” (haha) views on gender relations, and it shows in this film: you’ll find the women in 13 Assassins to be either mewling victims of sexual violence (with or without their… appendages), or pretty, pining domesticates. On the eve of the mission, a dour Yamada Takayuki leaves his wifey at the doorstep with a casual, over-the-shoulder “Oh by the way, Imma return soon… OR NOT. See you at the Festival of the Dead or whatever.” And from his bored, just-shoot-me-now expression you can tell he’d rather be at the damn festival than at home playin’ Scrabble with the missus. He doesn’t even let her respond, he just leaves. I wanted to suckah-punch Yamada in the face. SO BAD. (At least Lena Headey in 300 got to say something ultra cool to hubby-king Gerard Butler before he marched off into the waiting gold-banded arms of Xerxes the Brazilian: “Come back with your shield… or ON it.” *raised chin* *steely gaze* *all fierce woman raargh*)
Act II is when Team Shimada go to the mattresses. (“Leave the katana, take the kappamaki.” LOL) The job, after all, is a do-or-die deal requiring no less than the perfect confluence of timing, a foolproof strategy, and butt-oodles of luck. The annual trek that Bad Goro will be making from the capital to his Akashi domain opens a narrow window of opportunity to take him out. In the wise words of Marshall Mathers III, “You only get one shot / Do not miss your chance to blow / This opportunity comes once in a lifetime, yo!”
Meanwhile, Bad Goro’s crusty chief retainer named
Old Jedediah Hanbei is just as determined to thwart Shimada at every turn. The two embody vastly diametrical ideologies: duty-bound Hanbei shares none of Shimada’s social justice ideals, believing that the lot of samurai “is not to wonder why, but to obey our fate and die.” That Hanbei happens to be Shimada’s old rival from samurai academy ups the ante considerably, as each man feels the insane pressure to bring his “A” game all the way to their climactic confrontation.
Shimada’s game plan is to divert Bad Goro’s retinue through a mountain pass and ambush them there. To do this, the assassins engage samurai from Bad Goro’s rival clan, the Owari – all hard-bitten men with a veddy, veddy personal ax to grind against El Psycho. With a little push from Shimada, the Owari samurai block Bad Goro on their bridge with a “You. Shall Not. PASS!!!” moment (reminded me of Gandalf and the Balrog from The Fellowship of the Ring – with leadah Matsumoto Koshiro as Gandalf, natch!), thereby forcing Goro to send the bulk of his Praetorian Guard ahead, and leaving him to traverse the mountain pass with but a “skeleton” force of 200.
At the base of the gorge is a village that Shimada and his men have chosen as the site of their entrapment. After buying the locals’ cooperation and silence, they proceed to rig the town infrastructure with an elaborate system of booby traps, so cleverly placed they practically blend into the scenery. But unlike Seven Samurai, where the heroes fortify a farming village to keep a band of marauders out, the objective of Shimada and his posse is to lure Bad Goro’s entourage in, and make sure nobody gets out alive. I still think Miike Takashi could’ve used better interplay between villagers and samurai at this point to make the story much richer – as Kurosawa had done in Seven Samurai, where the samurai-villager dynamics gave the plot some wonderful traction. Not so for 13 Assassins. (There’s like a 2-second shot of a diminutive village boy showing off his ding-dong while the samurai go about their work, but, um, I don’t think that counts.)
With all preps done, Shimada and his dirty dozen dig in and wait for their quarry to arrive – while the viewer digs in and waits for the film to (finally!!!) reach its flashpoint. And the much-anticipated Big Action-Packed Payoff does come, a ferocious coup de main of detonating bridges and collapsing houses, deadly landmines and crashing makeshift portcullises, sniper arrows and flaming
fake CGI ungulates rampaging through the streets. Bad Goro’s beefeaters who survive this initial ambuscade try to fight their way out of the death trap they have unwittingly ridden into, only to find themselves facing the merciless swords, spears and slingshots of Team Shimada. It’s 13 against 200, but in the end, there can be only one (or maybe… two) – but not before each warrior gets his own Epic Moment of Awesome, to replay and freeze-frame for all eternity.
The battle royale clocks in at 40+ nonstop minutes of BLOODY GOOD ACTION, an expertly directed and edited slice-‘em-up mini-movie that aptly requires no background music other than the grunts and screams of grown men fighting and dying amid the smoking ruins and blood-slicked alleys of the village. Every nook, window, roof and mud puddle is utilized to the hilt as the roiling battle shifts in focus but never in momentum or sheer visceral thrill; the combatants clash and regroup, often breaking off into pocket skirmishes and isolated duels before finding themselves swept back into the melee. And the deft, energetic swordplay needs no embellishment from digital or wire effects – the choreography is just that good.
As with the Crows Zeroes, it’s the piece-de-resistance sequences like these that establish Miike’s genius as a stunt/action maven whose greatest strength clearly lies in depicting the beauty and brutality of battle. Of course the danger and consequences are much more amplified in 13 Assassins than in the Crows Zeroes – for these are real men and not surly schoolboys at war, men who actually die, and the stakes are much, much higher than ruling rights over a derelict school building. But whether it’s the juvie slugfests of the Crows franchise or the third-act samurai showdown in 13 Assassins, Miike pours his heart, soul and twisted little mind into these cinematic centerpieces, giving followers of the director (and of the action genre) enough to rave about for a long time to come.
But there’s a sense of self-control in the direction that elevates 13 Assassins above the usual excesses permeating Miike’s most noted (and notorious) works. Sure there’s lotsa blood on the dancefloor – er, battlefloor, but the barf factor is significantly scaled back – for example, in the movie’s two seppuku scenes, Miike tastefully zooms in on the gritted, agony-wracked faces of Uchino Masaaki and Matsumoto Koshiro (with just a Pollockian smatter of blood and squishy sound effects to suggest the actual disembowelment) instead of, well, letting it all hang out before the camera, lol. Even the Bad Goro moments – like the decapitation scene – go easy on the queasy because the worst acts of butchery hover safely out of camera range, and thus deliver their intended effect more powerfully. The art direction evokes this same restraint with an appropriately low-key palette of plums and browns and teals that comes off as austerely beautiful despite the drab tones.
The one concession that Miike makes to his shock/horror genre roots is a scene early in the film where Shimada Shinzaemon is confronted with Bad Goro’s limbless, tongueless ex-plaything. As the amputee labors to squiggle “total massacre” on a sheet of washi paper, the camera closes in on her face – drooling mouth clamped hard on the brush, bloodshot eyes screaming rage – and you’ll either recoil from your screen, or do a double fist-pump whooping, “Now that’s more like the Miike I know!” You’ll also wonder for a moment who had more fun doing what – Bad Goro mutilating the girl, or Miike Takashi orchestrating the scene as the sly impresario of his own Theater of the Grotesque. (Probably the latter, lol.)
In the movie’s final minutes, when the smoke begins to clear and the mountain fog disperses over the gutted village and its fallen warriors, a survivor is left to ponder this long day and its implications for his class and for him, personally. Viewers, too, will reflect upon the past two hours and ask themselves if the film was an experience worth revisiting again and again – as all well-loved classics are. For all of Miike Takashi’s earnest attempts to craft a modern masterpiece cut from the same cloth as the Golden Age jidaigeki greats, I can’t say that 13 Assassins delivered on my expectations. (Miike followed this up with another remake, the 3D Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai, which debuted at Cannes 2011 to disappointing reviews.) But is 13 Assassins a movie still worth keeping around the house (or hard disk)? Oh heck, yes – it’ll be perfect for those muggy Saturday afternoons when I’m in an exceptionally sanguinary mood. Naturally I’ll skim over the perfunctory first two acts (but slow down for the Bad Goro parts, lol), and hit “play” at the 70-minute mark, as the movie truly comes alive in all its wild, pulsating glory. And no, I’m not ashamed to say that I share Bad Goro/Lord Naritsugu’s morbid fascination with warfare when he gushes to his loyal Hanbei as the battle rages on: “How magnificent!!!”
Artistic and technical merit: B+
Entertainment value: B
Photo credits: 13assassins.com, bonjourtristesse.com, collider.com, gonnawatchit.com, imdb.com, lens-view.com, milehighcinema.com, ruthlessculture.com