13 Assassins


Written by Chris Price
04 Monday 04th April 2011

But if any director is equally adept across both areas of filmmaking, it’s Takashi Miike. Having grown in popularity in the UK riding high on the post-Ringu fever that saw a spike in interest with almost anything left of centre incoming from the Pacific Rim. With a portfolio sporting the sadistic hypercolour live-action manga of Ichi The Killer, zombie The Sound of Music homage Happiness of The Katakuris to traditional Kabuki theatre Demon Pond and children’s superhero cinema in the form of Zebraman 1 & 2.

Miike certainly enjoys the challenge of filmmaking, and in successfully turning his hand to so many different genres he has become a genuine craftsman. And 13 Assassin’s is no exception. Featuring the rich environments and thoughtful camerawork from his period pieces (The Bird People in China) and the complex matrix of human emotional in rite-of-passage humanistic dramas (Sabu), he’s crafted a distinct modern 'Jidaigeki' (genre of period drama set during Edo). And it's nominated for Best Film at the 34th Japan Academy Prize, with more accolades surely to come.

Set in the closing stages of Feudal Japan, it encompasses the stories of 13 men sent to battle an army of hundreds, as they try to to quietly dispatch the Shogun’s younger brother. A team of young samurais who’ve known very little other than peacetime are led to carry out the task that they’ve trained all their lives for, yet neither had the chance to fulfill. As Samurai, serving the Shogun is essentially a mission from God exacting your place in the afterworld.

Lord Naritsugu is the sadistic little scrote, raping and killing at will, enacting his role as lord and master of clan territory without the humanity also required by any good leader. Esteemed warrior Shinzaemon Shimada (played by Japanese celluloid royalty in the form of Koji Yakusho) accepts his task with aplomb and sets about gathering an ‘elite’ group of misfit Samurai – featuring one child, a gambler, an outrageously hard Ronin and a monkey-man.

It’s two films. The steady candle-lit recruitment of samurai dutifully bound to accept death in the line of duty. Yakusho’s Shinzaemon is both the warlord and the slightly portly old geezer (“You’ve entrusted me with your lives – I’ll spend them at my disposal”). A leader aware of his units' individual personal fallibilities. His ex-dojo partner Hanbei who’s found himself as Naritsugu’s security plays the strategic foil, both worn and unsure of his master's methods, yet bound by tradition.

It makes for a meticulous, steady and quiet beginning, before the 13 actually get around to any assassinating, turning a small village into a playground of death, where it all goes a bit A-Team/Kill Bill for the second half. The innovative use of the scenery does jar a bit with the solemnity of the beginning, but throughout you’re given something to watch. Ever scene is heavy with tradition (even the sword fighting at the end). So much so, it's pretty tiring. Like someone squeezing a history book into your eye socket over 126 minutes. But it’s so professionally delivery, it’s hard not to lean back and let each scene wash over your with its completeness. Losing nothing in the subtitles, its eminently accessible enough if it is a riot of vastly differing cultural values to our own. The superb cast carries off each performance authentically, without a single weak link.

Takashi Miike has once again proved his skill as a director. Assembling some blinding choreography, veiled brotherly connections between the 13, and powerful flashes of terror, remorse and respect it genuinely proves to be a rollercoaster of emotion. It’s a tough two hours, but superbly rewarding, genuinely spirited. And it’s enough to make you question your own interpretation of honour and respect.

Plus, any film where someone on fire gets cut in half its worthy of the entrance fee alone.

13 Assassins is out in UK cinemas on 6th May 2011.

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