Cult director Takeshi Miike (Ichi the Killer, Audition) leaps into familiar territory with a political samurai movie red with blood and action.
At the end of Japan’s feudal era, a group of unemployed samurai are enlisted to stop a sadistic warlord’s rise to the Shogunate, threatening to return the country to the Age of War.
Miike’s homage to Kurosawa, set in a peaceful 1844, sees the recruitment of an elite group of honourable men by the stately warrior Shinzaemon in a serious, introspective first half. These are men who feel themselves to be truly the last samurai, when the age of heroic swordsmen is over. And such is the evil ambition of the vicious, sadistic Lord Naritsugu, this is the honourable suicide mission to save the nation.
The last fifty minutes is a non-stop running battle when the assassins ambush the lord and his entourage of 200, a magnificently staged, against-all-odds sequence that raises the bar on the Seven Samurai, The Dirty Dozen, Con Air, and of course, The Magnificent Seven.
Shinzaemon’s ambush, with fire, barriers, explosives, stampeding bulls is a masterpiece of battlefield engineering. It is a stunning sequence, magnificently staged, until we are left with a wrecked village and rivers of blood. More improbably inventive than Seven Samurai, less laughable than Azumi, it rises above your run-of-the-mill samurai movie.
Now, as Peter Jackson has found in the Hobbit, thirteen leads is too many, so only a handful of them are fleshed out, the others remain pencil sketches. With the Lord Naritsugu, his general, and assorted lords and advisors, this is a large cast to keep track of. Miike adds one more – the Samurai code. For the assassins, this is about the fight itself, and Miike encapsulates the warrior code of the age – not to survive, but to die well.
Miike also manages to capture the old core of the feudal system – where the lords and the peasants owe each other rights and responsibilities – and at the same time, some of these warriors are almost revolutionary in their belief that the people are owed the right of self-determination.
Yes, at times, the battle scenes stretch credibility, and one character manages a remarkable, almost supernatural recovery. But Miikie’s thirteen warriors are a fine spread of unproven youngsters and weary old men and the battle keeps it’s integrity to the end. RC
Thirteen Assassins (2010)
Director: Takashi Miike
Writers: Kaneo Ikegami, Takashi Miike
Certification (UK): 15
Running time: 141 mins
Genre: Art House & International, Action & Adventure
Cast: Goro Inagaki, Ittoku Kishibe, Ken Mitsuishi, Koji Yakusho, Takayuki Yamada, Yusuke Iseya