Review: 13 Assassins – ACMI Samurai Cinema

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Rated: M15+

Takashi Miike, 2010, Japan

13 Assassins (2010) directed by Takashi Miike sets the scene with a classic story of an overly-powerful overly-protected next in line ruler Lord Naritsugu who shows no mercy during the end of Japan’s feudal era. The innocent are exploited, tortured and slaughtered under his ego and sword yet the Shogun Council turns a blind eye for the sake of keeping the peace and blood ties out of the questioning. And thus, as any samurai field will have it, the silent mission of assassination begins.

Taking a step back the film opens up with a man undertaking the ritual harakiri – an honor killing to which a samurai commits suicide through disembowelment. The camera never shows the bloody silent death through the sword, however instead focuses on an intense close up of agonizing facial expressions suggesting something at large is at play for him to be disgraced in this manner to take his life. As the audience squirms for a brief moment, the camera then pans out to a bird eye view centering the lonely man in the just as lonely sandy field. You are left wondering, is there no hope? Audience members could not be more distanced to the film than witnessing a potential integral character dying in the first few seconds.

However, Takashi brings the audience up to speed with text commentary of the situation and what is to follow is the classic formula of any samurai period film  – the peril, the mission, the scout, the training, the plan, the execution and the finale of departing survivors. Despite the predictability in plot, Takashi’s direction takes a risk whereby the majority of the film is its 40minute battle scene. Shortly after appointed samurai Shinrokuro Shimada takes on the secret government mission, he selects his 12 assassins. The team consisted of semi-retired samurai craving a noble death, a young male who has lost his family and his nephew who is wrestling with identity issues. Their 13th member comes as a surprise when they are lost in the forest and encounter the lone wild soul caught in his own trap as he is hunting for beasts. It is also this 13th member that provides comic relief in the midst of battle as he speaks plainly of his hatred towards irrational pride and honor of the samurai way.

If it weren’t for the careful inclusion of brotherly ties and brief yet important backstories of the 13 assassins it would be difficult to endure this 2 hour demonstration of the end of the Shogun era.  If you thought Zack Snyder’s 300 (2006) was a long shot, then Takashi takes you on a journey of 13 vs 200 men.  Surprisingly, it is more believable than 300 due to the orchestration of the battle and the reconstruction of a village into a death trap. Interestingly, Takashi rarely uses music or an extravagant soundtrack to heighten your senses; instead you’re simply left captivated by the raw energy of the fights and sword action itself.

So if you are wondering what are my 13 reasons, here they are:

  1. Samurais in action
  2. Political tension
  3. A fight for the people
  4. Love seeking revenge
  5. Justice served through violence
  6. Comradeship
  7. Honor
  8. More honor
  9. Sword slashing show down
  10. Minimal CGI
  11. Blood
  12. More Blood
  13. Equals one satisfying samurai epic

Written By: Sandra Lee, May 2014 

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