“13 Assassins,” based on a screenplay by Kaneo Ikegami, written by Daisuke Tengan, directed by Takashi Miike, 125 minutes, rated R.
With “13 Assassins,” director Takashi Miike cuts a bloody swath in the samurai genre, taking the traditional and adding more than a pinch of what lurks within his twisted mind.
The catalyst behind all the violence is Lord Naritsugu Matsudaira (Goro Inagaki), the Shogun’s sadistic younger brother who rapes, kills and maims at will, but is politically untouchable because of his kinship. Naritsugu is the type of mad man who thrives off of chaos and war, void of anything resembling reason or sanity (possibly an ancestor of Asami Yamazaki in Miike’s “Audition”).
But it’s feudal Japan, which happened to be a time when samurai had unquestionable loyalty to the lord. Naritsugu’s samurai, Hanbei (Masachika Ichimura), is the epitome of what was expected of a samurai – ready to die at a moment’s notice to protect their lord, no matter how monstrous he may be.
In the strictest sense, Shizaemon’s (Koji Yakusho) 11 samurai, gathered for the purpose of political assassination, are not “good” samurai. They’re better than good. They’re the best.
The 12 samurai (and one tag-along commoner) take up the cause of the Japanese people by accepting a secret mission to ambush and kill Naritsugu. It’s suicide, but as Shizaemon and his men are trained samurai, they are willing to die for what they believe in.
Miike explores the ideological duality of the samurai, presenting the strict nature of the code in Hanbei against the unavoidable human nature of questioning in Shizaemon. It’s undeniable that Shizaemon is more noble (or simply more likable) than his counterpart, but there’s an honorable quality to Hanbei despite his indefensible goal of protecting the lord.
There are moments where it becomes clear Hanbei knows he’s on the wrong side of the battle, but it’s a job that he is bound to. What’s a samurai to do?
The first two-thirds of “13 Assassins” is methodical in the way it lays out moral quandaries and develops a staggering number of characters, as Shizaemon and Hanbei attempt to outwit one another militarily. All the while, you can feel that something grand is just over the horizon.
The third act belongs to a nearly 50-minute battle sequence pitting 13 against more than 200. It’s as exhilarating and elaborate as it is violent, and it’s something that American action movies can’t hold a candle to. I dare them to try.