Staff Recommendations: 13 Assassins

Cornerhouse LiveWire Critic Jay Crosbie reviews 13 Assassins

So rarely has a director’s eye for the grotesque led them to become figure for a cult like following. However, Takashi Miike’s, (director of the infamous Audition and Ichi the Killer) vision has not only shocked audiences internationally with his vicious direction but inspired many to achieve this status. Most notably Eli Roth, who even featured him as a cameo in Hostel: Part 1 due to influence Roth said Takashi had on him. With this in mind it’s hard to imagine Miike doing something of this nature, but fear not. Miike has not only created a masterpiece, but a film that to me signifies an apex point in his career; a beautifully visioned and executed piece of work.

13 Assassins is a period piece set in Japan, in which we see how the malicious acts of Lord Naritsugu (Goro Inagaki) have affected his people. Unable to break the code of the Samurai, his army blindly accept his actions, leading to the ritual honour-killings of a few esteemed Samurais. Lord Naritsugu’s actions get too out of hand and Shinzaemon Shimada (Koji Yakusho) believes it’s time to stand up against his actions, by plotting to kill Lord Naritsugu. He assembles a group of 12 of the best samurais that are left to track down and kill Lord Naritsugu in order to put an end to his reign. 12 Samurais are trained to kill Lord Naritsugu and 70 of his guards. However, not everything goes to plan and the samurais find themselves in a situation much larger than anticipated.

From the offset, 13 Assassins may seem daunting, there’s a lot going on and a lot of names thrown at you fast. You’re thrown in pretty much at the deep end. But Miike, keeping true to himself and what makes him so popular uses the opening thirty minutes to show to the audience the things he’s most famously known for. By that I mean we see a lot of depraved acts including: rape and torture. But this isn’t done for the sake of it. Through witnessing these acts you actually get reasoning about why the “bad guy”, is truly bad. Weirdly enough, the development of most of the characters comes through their suffering, their trials and tribulations. So, by the time you arrive at the final act you care about the characters and their fate in what could be deemed as the ultimate suicide mission.

What makes Miike’s film for me so successful is the final hour or so. This sequence is gloriously violent and refreshingly exhilarating. It not only draws the audience kicking and screaming to the edge of their seats but allows real contemplation on the production of film. The set design is impeccable – the village in which the last act takes place in is not only authentic, but it serves as one of the best backdrops for a fight scene in recent memory. The attention to detail is mind blowing, it’s an absolute joy to watch this frenzy until its blood splattered climax.

Just a note, this film is violent. Remarkably so, the violence doesn’t feel as hyper-stylized as some films do, it feels real and really brutal. Limbs are hacked off not in one fine slash but a few blunt hacks, heads roll and rivers run red. Literally. It’s nice to see Miike still keeping his roots firmly dug into the ground whilst you watch him branch out into new territory.

Overall, you can’t really put into words what makes 13 Assassins truly remarkable. It’s a film that combines stunning set pieces, with intense action and even manages to develop the characters without the feeling that they’ve been shoe horned into the plot. It’s great to see Miike restraining himself but at the same time growing outwards to create a more mature film. It’s films like this that not only cement a director’s talent, but make you appreciate what made them catch your eye in the first place.

Cornerhouse AV Technician Dave Petty reviews 13 Assassins

Takashi Miike has never been one to shy away from controversy – two of his more well-known offerings, Ichi The Killer and Audition, can very easily attest to that. But his latest, 13 Assassins, takes rather a different path – in fact if it wasn’t for one scene alone (I won’t spoil it for anyone, but safe to say it’s pretty grim indeed) you’d be hard-pushed to tell it was Miike at all. For this very reason 13 Assassins could be a bit of a crowd-divider depending on expectations, but in proving Miike isn’t just a one-trick pony, it quite valiantly succeeds.

In many ways, it is a film of two halves. Much as Kubrick split Full Metal Jacket right down the centre between the boot camp and ‘Nam, Miike takes the best part of the first half to set up the band of samurai who will come to be his thirteen assassins, set on a mission in late Feudal Japan to execute the younger brother of the ruling Shogun, the deplorable Lord Naritsugu. Immune to the law and inclined to take full advantage of this fortuitous power, he’s a character that Miike would ordinarily have immense fun with, due to the sheer force of his inhumanity (rape, child murder, limb-hacking and tongue removal, just some of his crimes).

But Naritsugu is to a certain extent, somewhat restrained in favour of the narrative – his actions quite often happen off-screen. Whether this could or should have been the case is up for debate – quite often the dialogue and exposition can come off as incredibly clumsy, with dozens of names bandied about at rapid pace and connections to be made between a myriad characters, when at the film’s heart it’s simply one man (or two, at a push) against thirteen. I found myself wondering if Miike should have really been let off the hook to bend convention (this is a jidaigeki film, after all) in the way that Tarantino did with Inglourious Basterds – there are clear parallels between both directors, and restraint isn’t often something found in their cinematic language. But once ‘the main event’ has been set up for the second half (a clash between the thirteen samurai, and Naritsugu and his own warriors) the action is virtually non-stop until the credits roll.

In no way a wire-fu film (Zhang Yimou’s Hero springs to mind as a comparative touchstone of that genre, with very similar costumes and sets), 13 Assassins grounds itself in reality and, in the rather bloodier second half, pulls no punches in its frenetic depiction of samurai battle – CGI flaming oxen and all. But Miike never oversteps the mark in terms of what’s needed for the film, putting characters first and foremost in what is essentially an action costume drama. Get through the exposition of the first half, and you’re in for a whole lot of fun.