13 Assassins [十三人の刺客, Jūsannin no Shikaku] (2010)
Official US release in 2011
Starring Koji Yakusho, Takayuki Yamada, Yusuke Iseya, Goro Inagaki, Masachika Ichimura, Mikijiro Hira, Hiroki Matsukata, Ikki Sawamura, Arata Furuta, Tsuyoshi Ihara, Masataka Kubota, Sosuke Takaoka, Seiji Rokkaku, Yuma Ishigaki, Koen Kondo, Ikki Namioka
Directed by Takashi Miike
Expectations: High. Samurais = Awesome, right?
I loved everything about 13 Assassins. Start to finish, it’s flawless. Opening as a slow-paced and very traditional samurai picture, and ending as an all-out action blowout, 13 Assassins is the samurai film of the modern era. This is the first Takashi Miike film I’ve seen, despite being very aware of his name for many years. I remember hearing hot shit about Audition after it came out in 1999, but my mind was elsewhere and I chose to put it off until later. The years went on, and still I chose to push it aside, perhaps because the passing years led me to inadvertently picking up a good portion of the plot through varied conversations. In any case, as soon as I saw some footage from 13 Assassins I knew that I’d make it my first Miike film. I’m just a sucker for a samurai film. I never could have imagined that I’d love it as much as I did, and if his other films (of which there are many) are even half as awesome as this, then they are very well worth watching.
I knew virtually nothing about 13 Assassins going into it and that’s probably the best way to experience it. The film is a remake of Eiichi Kudo’s 1963 film, The Thirteen Assassins, which, coincidentally, is finally getting an American DVD release this June. I haven’t seen the original, but judging from some plot summaries the two films follow the same framework. While I don’t want to go into any plot specifics, 13 Assassins spends a little more than half its runtime slowly building up the tension and the characters, and then the remaining minutes are completely devoted to exploding that tension and delivering nothing but action.
Miike’s camera is sure and captures the beauty of the samurai perfectly. I didn’t think it was possible, but he has truly made a film worthy of the classics. It feels like an old-school samurai movie—thanks in part to the expert editing—especially during its tension-building first half, but it even retains some of that feel when the action lets loose. The action scene (and this is roughly a forty-minute scene) is filmed much more modernly than the preceding film would suggest, but it’s like a perfect melding of contemporary and classic. Sure, the camera is sometimes too close, resulting in a shakier cam than I’d like, but the overarching samurai grace and beauty still permeates the film. It’s a hard feel to describe but if you’re a fan of 50s/60s samurai films and then you watch this, I’m positive you’ll see what I’m talking about.
You can’t have a great samurai film without great samurai actors, and holy shit do these guys pull it off. Every member of the cast is perfect and totally inhabits their role. I especially enjoyed the work of Koji Yakusho as the lead assassin Shinzaemon. He has such a perfect face for this. It’s hard to single anyone else out because the whole cast is so good, but I’d be remiss not to mention Takayuki Yamada, who plays Shinzaemon’s nephew and fellow samurai. He’s given more depth than some of the other assassins, and he is able to successfully parlay this into a more nuanced and insightful performance.
I honestly don’t know what else to say. This is easily the best modern samurai film I’ve seen. I’ll be honest and say that I haven’t seen too many from the modern era, but that’s always been because when I would watch one it would pale in comparison to the classics and always be disappointing. 13 Assassins can easily sit beside some of the greats, and while it definitely doesn’t have the resonant power of some of Kurosawa’s finest works, Miike has crafted a samurai film that will definitely live on through the years. I don’t know that I’ll like them as much as I liked this, but I definitely have to get around to seeing some more of Miike’s films. The dude can definitely throw down. This is it guys, the one we’ve been waiting for; every samurai fan this side of Edo definitely needs to watch this one.