Honor Comes in Odd Numbers

13 Assassins (July 5, 2011*)     4.5/5

Directed by Takashi Miike (Magnet Releasing)

Takasi Miike is quite a character.  His films have ranged from dramatic horror (Audition), to serial-killer study (Ichi the Killer), and even to western (Sukiyaki Western Django, which featured a performance by Quentin Tarantino).  If you have seen any of these films, you know Miike is not afraid to show human nature at its most depraved, and if you’ve seen any interviews with him, you know he’s anything but modest of his social norm breaking, however soft his voice may be.  In fact, one could almost insinuate that he’s pretentious about his breakthrough in using violence to make key societal points.  But he sure has a right to be.  Takashi Miike has gone so far as to set a new bar for Japanese cinema, as well as become one of the greatest directors working today.

In 13 Assassins, he tackles a new genre once again, the classic samurai film.  In tradition of such landmarks as Seven Samurai, the film is an exquisitely detailed period piece that rivals the power of many war films in American cinema.  But while those were high-budget epics, there are aspects of 13 Assassins that make it seem far more personal than, say … Apocalypse Now.  It is a simple film narratively, but is as detailed thematically as the costumes and set design.  In Japan, mid-19th Century, Lord Matsudaira Naritsugu is a young, corrupt leader who will soon begin a new era of war, simply for his own amusement (or maybe some subconscious desire).  To protect his people, the Shogun calls for desperate measures.  He hires Shinzaemon, a veteran samurai, as well as 12 other trained killers to assassinate the travelling lord before he can reach his royal home.  This culminates in a 50-minute battle sequence, with the 13 assassins taking on “over 200” of the lord’s minions.  It’s possibly the best epic combat seen since The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

The real genius in 13 Assassins is that despite the unique personalities of each samurai, and their different ambitions, values, and accomplishments, their deaths are anything but graceful (no music during the battle sequence certainly enhances this idea).  Instead, the deaths are brutal, simple, and unemotional, contrasting everything that has occurred in their lives.  Each character is so detailed, however, that for American audiences, it may be difficult to completely understand each during a simple viewing, as well as mentally tell them apart.  But the focus of 13 Assassins is still very clear.  Each of these samurai have chosen a path, one that will inevitably lead to death.  It is not until death has come that they realize the gravity of that choice.  And it is not until the battle is over that it is realized how foolish it is for such an option to exist.

The film takes place at the end of the samurai age, and like Apocalypse Now, presents the idea that survivors from such horrid events bring the hope for a future without them.  Fortunately, this old-fashioned storytelling is also complimented with technical perfection.  The sound effects, from stomach-churning scenes of ritualistic suicide to sword-clashing intensity, are impressive to say the least.  It is well-acted, precisely edited, and thrilling, limb-slicing fun.  The film’s first hour, which consists mostly of dialogue, is also surprisingly lively.  Overall, it lives up to the standard of cinematic art and entertainment Takashi Miike has become known for.  Even if that standard is completely whacko.

* Video Release Date

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