“13 Assassins” was not what I was suspecting from a Takashi Miike film. For the uninitiated, Miike has made some very bizarre films. His main influences are David Lynch and David Cronenburg, for an explanation of Miike’s weird film lineage. He has also been known for showing extreme violence in his movies that can be described as over-the-top.
The setting is 19th century Japan, the waning days of the Tokugawa shogunate; which is also that last days of the samurai as a ruling class. The overall theme of the movie is what it means to follow the ways of Bushido, and whether a servant should blindly follow a lord.
The film is about a group of samurai who band together to assassinate a sociopathic lord, Matsudaira Naritsugu, who just happens to be half-brothers with the current shogun. Naritsugu is also about to be promoted to the shogun’s council. Matsudaira gleefully kills anyone that suits him to do so; such as slowly shooting a family with arrows as the father committed some transgression against him. There are two situations that kickstart the assassination plot on Matsudaria. The first is when he rapes a retainer’s daughter-in-law and murders both her and his son when the assault is discovered. His other major crime is abducting a girl, cutting all of her limbs off and keeping her has a plaything. That is, until he gets bored and throws her out of his palace. She is found and brought before Shimada Shinzaemon, an aged and jaded samurai, and she requests a total massacre of Matsudaria.
Shimada uses this as the fuel to find a group of samurai to help him assassinate Matsudaria. The members of this rag-tag group come from various walks of life of the samurai class. Over the course of the film the group finds a destitute hunter in the woods who eventually becomes a full-fledged member of the band. Since the group of 13 is so diverse, they can be interpreted to represent the different facets of Japanese culture who wish to reject the strict interpretation of Bushido as they are disobeying a ruling member of their society. Hanbei, one of Shimada’s childhood friends, represents the other side of the Bushido interpretation. He follows Matsudaria no matter what, believing since he is his lord, he must be obeyed. The philosophical difference between Hanbei and Shimada is the main conflict of the movie.
The film has an interesting filter as it occasionally resembles a ’70s samurai film with its subtle level of digital film grain. There were times I was convinced the movie was much older than it was based on how it was shot. This is a very good homage to those older movies.
This movie is in Japanese with subtitles so the acting is a little hard to judge as a English speaker. With that caveat, I feel the acting does work regardless of your understanding of the language.
There is a problem with the film: most of the characters have very similar haircuts and style of dress. This makes it hard to keep most of the assassins names straight and as a result, the climax a slight struggle to get emotionally invested in.
There is one scene with CG bovine that have wood-set fire on their backs and cause a small stampede. The effect is laughably bad, betraying the seriousness of the tone of the rest of the film. The rest of the action is awesome, as it mostly uses practical effects which are superior if a film does not have the resources for computer effects.
This is very dense movie that is hard to talk about with any sort of brevity as it has a lot to say about human nature. I do not have the full knowledge needed to properly discuss every aspect of this film with any sort of true depth. I highly recommend this movie if you have a love of old samurai movies, and do not mind watching foreign language movies.