13 Assassins

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 07/07/11 19:23:25

"Sharp as a katana, no matter what the cut."
5 stars (Awesome)

ORIGINAL JAPANESE CUT SCREENED AT THE 2011 NEW YORK ASIAN FILM FESTIVAL: Director Takashi Miike's career has often been defined by the bizarre; even his recent run of PG-rated blockbusters for the whole family have frequently been weird. Watching his last movie to make a little noise in North America ("Sukiyaki Western Django"), I was struck by how the strange elements masked a guy who could deliver some excellent straight-up action and adventure, and found myself wondering if his skill would be appreciated as much as his vision if he played it straight for once. "13 Assassins" answers that question with a resounding "yes", although it's still got its odd moments, especially in its original Japanese cut.

Lord Naritsugu (Goro Inagaki) is a monster, the sociopath half-brother of a shogun who rapes, kills, and mutilates as he pleases, and to make matters worse, he's about to be appointed to the council. After a retainer uses his hara-kiri to deliver attention to this problem, samurai lord Doi (Mikijiro Hira) is given a vague directive to make the problem go away. To this end, Sir Doi retains Shinzaemon Shimada (Koji Yakusho), a righteous samurai who has had little reason to spill blood in this time of peace. Shimada, knowing that Naritsugu has an army at his disposal - commanded, naturally, by Shimada's old classmate Habei (Masachika Ichimura) - gathers a force of his own: There will be a dozen of them, from old friends to ronin swordsman Hirayama (Tsuyoshi Ihara) to Shimada's untested nephew Shinrouko (Takayuki Yamada), with the number climbing to thirteen when Koyata (Yusuke Iseya), the lowly bandit who guides them through the woods, opts to join their party.

It all builds, of course, to a spectacular final confrontation, where the 13 would-be assassins must confront not the fifty soldiers they were expecting, but over two hundred, and while the righteousness of their cause doesn't count for much, the ability to choose and prepare the battlefield will prove crucial. That makes for an amazingly balanced battle, even if it does give Koyata reason to actually state a variation of the Inverse Ninja Rule out loud ("you samurai are useless, and even more useless in great numbers!"). Still, it's the kind of set piece whose individual pieces could each be the climax of an impressive movie, effortlessly moving between large-scale action with surprises around every corner and one-on-one sword fights, with plenty of room to sneak character bits in.

There are other action scenes on the way, too, but Miike and screenwriter Daisuke Tengan are mostly content to build until then, letting the audience get to know the large cast of characters. Not all particularly well, of course - some wind up being used more for comic banter, while another is basically the explosives expert - but they are sketched out just well enough not to blur together, and the main characters absolutely make themselves memorable.

Shinzaeomon is especially fascinating. He's the hero of the piece, assembling his team, coming up with a plan, displaying great leadership, patience, and calm; he ultimately fights both his old comrade and alpha villain Naritsugu, even delivering a righteous lecture on how the nobility must respect the common people as he does it. And yet, he is, in his way, just as frightening as Naritsugu - when confronted with a particularly gruesome example of the lord's excesses, his reaction is not rage, but satisfaction that he will actually be given the chance to use his sword to draw blood. Koji Yakusho delivers a chillingly rueful laugh there, and throughout the rest of the movie, he's able to show us in very impressive fashion how, even though Shinzaemon Shimada is a good man worthy of respect and friendship, he does enjoy this work a little too much.

The rest of the cast is very good as well. Goro Inagaki is quite a fantastic villain as Naritsugu, the perfect example of someone whose murderous appetites have never been countered before. Inagaki doesn't chew scenery or overdo the "banality of evil" routine; he just presents us with a guy who enjoys his vices, though he's starting to need to escalate for the same thrill. His utter delight as he encounters real danger and war is different from Shinzaemon's, a kid with a wonderful new toy who doesn't understand the consequences. Ikki Sawamura, on the other hand, is the action-hero samurai; he gets a lot of the great action set pieces, which he excels at, but plays Mitsuhashi as less eager for battle - the guy who won't start of fight but will certainly finish it. Takayuki Yamada is the new kid, a little nervous to prove that all his practice has practical application, but trained right, with a likable confidence. There's also Yusuke Iseya as the bandit Koyata, who provides a lot of the comic relief as the eager tag-along, but manages to stay just behind the line that would mark him as a buffoon not to be taken seriously when the big fight scene starts.

Iseya's Koyata also figures in a lot of the footage that was cut for release outside of Japan, which is fairly evenly split between connective tissue that explains some bits a little better and comic relief that doesn't translate well. Indeed, a sequence about the mayor offering the town's women up to the samurai seems fairly wrong-headed, considering some of the reasons why it's been decided Nartsugu must die. Miike and Tengan seem to be making a point here, at least until it turns into crass comedy. It doesn't work, and the shame of it is that popular character Shinnosuke Abe's entertaining turn as the mayor more or less winds up on the cutting room floor in the international cut. Another slapstick bit cut makes a later bit work better, although its tone feels wrong at the time.

Overall, there is about seventeen minutes difference between the two cuts, but the international version isn't notably inferior; the hiccups it introduces are more than countered by the relatively distasteful moments that got cut. Both versions are thrilling old-school samurai action extravaganzas - really, there's a good chance that the finale is the best action scene to hit American screens this year - which are ass-kicking even for those with high expectations.

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