Moviegoers and filmmakers alike love impossible odds. Be it three-hundred Spartans or seven samurai or the same amount of magnificent cowboys, when a small band of warriors go up against an army much larger than their own ragged crew, it makes for exciting cinema.
And so it is in Takashi Miike's 13 Assassins, a remake of a 1963 Eiichi Kudo samurai movie. Set in 1844, the film details the efforts of thirteen swordsmen undertaking the covert mission of killing one man, but ultimately having to take on a force totaling at least two hundred. It's bloody and brutal and basically kind of incredible.
The basic plot tackles a particular timeframe in Japanese history. The age of the samurai is passing, and peacetime has left a lot of the warrior class with nothing to do. The Shogun has appointed his brother Lord Naritsugu (Gorô Inagaki) to a position of power, seemingly blind to his sibling's sadistic nature. Naritsugu rules according to his own wicked caprice, treating the citizenry as his servants and subjecting them to his cruel whims. Unable to move against him directly, Sir Doi (Mikijiro Hira) conscripts the revered swordfighter Shinzaemon Shimada (Kôji Yakusho) to kill Naritsugu. It will be a sub rosa suicide mission, and Shinzaemon gathers eleven trustworthy men--and one crazy hunter they meet in the woods (Yûsuke Iseya as the brigand, in what would essentially be the kind of role that would have formerly gone to Toshiro Mifune)--to ambush Naritsugu and assassinate him. Included in the group are the experienced blade-for-hire Hirayama (Tsuyoshi Ihara) and Shinzaemon's bored nephew Shinrouko (Takayuki Yamada).
13 Assassins is basically a movie with two halves. The first half involves all the political maneuvering and planning for the mission. It includes stories of atrocities committed by Naritsugu, a couple of which we see in queasy detail. The dude is a creep, plain and simple, and no one will mourn his death even if there are some that wish to protect his power. This includes his head bodyguard Hanbei (Masachika Ichimura), an old friend of Shinzaemon and an honorable soldier. Hanbei catches wind of the conspiracy and tries to figure out how it will go down.
In all honesty, this first half is a little slow. It's a lot of talking, and it takes a while to figure out who everyone is and where they are going. It requires either a keen interest or an already established foreknowledge of Japanese history to fully appreciate all that is going on. Plus, Miike is smartly hiding the actual details of the assassins' scheme, because once it's underway, the viewer is as surprised as Naritsugu. 13 Assassins really takes off in its second half. The clash between the tiny band of commandoes and Naritsugu's forces is long, chaotic, and thrilling. Miike has some impressive tricks up his sleeve, kicking off the battle with a force that is visceral and exciting; as it progresses, however, the fight gets nasty. The warriors end up caked in mud and viscera, and bodies are strewn everywhere. It's not a pretty sight. No matter how noble we perceive the endeavor, the glory earned is earned with a tremendous loss of life.
Miike, who is perhaps best known as the prolific filmmaker behind such bluntly rendered shockers as Ichi the Killer and Audition, had fallen off my radar over the last couple of years. He made too many movies, and the quality was too all over the place. 13 Assassins shows him as a more considered filmmaker. The two halves of the film don't just differ in story, but in style, as well. The first half is more formal, with long stationary shots, often observed from a distance, and also quite dark. The men hide in the shadows to make their plans, traveling through the night. For the combat, they emerge into the light, and the camera becomes unhinged, as well. Faster cuts, skewed angles, extreme close-ups. Miike doesn't set up his fights so that they are clean and orderly; if you thought you had trouble knowing who was who early on, you'll be even more lost when it all goes down. That's part of the point, though. The life of a soldier is both anonymous and interchangeable. You're faceless when you're dying face down in the mud. It's exhilarating, but also hollow. The men thrill at having tasted the kind of warfare they never expected to experience in their lifetime, but the consequences don't seem worth it.
13 Assassins concludes in the aftermath of the devastation, injecting a touch of gallows humor into the otherwise deadly serious proceedings. There's a haunting void that exists in those final frames, as we are left to ponder what all the barbarism was for. It's a surprisingly poignant conclusion to a Takashi Miike film, perhaps his own atonement for the gore and sensationalism of previous work. His next picture is a 3D remake of Masaki Kobayashi's Harakiri, a film that questions the balance of power and the nature of honor in a similar fashion, so this could be a whole new thematic concern for the one-time gonzo filmmaker. Based on the power of 13 Assassins, I, for one, can't wait to find out for sure.