Thursday, May 26, 2011

13 Assassins Movie Review

Masachika Ichimura & Kōji Yakusho (r) star in 13 Assassins

13 Assassins: Honor Knows No Bounds

There’s an inherent beauty in the art of the Samurai. That beauty (and its violent other side) is displayed with magical precision in Takashi Miike’s 13 Assassins, a classic tale of a brave and talented few standing up against unspeakable tyranny in the waning days of Feudal Japan.

When I say unspeakable tyranny, I’m not pulling any punches. The film’s primary antagonist, Lord Naritsugu (Gorô Inagaki) brings new meaning to the term “sick puppy.” As the younger brother of the area’s Shogun (military dictator) Naritsugu has carte blanche to do as he pleases... and he makes full use of it. Naritsugu’s leadership style includes rape, senseless (and cruel) murder and dismemberment... in no particular order: Worse yet, he seems to do all this just for fun. When word gets out that Naritsugu is in line for a senior advisory position, a decision is made to end his reign of power.

Seems simple enough, except you must consider the honor system in Feudal Japan. Just because something makes sense, doesn’t necessarily mean it gets done. Thus, the secrecy in the hiring of Samurai Shimada Shinzaemon (Kōji Yakusho) to lead a clandestine assassination. After witnessing one of Naritsugu’s many victims (a young woman whose arms & legs were removed, along with her tongue) Shinzaemon agrees to the daunting task. He sets about assembling a team of a dozen assassins who must ambush the tyrant en route to his new appointment. Naturally, Naritsugu is well protected... We’re talking close to 100 guards, including Samurai Hanbei Kitou (Masachika Ichimura) a fellow student to Shinzaemon.

Shinzaemon’s recruitment is brief, but begs comparison to such classics as The Seven Samurai and The Magnificent Seven... Not exactly bad company. Once his team is assembled, the dozen rush to beat their intended victim at a nearby village. Along the way, they add a 13th assassin to their mix... a local hunter who turns out to be a most welcome addition. While the assassins make their final preparations, they discover that their projections were way off. You guessed it, Naritsugu is protected by hundreds more than expected. Our baker’s dozen has their work cut out for them.

Luckily, Shinzaemon and his trusted crew are up to the task. Everyone, including Shinzaemon realizes the likelihood of survival is almost nonexistent. While this would deter most normal men, the assassins embrace this news as an opportunity... An opportunity to die in battle seemed unlikely before, as Samurai were becoming as extinct as the government they swore to protect. This call to honor is what separates 13 Assassins from the dozens of similar themed films... While all Samurai are not created equal, it’s easy to be romanced by the profession’s ideals. Yakusho fills this role with convincing ease. Joining him in the excellent performance department are co-stars Tsuyoshi Ihara (as skilled Ronin Kujūrō) and Takayuki Yamada (as Shinzaemon’s ethically-challenged nephew.)

Lastly, action fans are in for a bona fide treat. The film’s climatic battle is epic. Clocking in at over 30 minutes, the battle sequences are magnificent and a fitting conclusion to a terrific film. 13 Assassins manages to avoid over-whelming its audience with too much of anything. The movie’s ending is almost beautiful in its authenticity and simplicity. That said, 13 Assassins has an abundance of carnage and violence... I mean the title is 13 Assassins... What were you expecting? Some of the earlier images of Naritsugu’s sadistic acts are shocking, but I feel necessary: I doubt you’ll have trouble rooting against him.

13 Assassins is one of those rare films that balances dialogue and action with equal proficiency. Director Miike adds another gem to his distinctive (and sometimes controversial) career. If you like Samurai pictures, waste no time (It’s showing at Landmark’s E Street Cinema for one week only) in checking out one of the best.

Grade: B+