Back in 2012, I started to get into the classic Samurai films of Akira Kurosawa. The first one I saw was the magnificent Seven Samurai, and since then have watched others including Rashomon, Ran and Throne of Blood. About the same time, I saw Seven Samurai though, I had watched another Samurai film.
It wasn’t a Kurosawa film, but a film by director Takashi Miike. The film though was one I had heard of before, in fact I remember it being advertised at the Cineworld in Middlesbrough (when I briefly studied at Teesside University), and I can even remember HMV in my home town advertising the DVD release of it. It did look interesting, but it wasn’t until it appeared on Sky Movies in 2012, that I gave it a watch. It became an instant favourite and is a film I have loved greatly ever since.
13 Assassins is a remake of Eiichi Kudo’s 1963 film of the same name and is set loosely before the end of the Edo Period in historic Japan. The young and ruthless Lord Naritsugu (Goro Inagaki) is on the rise to power, and his actions against his own people are protected by his half-brother who is also the Shogun. With no end in sight for this rising tyrant’s actions, who may bring an end to the centuries long peace in Japan; officials to the Shogun secretly plan the young lord’s assassination and turn to the much trusted samurai; Shinzaemon (Koji Yakusho) and ask him to kill Naritsugu before he can climb any higher. Shinzaemon then hires a group of Samurai and enlists the help of a rogue to help him achieve this goal.
13 Assassins is sort of broken down narratively as the film leads up to it’s eventual ending. It starts off with the intro into Lord Naritsugu actions and the hiring of the Samurai. This piece is quite nicely orchestrated as we learn and discover about the samurai and their reasons for either joining in the fight or assisting. Some characters are officials or students to those above them, and some of these are simple loyal warriors following their commands. We then get characters like the highly skilled Hirayama (Tsuyoshi Ihara) who is a student under Shinzaemon who is asked to fight for the cause and wants to for the simplest reason in that he feels like his unmatched skills will finally be used. In many ways he is much like Kyuzo from Seven Samurai. Then you get Sahara (Arata Furuta) who joins not for loyalty to anyone, but to whom interests, but requires a level of payment before he can join as he has no connections to any of the others. He also prefers to use a spear rather than the sword. But the one Samurai who is the most mysterious is Shinzaemon’s nephew: Shinrokuro (Takayuki Yamada), a tough fighter, who though has become frayed with the idea of being a samurai and has almost turned from it for his own interests; it seems like he has only joined for the great gamble of it as it will finally mean he can put his skills to good use, and just wants to fight for the sake of it. He is a confusing character and the most mysterious, because despite his general lack of appearances in the film compared to the others, he keeps shining through as the groups main outcast, or outsider, because well, he is not a devoted samurai like the others, he is outside that, but his place in the ending is possibly the most ironic.
Once the team are gathered, it comes down to preparation, as while Naritsugu has gone on a tour of the country, it comes down to the question of when he will be attacked. His soldiers know of a possible threat to his life, but they know as much as Shinzaemon who has not chosen where and when they will attack. But soon, a plan is made; the general idea being to make Naritsugu go the long way around by barring him from a certain village due to past actions of his there, and then for the Samurai to turn the town of Ochiai into a brutal killing ground. The samurai set off, but after an ambush, they go into the forests and there meet a rogue hunter named Kiga Koyata (Yusuke Iseya) who leads them out of the forest as they get lost. Soon though the Samurai get to Ochiai and turn it into one massive trap, which they set off as soon as Naritsugu gets there, and upon this village, his entire entourage is sent into a slaughter.
13 Assassins is a very deep and very heavy film. It contains a lot of good fight scenes, and a battle sequence which while small will put Lord of the Rings to shame any day of the week! The final Battle itself is nearly an hour long, but not in any way boring. The fight begins rather excitedly and has moments of speed, depth, action, drama, and on repeat. It can be fast, it can be slow, and the deaths come and go as a group of 13 warriors best military samurai with ease. The opening sections though of political build and samurai gathering are just as interesting, as the film works well to set itself up for the eventual and Total Massacre. The characters are interesting given some of their backgrounds, and I particularly enjoy Koji Yakusho, who; after seeing this film has become one of my all time favourite actors. The scene of the battle and it’s many traps, to even an explosion of blood covering the battlefield; is an intense one; but with variety comes interest, and even now, after so many viewings of this film, I am still discovering new things. The film though does carry some extra surprises, surprises to convey the brutality of Lord Naritsugu, but ones which I warn you; are probably not for the very squeamish.
The soundtrack is also beautiful. Presenting a traditional soundtrack that presents moments of sorrow, grief and brutality providing a constant and grim reminder of what is happening. But then it has the speed. In one piece simply called Juu, it presents a nice heavy and fast track that just keeps you hooked and drawn in whenever it is played. It is such a wonderful track, and one used a plentiful number of times in varying situations.
13 Assassins is an amazing film and one I talk and write about with great passion for. It is one of my all time favourite films and one I continue to enjoy now as much as I did when I first saw it. It has great historical scenes involving political intrigue to preparation for a massacre; and then, with it’s glorious soundtrack’s creates and weaves a battle to the death which will keep you hooked from the first strike, to the final death.
Also, keep a lookout for Makino’s (Koshiro Matsumoto) moment of seppuku.