Fantastic Fest Review: 13 Assassins

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13 Assassins

It was only out of dedication to Slackerwood that I decided to brave the Fantastic Fest 2010 closing-night film, 13 Assassins (Jûsan-nin no shikaku). I had a very understandable reluctance to see anything directed by Takashi Miike, having once heard my brother describe the "awesomeness" of Audition to me in intense detail. I know he's made family films, but I was still justifiably wary of a Miike movie with the word "assassins" in the title. Let's face it, I am squeamish about certain kinds of violence in movies.

Fortunately, 13 Assassins had no more violence and gore than a Sam Peckinpah movie. In fact, if Peckinpah had decided to remake The Seven Samurai, this might have been the result. "No more gore than Peckinpah" doesn't exactly mean we're in G-rated territory, but I can deal with limbs and heads being sliced off, as long as it's done relatively quickly and not as lingering scenes of torture. A whole lot of people are brutally killed in 13 Assassins, but it's mostly straightforward death in battle. One character has been tortured and mutilated, but we only see the results at a later date, we don't have to watch it happening. Thankfully.

13 Assassins is actually a remake of a 1963 Japanese film, with a traditional story. This version is set near the end of the shogun/samurai period of Japanese history in the mid-19th century. Lord Naritsugu (Gorô Inagaki) has amply demonstrated that he is psychotic, and his actions have brought shame on the shogun. The shogun has asked Sir Doi (Mikijiro Hira), the leader of his samurai, to take care of Naritsugu in a non-public way ... and to do so before Naritsugu reaches the Akamai district, where he where he will be named as the shogun's second in command.

Sir Doi enlists the help of Shinzaemon Shimada (Kôji Yakusho), who rounds up a group of samurai to assassinate Lord Naritsugu while he is traveling to the Akamai district. But they can't just sneak up to Naritsugu and stick a knife in him; they must get through the nobleman's bodyguard -- hundreds of samurai warriors. Shinzaemon's group includes his nephew, who has been living a life of decadence; some young samurai still in training; and one very wild card indeed. They are all aware that they are unlikely to survive this attempt on Naritsugu's life.

Miike and his cast work together to give distinct personalities to most of the assassins in the title, and they become characters we actually care about. In addition, Lord Naritsugu's chief samurai, Hanbei Kitou, is portrayed with depth and even a little humor by Masachika Ichimura. The movie is beautifully shot, from gorgeous forest scenes to the mud and blood of an amazing climactic battle.

As I mentioned earlier, 13 Assassins is not a film for children -- the battle scenes look real and grim. In addition, some of Lord Naritsugu's more egregious offenses are shown to us in flashback, and are appropriately appalling if not overly graphic. The scene in which he is casually shooting arrows at a family in front of him is quite chilling.

However, 13 Assassins is a captivating story with engaging characters, and if you don't mind the gore of realistic swordplay, is a fine adventure film. Not to harp on Peckinpah, but if you like The Wild Bunch (it's one of my all-time favorites), you should find this movie satisfying. I may even venture to watch another Takashi Miike film, although friends of mine well acquainted with his movies say that this may be his best so far. However, you're still not going to convince me to see Audition.