Back in 2010/2011, I kept on spotting posters for a Japanese film being shown at cinemas in the UK. I hardly knew anything about it, but I was interested enough to keep it in mind. I did not get to see it though until late June 2012. It was on Sky Movies Premiere on a late night showing, so I recorded it and watched it later that week. I saw clips of it here and there before watching it fully; then I saw it. I was amazed at what the film was and became hooked from that first viewing. Every time it was and has been on TV since, I have just dropped watching, whatever it was I was watching at the time and immediately turned over to watch the film again, no matter where it was. It is one of the films I have watched and mentioned more than any other in the last few years and is one that remains high on my Top 10 (Non-Godzilla) film list.
Released in 2010 and co-produced and distributed by Toho, 13 Assassins is a Japanese Epic Samurai film directed by Horror Master Takashi Miike. Miike is possibly best known for his highly controversial horror movie output and has directed more than 95 films to date including the films Audition, Ichi the Killer and Three… Extremes. 13 Assassins is actually a remake of Eiichi Kudô‘s film; The Thirteen Assassins (Jûsan-nin no shikaku), which I have not seen.
In 1840’s Japan, during the Tokugawa Shogunate, the young, sadistic half-brother of the shogun; Lord Matsudaira Naritsugu (Gorô Inagaki) of Akashi, is responsible for a wave of horrible atrocities including murder, rape and torture which he commits at will. After Zusho Mamiya (Seiyô Uchino) commits Seppuku in protest of Naritsugu’s activities, Sir Doi Toshitsura (Mikijirô Hira) decides to take action fearing more atrocities will follow after Naritsugu achieves a higher level in power. Sir Doi seeks out older and respected Samurai; Shimada Shinzaemon (Kôji Yakusho) and provides evidence of crimes performed by Naritsugu including the Murder of Yukie Makino’s son Unume (Takumi Saitô) and the mutilation of a peasant leader’s daughter (Sakurako Moteki). Sir Doi requests that Shinzaemon carry out the assassination of Naritsugu before he can gain any more power. Shinzaemon agrees, but a fellow former student of his, and one of Naritsugu’s loyal retainers; Hanbei (Masachika Ichimura) keeps an eye on him.
Shinzaemon begins hiring other samurai to help out in the assassination plot including skilled Samurai Hirayama Kujūrō (Tsuyoshi Ihara), and Shinzaemon’s second in command Kuranaga Saheita (Hiroki Matsukata). Kuranaga brings others from his dojo too including Assistant Chief Inspector Mitsuhashi Gunjirō (Ikki Sawamura), Kuranaga’s subordinates; Hioki Yasokichi (Sôsuke Takaoka), and Ōtake Mosuke (Seiji Rokkaku), as well as Mitsuhashi’s men Horii Yahachi (Kôen Kondô) and Higuchi Gennai (Yûma Ishigaki). Hanbei continues to keep an eye on Shinzaemon, but his assistant Judayu Asakawa (Ken Mitsuishi) unwittingly sends men to attack Shinzaemon, who are then quickly slain by Hirayama. While out gambling one evening, Shinzaemon’s nephew Shimada Shinrokurō (Takayuki Yamada) runs into his uncle who talks to him about his big plan. Shinrokuro decides to join in with his Uncle’s assassination plot as it sounds promising, leaving home and his girl Tsuya (Kazue Fukiishi) who doesn’t want him to go. The following morning, Hirayama’s only student; Ogura Shōujirō (Masataka Kubota) joins up, despite Shinzaemon thinking he is too young to join such a fight. Along with him is Sahara Heizō (Arata Furuta), an elderly samurai who prefers to fight with his spear instead of a sword but requests money in exchange for his service (then finally Ishizuka Rihei (Kazuki Namioka) joins in along with Sahara too, but not on-screen). Now 12 warriors in total, Shinzaemon sets them to work. Hirayama trains them all in fighting techniques, while Higuchi and Horii train in explosives. The night before Naritsugu is due to depart Edo (now Tokyo) however, Shinzaemon still has no plan of attack and gets a visit from Hanbei who tries to warn him off.
Many days pass by until Shinzaemon finally comes up with a plan to turn the village of Ochiai – a destination on Naritsugu’s route – into a spot for an ambush and kill Naritsugu there. He enlists the help of Yukie Makino (Kôshirô Matsumoto) to block Naritsugu from going through his land in an effort to stall him. Kuranaga and Ishizuka go on ahead to Kiso to get the help of Makino, while Mitsuhashi heads to Ochiai to acquire the town from the villagers. The rest of the group set out, but after engaging in a small fight from some hired swordsman, decide to cut across country. The samurai get lost in a forest however and ask the help of Kiga Koyata (Yûsuke Iseya); a hunter who was left abandoned there after trying to have it off with his bosses daughter. With his help, he manages to get the Samurai back onto the road to Ochiai which is now in full preparation for the coming attack. At Kiso, Naritsugu and Hanbei have difficulty trying to go through the land owned by Makino who won’t let them pass. Naritsugu tells Hanbei to take the foolish path as he thinks it sounds more fun. Over the course of a few days, the Samurai prepare Ochiai for the attack, but days pass with no sign of their prey. A few days later Naritsugu reappears on the route, but with 200 men accompanying him instead of his original entourage. Shinzaemon decides to continue with the attack and has Koyata join his group making them a 13 strong force.
Naritsugu and his men walk into the village and are quickly caught in the trap with some being picked off with ease. Shinzaemon and his Samurai reveal themselves and attack using a barrage of arrow fire quickly reducing the 200 men down to about 130. They then engage in close combat in a lengthy battle (lasting about 45 to 50 minutes). Slowly but surely, the 130 men are reduced down to a much smaller force thanks to the use of traps and techniques built by the samurai, but they too all begin to fall. Naritsugu and Hanbei, along with what’s left of their forces find a way of escaping the town, but are confronted by the only two remaining Samurai: Shinzaemon, and Shinrokuro. Hanbei fights Shinzaemon in a brutal fight, which Shinzaemon wins. Naritsugu then attacks Shinzaemon, stabbing him in the stomach, which Shinzaemon then does to Naritsugu, who succumbs to his injuries and dies. Shinzaemon then lies dying on the floor, talking to Shinrokurō before also succumbing to his wounds. Shinrokuro walks through what’s left of Ochiai, now mostly a burning wreck, but runs into Koyata who appears to have recovered from a fatal wound given to him earlier. Koyata says he will go back home to sweep Upashi – the bosses daughter off her feet – while Shinrokuro decides to stop being a Samurai, instead considering becoming a bandit and possibly jumping ship to America. They depart ways and Shinrokuro walks through the burning town. In the Epilogue it is stated that Naritsugu’s real death was covered up, saying that he died of illness and that 23 years later the Tokugawa Shogunate ends with the Meiji Restoration.
13 Assassins is technically a remake for an older film, but in turn is more than that. It’s not just some crummy excuse to produce an old classic style of film produced by classic directors like Akira Kurosawa; it’s actually made to be its own independent film. I find 13 Assassins though to be something of a weird film in some of its characters. Now while it would take a while to talk about all the samurai, they are all enjoyable to watch and have their own little moments and scenes that provide this enjoy-ability. These moments though come from moments in the big fight at the end where they pretty much die but provide enough of an onscreen presence to create a coherent and important part. Then you get the higher ranking samurai to the films cast with characters like Sahara who unlike the other samurai uses a spear to a sword. He has a great presence and is one of the bunch that you like to keep your eyes on, just for being that bit different in the first place, but you still try to figure why he’s in the situation in the first place. Then you get characters like Ogura and Mitsuhashi. Ogura who joins on the behest from Hirayama to both him and Shinzaemon, but you wonder why he wants to join in battle at such a young age when he could possibly die. He does not look all that enthusiastic and a deep level of regret and shock fills him when he makes his first kill. It’s like he’s there simply because of the appreciation his master has for him. Then you have Mitsuhashi who seems to be someone relatively quiet throughout, but you feel like he should be saying more as he has something of an experienced leader in him. But weirdest of all is Shinrokuro.
Shinrokuro is something of a mystery to me as well as a patch of irony . He is presented as a secondary protagonist, but you don’t know why as he is not on-screen all that much except when he is in battle or with his uncle or Koyata. Characters like Hirayama or Kuranaga have more air time and appeal than Shinrokuro, but why is it that Shinrokuro gets this secondary casting. From what I understand though is that he is an ironic character. He regards his life as a Samurai as something of a burden and only really uses it to get girls and money; in other words the materialization of life. He is something of a waste of his skill and feels like it was a stupid idea to go down the path in the first place, despite the fact that he is actually a great warrior. As him being the only one that survives, he gains this irony, in that out of all the warriors, it’s the one who doesn’t want to be one anymore that survives. All the others are committed in what they do, but they all pass away. Shinrokuro though does change as the fight ends, even playing with his sword and maybe seeing the attraction of it all in the first place. I don’t know really, for the most part, he is just very mysterious, and I begin to wonder why on earth he is in the film at all. Despite saying that though, he is a rather enjoyable character to watch, if not understand completely.
Next to him there is Koyata. I see Koyata as something like the role of Toshirô Mifune‘s character in Seven Samurai. He is the group’s outcast and not actually a Samurai. He is a peek into the opposite life and enjoys what he has. He finds the other warriors to be rather ignorant and continuously challenges them on the way they behave and act. While Mifune in Seven Samurai was a Samurai from the life that Koyata has now, Koyata does not dream of being one of them, but has a desire for inclusion and respect from the others and represents the need for companionship. He is a good fighter and like Sahara, uses other means of fighting than just to use the standard issue, and even tries to confront Naritsugu………………..with Fatal consequences. It could be though that Koyata is more than human, instead possibly being something of a spirit guide to the group and a reminder to them of who exactly they are fighting for. After that there is Kuranaga and Hirayama, both of whom are similar to characters from Seven Samurai. Hirayama for instance is like Kyuzo, the most skilled fighter in the group, a man who can seemingly kill most men with one slice. He is a terrific trainer and is favorable in the eyes of Shinzaemon. There is the feeling though that he is hiding something. He is committed to what he does, but he does not talk about himself all that much and you begin to wonder what is going on. His skills as a fighter are second to none though and provides to defend those in the group and even causes a mass slaughter in his own unique trap area during the battle. Then you have Kuranaga, who I think of a lot like Gorobei. He is a rather jolly Samurai who doesn’t completely have a stern expression and tries to remain jolly in most situations. He is exceedingly loyal to Shinzaemon and remains by his side during the big battle. He also has a lot of faith and trust in his men as well as a level of appreciation and care for them too.
On the other side of the conflict is the trio of Hanbei, Naritsugu and Asakawa. Asakawa does get a considerable amount of time on-screen despite not saying much. He is a loyal and tough fighter and is rather enjoyable as a supporting character, despite having something of a limited vocabulary. Naritsugu is a nicely and well-designed character. To begin with you don’t see him but you hear about him a lot. You get the idea that he is a truly bad man from what he has done and how people talk about him, but when you see him properly for the first time, a different perspective comes to light. Given to how he looks particularly in his age, he is something more of an ignorant and spoilt child. Because of who he is, and who he is related too, you get the knowledge that he gets whatever he wants. He is a man with a lack of Morales and is served and waited upon by others, No wonder then, that if he looks at something and wants it, he gets it, even if that means committing an act of atrocity. For the most part he is quiet, and only speaks when he wants something or to voice his ever important opinion. He is though a very good villain as you really do despise him for what he has done, but also the way he acts. There is no sense of emotion or care or sympathy for him, making his death, all be it a very dramatic one, all the more satisfying.
Hanbei though isn’t necessarily a villain, but I think he is more the main protagonist than Naritsugu. Hanbei does have morals and understanding, that can be seen and he also has a sense of regret and disappointment as to what his master does. But on the other hand though, he is a committed and dedicated servant and so even if he has any regret for his master and himself, because he believes that a samurai’s job is to obey his master, he won’t try to stop it. Hanbei though has a much better physical onscreen presence than Naritsugu and because he is more vocal, he is a better antagonist than a supporting character. His devotion also brings him to blows constantly with Shinzaemon and is a great balance to him. While Shinzaemon is this easy-going like character, Hanbei is more frustrated, angry, and a much stricter person and is a great character to contemplate both of them.
In my opinion though, the best character by far is Shinzaemon. Since watching this film, I consider Koji Yakusho one of my all-time favorite actors. I just got into his character and acting so much from this film.. Shinzaemon is not ruthless, mad, angry, frustrated or anything that could be seen as bad. He is actually very respectful. His faith, trust and respect for those around him is admirable and second to no-one else in the film. He has great admiration and appreciation for those around him and believes in them enough to trust that they will do their jobs well. He doesn’t look like the kind of man who is struggling from anything except his choice of path and want of a noble death, but while he has a calm exterior, this desire takes hold very early as he jumps at what he believes is the right opportunity to end it all. For his part though, he is just generally a nice person and someone you would want on your side. He is also a strong and knowledgeable tactician, coming up with the plan of attack and a great teacher and friend too. Just from the first second he appears to his last few moments, he was just this extremely enjoyable character, and the most stand out cast member of the entire film (in my opinion).
The film makes great use of a combination of superb editing (from Kenji Yamashita) and minor moments of special effects to produce rather interesting scenes. One of the most stand out of these pieces is an interesting blend of both of these plus some terrific cinematography. Basically, Yukie Makino is about to commit Seppuku and the shot is done well enough that you see the swipe of the sword go past and through his neck, giving that interpretation, but then it is edited as to quickly change scene so as not to see his head come off. It’s a really amazing scene and well worth looking out for. The film has some other terrific moments of effects too like the burning charging cows and the explosion rain of blood onto a building near Shinrokuro. The fight and battle sequences are terrific, and great care has been taken to make them look authentic, but also carry little touches of humor here and there. The battle at the end – lasting close to an hour – is the film’s major climax. I have seen it many times before, but am not bored once. Even after seeing the film more than 10 times over, I begin to discover moments I had not really spotted before or saw previously, and it continues to get more exciting. Seriously, a battle that long, and that small in terms of scale and size, I still do not get bored of it. While some people may consider it to be a bit long, I think it’s better for being that long in the first place instead of just a quick 5 – 10 minute duel.
13 Assassins soundtrack (composed by Kôji Endô) is really enjoyable. It’s in a parallel style and look to the period its set in and feels similar to the themes and soundtrack of other classic samurai films. Some points give a serious note, while others are more moments of reflection. Scenes such as the construction of Ochiai into a trap, Naritsugu’s Entourage, preparing for the attack on Ochiai and the Samurai preparing to leave offer varying forms of music for different perspectives in those kinds of situation. Even the end credits continue to deliver a serious note but also provide a great score for the film to end on. All be it though, silence in certain scenes such as during the battle at the end off another perspective, therefore allowing the severity of the situation to come to light more.
Some pieces in the soundtrack I feel are a bit samey as each other, but the soundtrack really becomes its own thing when it wants too. It’s as if the soundtrack comes to life and demands attention to both the scene and itself when it wants that attention. No other piece in the soundtrack does this better than Juu. Juu is used in several occasions of high-octane action. The Samurai leaving for Ochiai, the beginning of the battle and Hirayama’s battlefield. It is by far the piece I have enjoyed the most and even listen to it when not watching the film. It really hypes up the speed, tension and is a great way to start those scenes but does no end abruptly instead continuing down it’s path until it is not needed anymore. It’s also quite dark in mood and helps to deliver the scene in the right way.
I absolutely love this film, no doubt about it. 13 Assassins tells a great story of people stepping out of the fold to deal with a terrible issue that if unresolved could mean complete and total chaos for their nation. It’s a story of unsung heroes and the monstrosities that humans can so easily become. It has great, brilliant and enjoyable characters. It features one of a kind scenes from start to finish encompassing action and drama as well as the odd moment of sheer shock horror. It boasters amazing special effects and a terrific soundtrack, all wrapped up together in a beautifully tied bundle by one of the most prolific directors to date. While there are points of weirdness in the cast, without them, it just wouldn’t be the same. Yes it’s a remake, but it’s better than most. Actually, No! It’s based/adapted/inspired from a previous piece of work, but it stands completely on and by its own merit. 13 Assassins could have just been another imported DVD film for a spot in the World Cinema section of most DVD shops, but it wasn’t. It was released outside its home nation for everyone to enjoy. Yes, not everyone will like this film. It is violent and has some truly shocking, possibly more horrible, atrocious scenes that could make some people cautious, but I stick my neck out for this film. I really do, it is a terrific film that I continue to recommend to this day. One of my favorite films to date, and will probably remain to be on my top 10 for a long time to come. I can’t stress how amazing enough this film is. 13 Assassins, at least to me, is absolutely Fantastic.