Whew!! Well it certainly took me long enough to get this one written, but here we go with your Favorite Catgirl’s impressions of the new Chambara drama by cult director Takeshi Miike, “13 Assassins”. Flashing swords, bloody death, and a brave stand of a few brave men against seemingly impossible odds…..
Our synopsis? How about this: “The year is 1844. A vicious nobleman rapes and kills with impunity, shielded from punishment by virtue of his political connections. Although the era of the samurai is fading and coming to an end, one honest government official is still able to enlist the aid of thirteen honorable swordsmen in secrecy. Their mission? Nothing less than to assassinate this sadistic lord whatever the cost, before he can seize even more power and become untouchable…. above anyone’s power to keep in check and a threat that would poison the nation’s very soul. With time running out and against impossible odds, these assassins lay a deadly trap for the lord and his army of bodyguards in a booby-trapped village of death, culminating in one of the bloodiest, muddiest sword-fights ever put to film.”
Sound a bit “Seven Samurai” to you too? Yep… this one seems to want to channel the spirit of that old Kurosawa film and lots of other 70’s Chambara classics. You know the ones… lots of stern faced Japanese guys (and even a few girls..) facing the idea of inescapable death to achieve Honor and restore Justice. There’s something primal and heroic about that…. and it resonates through the Chambara film in a way that only the best Spaghetti Westerns ever seemed to truly understand. Mind you… most of the best of the Spaghetti Westerns were even adapted from these old Japanese swordplay films. But… at their heart, both genres were about staring Death right in the face without flinching and going for it full on… even knowing you probably wouldn’t succeed.
So does this one have the “warrior spirit”? One way to find out, and that’s to follow this crazy Catgirl on a journey to Feudal Japan, where perhaps Death came easy… and life was sometimes cheap… but Honor and Duty were priceless treasures beyond value.
We start out with a voice over narrative…. It’s 1844… the Japanese are on the cusp of that shift from the Feudal era to the opening of Japan to the West, the rise of the Meji and the sudden “modernization” that came with it. But for now… the ways of the past… the samurai, his Duty and his Honor… are all things that are slowly dropping away. Into this comes Lord Matsudaira Naritsugu (played by Gorô Inagaki)…. a complete and utter sadist, rapist, and bloodthirsty murderer the likes of which would never be allowed to live for long in any sane society. But…. he is the Shogun’s half-brother and shielded by his relationship to the Ruler of the Empire. Even so… there are those who know that he can never be allowed to rise to the position of Shogun himself… not without letting his Evil completely destroy the nation… plunging it into the Hell he would make of it for his own insane amusement. After several vicious atrocities cause one of the Shogun’s closest retainers to commit harakiri in protest, Doi Toshitsura (played by Mikijiro Hira), a senior government official is quietly given word from the Shogun himself that Naritsugu must be “dealt with” and so begins a secret conspiracy to eliminate his menace once and for all, without embarrassment to the Shogun or his Clan, of course.
The one problem? Well… killing the half brother of the Shogun is still not something you want to do if living a long and healthy life was on your list of accomplishments to shoot for. Fail and you are probably dead…. succeed and you have to pay for your “crime” by being executed if it isn’t kept secret. Basically.. not a job for the timid. Luckily for Sir Doi, he’s got just the perfect guy in mind to pull this off. Shinzaemon Shimada (played by Kôji Yakusho)… a man of impeccable Honor, master tactician, a man who will never stop coming at an opponent until he has won no mater the cost, and of course…. a deadly swordsman. Shown a pitiful, dismembered peasant girl who was kept alive by Naritsugu as a sex slave for his perverse amusement, a living bit of grisly evidence as to the extremes of Naritsugu’s crimes, he agrees to take up that task of eliminating him. (You can trust Neko… this evidence was pretty stomach churning stuff too… the sort of things I usually expect to see in those “torture porn”films that sooo repulse me…. 😦 Yep… they’ve sold me on the idea that this bastard has to die. As painfully and permanently as possible.)
A couple of wee things complicate this whole idea though… First, Shinzaemon isn’t going to be given an army of guys to accomplish this crucial task…. that would just be too darn impossible to allow “the powers that be” to keep up the very Japanese notion of plausible deniability about. But that’s OK…. in the “Time of Peace” that has come about at the end of the Warring States period there are few truly skilled warriors around…. most younger “samurai” in the service to their Lords in these days have never even drawn their blades in anger, let alone killed anyone. Given this, a few truly experienced men have the advantage over scores of such worthless adversaries. Couple this with unshakable courage and the will to succeed at all costs and even a dozen men can inflict devastating damage against a numerically superior force. But… what if your enemy is protected by a man who was once a friend, a man who knows you almost as well as he knows himself? And what if his Honor demands that he protect a monster like Naritsugu with as unbending and iron a will as your own? Awwww crap.
Yep. Hanbei (played by Masachika Ichimura) , an old sparring partner of Shinzaemon’s from his days at court turns out to be the leader of Naritsugu’s samurai bodyguards. He’s old school, just like our hero… and even though his liege lord sickens him with his brutality and bloodthirsty sadism, it’s the Code of Bushido that he serve him to the best of his ability without question… no matter what. That puts him on a collision course with Shinzaemon… Honor versus Duty… to the death.
So… with the mission all laid out, the next hour or so of our film is devoted to the selection of our stalwart band of warriors. Here, the film sort of fell short for me… as there wasn’t any of the usual character development stuff to introduce our fighters. Other than Shinzaemon’s nephew Shinrokurō (played by Takayuki Yamada). You get to see a bit of the wasted life he’s been living… gambling, womanizing, and getting drunk all the time. He’s numbing himself against a fate that has made him a samurai in a world that has yet to realize doesn’t need them anymore. But meeting his uncle gives him one last chance to fulfill the role that he has never even been certain he really wanted. I wish that the other characters had been so richly developed… but most of them are merely introduced as “a loyal man who’s skills and Honor are above reproach…”. Too bad. Our only other interesting character.. peasant woodsman Koyata Kiga (played by Yūsuke Iseya) has much of his screen time.. and some truly funny bits too… cut in the “international theatrical version” of the film. If by chance you do watch this one on the Region 1 Magnet release, be sure to take a peek at the Deleted scenes, where most of this footage is still viewable.
The plan eventually evolves into an elaborate chess game of tactics between Shinzaeman and Hanbei with each trying to out think the other as Lord Naritsugu’s entourage is forced to travel to his homeland through the small peasant village of Ochiai. It is here that Shinzaemon decides to spring his trap, buying the village and converting it to an elaborate deathtrap suitable for the guerrilla ambush he has in mind to eliminate most of the advantage of Naritsugu’s superior numbers. Here the movie lavishes it’s final 40 minutes on the elaborate bloody battle. And what a battle it is. One by one, our valiant warriors die… but not without taking scores of their opponents with them. The traps and fight sequences are brutal…. showers of arrows… sword battles… explosions… and even include a stampede by flaming cattle… don’t see that trick every day (Also something which made this animal loving wee Catgirl so darn upset… but which does accurately portray the “win at any cost” attitude Miike wanted to capture) The fighting on display is skilled alright… but also bloody, sometimes clumsy, inelegant, and confusing…. just the way real hand-to-hand combat probably truly is. If epic battles are your thing… this certainly will be right up your alley.
Will any of our Heroes survive? Will Naritsugu get the death he so rightly deserves? Remember… this is a Japanese samurai film, so don’t expect any “happy endings”…. merely satisfying ones that reinforce the ideas of Duty, Honor and sacrifice.
Overall… despite the somewhat slower paced first third of the film, and the lack of character development, the last third of “13 Assassins” does indeed deliver the goods. Neko gives it 4 “Meows” out of 5 for being a reasonably good modern take on those old Chambara epics of the 60’s and 70’s that I remember so well. It’s certainly no “Shogun Assassin”, but it’s a close cousin to “Seven Samurai” and that isn’t a bad thing to be.
The Region 1 DVD by Magnet isn’t bad either. It’s letter boxed, with excellent English subtitles and has both the original Japanese audio as well as an English dubbed track. Unfortunately, it does present the film in it’s edited “International Theatrical Release” rather than the longer Japanese theatrical one I would have preferred, but from what I could see, those edits were all shown in the “Deleted Scenes” include in the DVD Extras, so you’ll still be able to see the complete film if you are still inclined. Price wise, it’s available for 12-19$ US and comes on a Blu-ray disc as well. It’s an easily recommended buy for other budding samurai movie fans out there and good for an evening’s swordplay action film enjoyment.
Hehehe….. and yes, yes… of course there’s a subtitled Trailer for this one, and here it is!!