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Rental Review: 13 Assassins (2010)

September 27, 2011
  • Dir. Takashi Miike
  • Released by Toho
  • Written by Shoichiro Ikemiya and Daisuke Tengan
  • Rating: ****

Along with of the daikaiju (giant monster) genre, the jidaigeki (period drama) genre may be one of the most overplayed in Japanese cinema. It is certainly one of the most familiar genres to foreign audiences, thanks largely to the classic period films directed by Akira Kurosawa, the John Ford of Japan. But because it has been done so often, and done well (much like the American Western), the standard for the jidaigeki picture disables most films of the genre from standing out as memorable or significant.

Takashi Miike may have just made one of those exceptions. Miike, best known in the West for his shock pictures such as Audition and Ichi the Killer, shows relative constraint here. Only one scene approaches the graphic body horror that has become one of Miike’s trademarks, and even that moment enhances the emotional impact of this fairly mainstream historical epic rather than threatening to downgrade the picture to the level of exploitation cinema.

On the surface, Jusannin no Shikaku may appear to be little more than a twenty-first century update of The Seven Samurai (although it is actually a remake of 1963’s The Thirteen Assassins, a film made by Toei in the wake of Kurosawa’s 1954 masterpiece), but it is the way in which Miike presents the story that allows the film to stand out as more than a rehash. He blends the Kurosawa-esque slow burn with the kinetic modern blockbuster approach without violating the integrity of either style.

More than half of the film (with possibly the exception of the previously-mentioned graphic scene) is very much in the 1950s-1960s samurai film tradition. Deliberate pacing, subtle characterization, and introspection pervade the quiet, calm proceedings. Then, the final conflict arrives and overtakes nearly an hour of the runtime, and Miike does all he can to upstage any samurai battle scene seen thus far in Japanese period films. Energetic, violent, and gory, the climax jolts the viewer with enough sensory stimuli to silence any complaints about the slow first section of the movie.

However, for all of his explosive indulgence, Miike takes more interest in challenging the audience’s enjoyment of the final battle through the commentary of the sadistic daimyo, who would love nothing more than to resurrect the clan wars of the past for his own entertainment. The gratification this young ruler receives from witnessing the event derives from his sociopathic detachment from humanity, and by critiquing him, the film critiques the viewer for enjoying the bloodshed as well.

The honor of the samurai code and its philosophical value come into question throughout the film, and while 13 Assassins forces no definitive answers, it notably allows one character to transcend the cycle of death in the denouement while depicting another character reaching nearly a Dirty Harry-esque resolution (if only he had a badge to toss). Despite all of the carnage in its conclusion, the film retains the philosophical pondering of the best examples of the genre and is more than just another samurai flick. (Kurosawa is still firmly #1, though.)

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From → Film Criticism

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