Movie Review: 13 Assassins (2011)

Director Takashi Miike, who delivered the disturbing Audition, comes back with a refreshingly straightforward story about a bunch of guys getting together to kill one dude…who’s surrounded by a bigger bunch of guys. Enter: the 13 Assassins/Juusan no shikaku.

This movie has it all: non-graphic yet still icky harakiri in the first two minutes! Plots! Intrigue! Nobility! Samurai! Swords! Spears! Sake! Gambling! Awesome hats! The obligatory crazy forest person! A limbless tongueless starvation victim! Angry men! Angry men flying through the air! Women with the sads! Bows and arrows! Sexism! Feminism! Explosions! Traps! Bridges! Palanquins! Bamboo! And more! Alas, no ninjas.

In a nutshell: Naritsugu Matsudaira of the Akashi clan is such a sadistic monster that the shogun’s chief adviser secretly brings in the samurai Shinzaemon Shimada to assassinate him on his way back home from the capital, Edo.

What this movie does well:

1. Establishes main characters’ personalities and backstories
  • Theme: Sympathetic protagonist = battle half won – Shimada is played by Koji Yakusho, the adorably shy and awkward guy on Shall We Dansu. Here, as leader of the 13, he’s upright and efficient. 
  • Theme: Interesting villain = interesting story – Seriously. Naritsugu goes beyond cartoonishly villainous and swings right back to just plain psychotic. Either way, everyone roots for his death almost as soon as he appears on screen. 
2. Creates tension between two opposing forces: Shimada and Naritsugu’s chief samurai, Hanbei Kito
  • Theme: Contrasting interpretations of the purpose of the samurai – Obey your master, or serve the people? Shimada and Kito spit initially just tell each other their separate beliefs, and then later use sharp pointy things to get their…point…across. 
  • Theme: Honor versus duty versus ambition – Kito is also motivated by a desire to surpass Shimada. Dun dun DUNNNNN 
3. Introduces good supporting characters, e.g. the ronin Hirayama and Shimada’s nephew, Shinrokuro
  • Theme: Telegraphed character deaths – Basically, if the viewers don’t even remember your name, you are toast. Or, since this is Japan, you are miso shiro
4. Excellent breaks in tension through gently comedic moments
  • Theme: The Japanese are weird – And how. 
5. The payoff
  • Theme: Justice is a dish best served bloody – And how
What this movie missed:
  1. What was up with the deranged forest dude at the end? Is he youkai (a spirit/monster)? 
Apart from that one tiny little quibble, I thought this movie rocked really hard. Like Shimada, it understands why it exists, and it delivers the goods. Everything is built up towards the assassination attempt, which manages to be grim and flamboyant at the same time. The cinematography is faultless, the writing terrific, and the stunts are impressive. Watchitwatchit.

This post brought to you by sunlight! Sunlight: for the vitamin D that you may or may not need desperately, based on what studies you read!