It's the old, old story...a small group of men we come to know are willing to die for a noble cause, and die they do, fighting against the odds, sacrificing themselves for honor and justice. Just as we probably wouldn't do. They still make us tear up. Takashi Miike's 13 Assassins owes much to the story of the 47 ronin. The story still works, whether it's the 47 ronin, those seven samurai or Robert Taylor and his 13 buddies on Bataan.
Look upon 13 Assassins as a movie with four acts, set in Japan in the middle of the 19th century. The Tokugawa shogunate is decaying, falling apart because of outdated customs, calcified hereditary government, corruption and too many armed warriors with sharp swords and nothing much to do after nearly three centuries of peace. There's a weak, disengaged shogun; his ambitious, cruel and probably psychopathic younger half brother who pushes the envelope when it comes to other men's wives and his own servants, who soon will move into a position of power; a samurai of honor and bravery who is recruited to end the young man's career permanently; the 12 men he recruits to assist him; and how it all ends. No love stories, no sex.
Act one: We see what a monster Lord Matsudaira Naritsugu is. For an attractive-looking and privileged young man, even Jack the Ripper might find off-putting his ways of relaxing through rape and murder. He gives sadism a bad name.
Act two: We meet Shinzaemon Shimada (Koji Yakusho), an experienced, tired and trusted samurai. We follow how he is recruited by those high in the government, how he recruits 11 others (along the way a mountain peasant will join them), and how he sets his traps to attack the young psycho as Naritsugu and his warriors travel from Edo to Naritsugu's clan province.
Act three: A 50-minute battle that leaves just about everyone in sight slashed, burned or exploded to death.
Act four: A better world...maybe.
Yes, the story is a cliché. Miike, however, has delivered a movie of excellent craftsmanship. He immediately sets the point of the movie with a scene of queasy but not gory seppuku, and develops why this act leads to the assassination plot. For the most part, the 13 assassins are well-defined enough that the audience is drawn to them, and is saddened at their inevitable and noble deaths. Miike presents a vision of feudal Japan, its leadership, the county and its life that is realistic as well as beautifully photographed. The action may be brutal but the views are first-rate. He handles the long, climatic battle with mastery. This action is set in the village of Ochiai, a village of death Shinzaemon calls it, where he and his 12 fellows meet head on Matsudaira and his 200 retainers, considerably more than they expected. Shinzaemon and his men have laced the village with deathly, unexpected traps that surprise the opposing samurai as much as they surprise the audience. It's 50 minutes of rousing sword-slashing action, the few against the many, with each assassin having his moment of bravery while he cuts down or blows up dozens. Miike hurtles the action along and he is skilled enough not to lose the clarity of how the long battle proceeds.
Two quibbles, one serious. Whoever wrote the subtitles did a disservice to the movie by using American vernacular far too often. Informal phrases that we wouldn't notice in a contemporary American film are jarring when supposedly coming from the mouths of samurai in the 1840s. "Listen up" is only one of several examples.
At the end we're also faced with the question, is one of the 13 a ghost or simply a hardy survivor of a sword thrust through the neck and abdomen? Miike says it could be either, and either way a viewer might take it is fine with him. I feel it's either sloppy or pretentious directing, bringing in an unneeded question at the end of a very good movie.
For those who admire and have enjoyed this movie, I recommend they watch Chushingura (1962), a nearly 3-1/2 hour telling of the story of the 47 ronin.
The DVD of 13 Assassins includes an interview with Miike by a constantly smiling and deferential young woman who lobs easy questions. Miike at one point says, "This is not an action film, but a drama." He's right. For all the action, the movie has a pervasive feeling of something like sadness and inevitability. But later Miike says, "When a sword hits another sword, it's not about metal hitting against metal. It's someone's soul battling another soul." Shades of Mishima. The truth probably lies among Lord Matsudaira's last words. As he says, "It hurts."