13 Assassins
"With lines like 'We will turn this quiet little town into a town of death,' what's not to love?"

13 assassins. 200 bad guys. One deadly trap. Set in 1844 yet taking place in a feudal society very different from those in the rest of the world, this Samurai epic tells a bloody tale of politics, betrayal and life lived by the sword.

This is a film that makes no apologies, though it does sometimes seem so deadly serious that one finds oneself half waiting for a joke, and the existence of comedy moments sprinkled throughout means one is forever on one's guard, not quite sure how to interpret events. This is fitting in the first two thirds of the film, as we watch a potentially deadly game of court politics. Ageing samurai Shinzaemon (Kôji Yakusho) is assembling a group of highly trained warriors with a view to bringing down the vicious Lord Naritsugu (Gorô Inagaki), a Caligula-like figure who seems drunk on power and driven to extremes by frustration at his own privilege.

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This is a socially as well as practically challenging task. It represents a critical shift in Japanese moral values. "It is a servant's job to die for his master. It is a woman's job to die for her husband," says Naritsugu (who is also fond of cutting up women). By contrast, Shinzaemon adheres to a set of principles he can barely articulate - he wants to stop his enemy because otherwise the people will suffer. Naritsugu scoffs at the very concept of 'the people'. This moral conflict persists throughout the film and helps to balance what is sometimes a cartoonish depiction of the lord's nastiness. It also results in a final instruction from Shinzaemon which, in that cultural context, is extraordinary and perhaps dangerous, issuing in a new age.

In 1844 Japan was on the cusp of change yet many people looked back with romantic yearning to a golden age of the samurai - an age of near constant internecine conflict. 13 Assassins challenges this glorification of violence but that doesn't stop it from reveling in its display (this is, after all, a Takashi Miike film). The final third of the film is one huge battle, brilliantly choreographed, beautifully shot, and as surprising and unyielding as all the director's work. With lines like "We will turn this quiet little town into a town of death," what's not to love? Audiences looking for an action fix will not be disappointed. One inventive sequence after another will keep you gripped right up until the final drawn-out death.

In many ways this is a formulaic film. It's not exactly surprising, for instance, that the original group of 12 find their 13th member living as an outlaw on a journey through the forest, nor that most of them do not survive the final ordeal. But this is where the film draws much of its humour, and it makes sense to include some mythical tropes in a film centred on the conflict between the myths and reality of war. In the end, there's no shortage of blood and guts. It's a slice of history cut with a specially sharpened blade.

Reviewed on: 24 Feb 2011
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13 Assassins packshot
A retired samurai has to assemble a squad of assassins and set a town-sized trap.
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Read more 13 Assassins reviews:

Robert Munro ****

Director: Takashi Miike

Writer: Kaneo Ikegami, Takashi Miike, Daisuke Tengan

Starring: Kôji Yakusho, Takayuki Yamada, Yûsuke Iseya, Gorô Inagaki, Masachika Ichimura, Mikijiro Hira, Hiroki Matsukata, Ikki Sawamura, Arata Furuta, Tsuyoshi Ihara, Masataka Kubota, Sosuke Takaoka, Seiji Rokkaku, Yûma Ishigaki, Kôen Kondô

Year: 2010

Runtime: 141 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: Japan, UK

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