13 Assassins is director Takashi Miike’s latest movie from Japan. It’s quite a refreshing movie from him. Miike (Audition, Ichi The Killer) is known for bizarre Japanese movies filled with buckets of gore and blood-spraying stumps. Not this time. I was pleasantly surprised by what has to be, for me at least, the best movie I’ve seen in 2011.
13 Assassins is an epic, samurai drama that is something of a remake of a 1963 Japanese movie of the same name and an homage to earlier samurai movies like The Seven Samurai or The Lone Wolf And Cub/Shogun Assassin series. 13 Assassins tells a story about revenge and honor during the last era of samurai rule in Japan. It’s the 1840s and the era of feudal Japan is almost dead. The rule of the shogun and samurais is about to end. As the movie begins we are introduced to Lord Naritsugu. Naritsugu is next in line to rule Japan. He is an evil prince who kills, maims and rapes at his leisure. He is protected by his status until his actions lead a respected and honored lord to commit seppuku (ritual suicide by disembowelment). A group of lords realize that if Naritsugu takes the throne he’ll lead Japan into chaos. To prevent this, a samurai named Shinzaemon is given a mission to secretly assassinate Lord Naritsugu. Shinzaemon gathers twelve samurai (and one fool) to hunt and destroy Naritsugu. Their quest ultimately leads them to a confrontation in a village turned into a deathtrap and one of the best battle scenes of any movie in recent memory.
I went into this movie blind. I knew nothing about it except that it was a Takashi Miike movie. That was enough for me. I am a big fan of Miike’s work and I am a fan of Japanese culture. I am fascinated by its people and history. So a Takashi Miike movie about samurai’s sounded interesting. Miike is known for some of the most gruesome images ever put to film. I was curious to see what he would do with this genre. After the opening scene where a lone samurai commits suicide I was hooked for the entire movie. That scene is filmed in such a way that it’s both beautiful and brutal. We don’t see anything overly violent or disgusting. In fact, the scene is made stunning by the contrast of the act that we’re seeing and the peaceful beauty of the setting. I honestly did not think Miike could do this type of movie. It would be like if Quentin Tarantino directing a very special episode of Sesame Street. There are some truly violent moments of brutality that are jarring in this movie. But, they work. They don’t take you out of the movie. They work to show just how evil the villain of the story is. And what a villain. Lord Naritsugu is one of the best movie villains ever. He reminded me of Hans Landa (Chris Waltz) from Inglourious Basterds but with a samurai sword instead of a Luger.
This movie is great from start to finish. A truly brilliant movie. I did not move from my seat for the entire two hours. It’s playing in limited release here in New York City and is available through the On Demand services of certain cable providers. If you can track this movie down and you’re a fan of Miike or Japanese films in general, this is a must-watch. I must warn some of you that this movie is unrated in the States. The violence in some of the scenes might be too much for some. It’s in Japanese and subtitled. Don’t let that stop you from seeing this.