Published: July 13, 2011
After years of pushing contemporary Japanese cinema into new realms of wrong with films such as Audition and Ichi the Killer, Takashi Miike reaches back to chanbara, the venerable samurai film genre that most Americans probably think of when they think of Japanese cinema. To the surprise and delight of many Miike watchers, he plays the genre fairly straight while still managing to add his own particular oomph to the usual conventions. But 13 Assassins falls short of a breakthrough thanks to a fundamental story problem.
The brother of the shogun, Lord Naritsugu (Gorô Inagaki), is the sort of capricious unrestrained sicko that unchecked power and lifelong indolence breeds, at least in movies, and Miike certainly doesn’t let the period setting inhibit him in depicting Naritsugu’s depravity (one scene makes Boxing Helena look like a Lifetime movie). As a powerful noble, Naritsugu is above the law, and he is only gaining more power, threatening the country’s long peace. Not even the shogun’s advisor, Sir Doi (Mikijiro Hira), can do anything officially, but knowing something must be done, he asks veteran samurai Shinzaemon (Kôji Yakusho) to kill Naritsugu.
As in Akira Kurosawa’s classic Seven Samurai, Shinzaemon assembles/accumulates a band of stalwart warriors, including an untrained wildcard in mountain man Koyata (Yûsuke Iseya); as in Seven Samurai, they fortify a small village to serve as a trap for Naritsugu and his guards. The requisite final showdown takes up the last hour of the film, and Miike crafts a bravura tour de force of escalating kinetic mayhem, complete with giant street-blocking gates and collapsing buildings. The referent switches slightly from Seven Samurai to Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch as Shinzaemon’s weary samurai hack away at walls of warriors and impossible odds.
The thing about Peckinpah and Kurosawa, though, is that their blood ‘n’ guts epics were also compelling stories of individual men facing and dealing with desperate and sometimes uncertain circumstances. In Miike’s film, it’s made plain that Naritsugu deserves to die like a dog while Shinzaemon and his fellow peacetime samurai are eager for a good cause, a glorious fight, and an all but certain honorable end. The feints and gambits involved in the pursuit of Naritsugu and the turns of the final battle keep the film moving, but there’s surprisingly little drama in watching these stoic types blithely rush to embrace their preaccepted fates. A scene explicating the longtime acquaintance/rivalry between Shinzaemon and Hanbei (Masachika Ichimura), Naritsugu’s head samurai, hints at more personal grist that may have been part of the 15 minutes cut from the version released on this side of the Pacific, but this 13 Assassins wows as a genre exercise while failing to transcend genre.
> Email Lee Gardner