Takashi Miike has a well-deserved reputation as a purveyor of cinematic gore, largely because of Ichi the Killer, and 13 Assassins certainly won’t disappoint on that score. While Miike isn’t really known for historical works, this film is a pretty clear indication that he knows how to make a great samurai epic. It could do with being a little longer, and the international version is shorter than the Japanese cut, but it’s still an exceptional action film.
In 1800s Japan, the shogun’s younger brother, Naritsugu, is a sadistic, psychopathic despot, and Sir Doi, a government official, decides that something must be done about him. In order to avoid angering the shogun, he covertly hires thirteen samurai to find a way to assassinate him. The samurai take over a village which lies along Naritsugu’s path, and turn it into a deathtrap for him and his army.
Thirteen main characters is, it must be said, too many for a two-hour film. Only three or four of them get any real development, and you’ll probably be hard pressed to even remember the names of most of them, let alone feel any particular sadness when they die. Still, there may be too many characters, but the actors playing them are generally very good. The thirteenth assassin, Koyata, is reminiscent of Kikuchiyo from Seven Samurai, something that may have been intentional, given how similar the plot of this film is to it.
The reason for seeing this film, however, is not the plot or characters, but the final battle. There are 45 minutes between Naritsugu arriving at the deathtrap and the film ending, and the battle occupies all of of that time. It possibly goes on a bit too long, but it’s hard to care when the action is this good. The various traps the assassins rig around the village keep the battle nice and varied, and some of the stuff that happens is so utterly mad that it would be a disservice to discuss it here; you need to see it for yourself. It’s a completely deranged final battle, but it’s so spectacular that it doesn’t matter. A particular highlight is Hirayama, a ronin, armed with a field of swords, taking on about 20 of Naritsugu’s men all by himself.
Many Hollywood action directors would do well to watch 13 Assassins and learn how you ought to film a battle sequence. It’s as chaotic a battle as you’re ever likely to see, but it’s never difficult to tell what’s happening, which is more than can be said for films which think extreme close-ups and shakycam are more important than a coherent shot. The scenes are composed and blocked out such that it’s never difficult to tell who is on which side, and Miike keeps the camera close enough to maintain the sense of chaos and being in the battle, but keeps it pulled back far enough that you can always see the action. As Batman Begins showed, it doesn’t matter how well-choreographed your fight scene is if the camera is so close to it that you can’t see what’s happening; this is never a problem for 13 Assassins, since while the battle is extremely chaotic, it’s never unclear what’s going on.
If you like Japanese cinema and chambara films in particular, you owe it to yourself to see 13 Assassins if you get a chance. The plot is pretty unremarkable, but the final battle sequence is one of the best I’ve seen in a long time. If you like action films at all, 13 Assassins is a must-see.