A Small Introduction
13 assassins is the 42nd film directed by notorious Japanese horror auteur Takashi Miike and is a remake the 1963 film of the same name. The film could be regarded as a huge shift in style and tone for the infamous director after directing several surrealist horror productions and yakuza crime thrillers, often of which cause quite a lot of controversy upon being screened at film festivals.
With this picture, Takashi Miike clearly has one goal in mind; to pay homage to his influences and breathe life into a genre that has since died down in popularity amongst western audiences.
Getting down to the Flesh of it
Whilst the film showcases Miikes wide range and versatile mix of style and genre, the samurai epic still maintains much of the tropes and signature motifs that made Miikes past films so controversial and grotesque. These include multiple shocking scenes of extreme violence and sexual perversions, while maintaining a coherent sense of character and story. In the case of 13 assassins, much of the film details the mere planning and organisation of the suicidal task the assassins eventually embark on, whilst the last 45 minutes of the film is nothing but carnage, destruction and typical Miike tropes.
Despite the fact that few of the assassins are given clear motives and character development, the spectator begins to feel the weight of the action and the stakes that are created during the final 45 minutes, allowing the spectator to sympathise with the samurai as a result. Additionally, the style of 13 assassins falls in line with classic samurai epics of the 50s and 60s, such as the numerous works of Akira Kurosawa, to the original film of the same name.
And What of the Characters of the Film?
As mentioned before, not all the samurai are given much depth or character, with the few exceptions, the biggest being Shinzaemon, the leader of the assassins. He is the primary samurai who is given the task of assembling a team to assassinate the ruthless new leader of the Akashi domain, Naritsugu. Shinzaemon accepts the offer in order to achieve a noble task that may finally give him an honourable death he has been searching so long for.
Whilst the spectator may not be given the full extent of Shinzaemons character, we are able to understand the motivation behind accepting the task and so the audience begin to support him as a result. Furthermore, the film establishes a history between Shinzaemon and Hanbei, another experienced samurai who once trained with Shinzaemon in the past and is now the advisor and protector of the infamous Naritsugu.
During the various encounters between the two, the spectator is able to feel the weight of the history between them and raises the stakes of the action later on, as the once friends are forced to battle each other due to opposing positions. In addition, there is a clashing ideology debated between Shinzaemon and Hanbei, that revolves around the purpose of the samurai.
From Shinzaemons perspective, a samurai must protect his master, but must also have the power to stand up for the people during times of oppression, as evident with the tyrannical rule of Naritsugu. On the other hand, Hanbei believes that a samurai’s only purpose is to protect and serve his master, despite the master’s behaviour or attitude towards the people. The clash in ideologies between the two samurai creates a deeper meaning within the context of the film and heightens the tension and emotional conflict between the opposing forces.
Just a Samurai Action Flick?
Despite the complex themes that add another layer to what was thought to be a by the numbers samurai action flick, these aspects aren’t enough to divert the spectators attention from arguably the primary selling point of the film, the final 45 minute battle scene.
During this highly stylized, hyperviolent sequence, every trope that made Miike such a controversial figure of cinema is unleashed. The town in which the sequence takes place in is bathed in the blood of Naritsugu’s army and nothing, but constant rage and destruction is displayed. Despite much of the film being held back from Miikes hyperviolent, gonzo style, the infamous auteur somehow finds a way to include much of the stomach-churning bloodshed that made his most famous work so controversial in the first place.
The use of fire and a dark, muddy colour palette only adds to the pure aggression that is displayed on screen, with the loud and exaggerated clashing of katanas inducing a raw assault on the senses of the spectator.
In conclusion, 13 assassins marks as a successful shift in tone and genre for Takashi Miike, with the intense violence, raw aesthetic and complex themes adding multiple layers to what was at first seen as another samurai epic.