Alternate Title: (2xSeven)-1 Samurai
One sentence synopsis: A picked band of samurai attempt to assassinate an evil Shogunate Lord in 19th century Japan.
Things Havoc liked: I am not a fan of Takashi Miike. I recognize that's not easy to say, given the sheer volume of the man's work, but I will say it regardless. Ichi the Killer was one of the worst pieces of crap I've ever seen, and Audition was a gruesome gorefest that I felt lacked artistry in favor of raw shock value (yes, there is artistry even in horror, see the Exorcist or Alien). I grant that these two films represent about 1% of Miike's overall film output, and some of his films such as Zebraman and Agitator have garnered great praise from people whose opinions I respect. Nevertheless I have to call them as I see them overall, and to-date I have not liked what I've seen from Miike.
Until last week at least.
13 Assassins is a classical Samurai movie in the genre (and more) of Akira Kurasawa's epic masterpiece Seven Samurai, which I maintain is one of the greatest movies ever made. This film is more than just similar to Kurasawa's film, but borders on a remake of it, albeit with some significant alterations. Normally I'd object to such a thing, but this is not the first (nor the fifth) time Seven Samurai has been remade, and the remakes have occasionally been spectacular (The Magnificent Seven, for instance, which was much closer to this movie than 13 Assassins is). Miike is known for over-the-top gruesome body horror, and while there's a single scene in this film that seems reminiscent of that, it is at least appropriate given the subject matter, and isn't dwelt upon for long.
That's not to say that there aren't some alterations done, and by and large, these alterations are to the film's credit. The core of the film is around two middle-aged Samurai, Shinzaemon Shimada, played by KÃ´ji Yakusho, and Hanbei Kito, played by Masachika Ichimura. These two men are former sparring-mates and rivals from dojos decades ago, now minor Samurai lords in their own right. Shinzaemon largely plays the role taken in the original by the great Takashi Shimura (and Yul Brenner in the western), an old, wise, war-weary soldier who is hired to perform a seemingly-suicidal job and recruit a team of Samurai to do it. While Yakusho doesn't quite have the stage presence of Shimura, he brings a presence to the role that does the job. Hanbei however, is a new character, not present in the original film, and plays the head Samurai of the assassination target, a man of honor who recognizes the corruption and decadence of his Lord but has sworn to defend him to the death regardless. Ichimura plays the role perfectly, easily stealing the show in every scene he is in, as a tired but indomitable samurai who regrets the necessities of his position but will do his duty to the last. Samurai movies are usually about honorable death and performing duty in the face of tremendous hardship, and Ichimura captures it perfectly.
The other great role from the original film was that of Kikuchiyo, a bandit farmer who pretends to be a Samurai and serves as a foil for the noble pretensions of the other six. In this movie, that role is taken by Yūsuke Iseya playing Kiga Koyata, a poacher who joins the Samurai largely out of boredom and revulsion with the Samurai class in general. Here too, some alterations are made, ones I will not spoil here, but elements of his character are infused with classical Japanese mythology, left open for those who know what they are looking for. It's a nice touch.
The villain in the original film was forgettable (I think he had two lines). In this movie, the villain is a major character in his own right. GorÃ´ Inagaki plays Lord Naritsugu like a complete sociopath, a man who literally does not feel remorse or empathy, almost to the point of solipsism. Naritsugu is a complete monster, but is given enough facetime that he doesn't just feel like a "designated bad guy" (which he is), but more like a mad dog who simply needs to be destroyed. His reactions in the second half of the movie, when the fighting breaks out and men are dying on all sides, is almost one of reverential joy, as he is finally able to experience sensations of any sort, even physical pain. It's unsettling, but it works.
Finally, this movie was famous in some circles for "the battle sequence". The entire second half of the movie is an unbroken, 45-minute battle in which hundreds of people fight and die. There are things both wrong and right with this approach, but while I frankly enjoyed the first half of the movie more than most of the second, the battle was invigorating, well-shot, and choreographed very nicely. In an age of Shaky-cam, one can ask for little more.
Things Havoc disliked: The problem with changing the movie from 7 to 13 samurai and then halving the time of the film (and taking up half of that with a single fight) is that your characters get lost. Every one of the other Samurai has a name and some gesture towards a character, but only just. I absolutely could not tell one from the other once the armor was put on and the swords began to sing, and so apart from the characters I mentioned above, everyone else is basically an extra with a flag on their arm to indicate "good" or "bad" guy.
Even the characters that are given time and characterization are somewhat problematic though, particularly Yūsuke the poacher. The original character of Kikuchiro was played by the unparalleled Toshiro Mifune, arguably the greatest Japanese film actor ever. Kikuchiro was one of the most memorable characters in all of my years of movie watching, animated, boisterous, slightly crazy, driven by deep anger and resentments, comic and serious and tragic all at the same time. Kiga Koyata does his best, but has neither the acting chops (which is no shame, honestly) nor the screen time that Mifune had, and is therefore reduced in my mind to a pastiche of Mifune's performance.
The great battle scene, meanwhile, has its own set of issues. For one thing, 45 minutes of ceaseless combat gets very repetitive if you don't spice it up with variation. There is some, don't get me wrong, the transition from ranged weapons to swords to duels is done well, and the end of the battle is by far the best segment, but the ceaseless slicing and dicing beforehand does get a little old. Don't get me wrong, I love long, involved battles, but I love them precisely because of the "awesome!" moments you find within them. There were not enough of those here. Instead we get drawn out death scenes as the heroic samurai die one by one, overwhelmed by a tide of foes. After the eighth of those, one gets restless for something different.
There's also a minor issue in that it is very hard to film 13 people killing 200 people with swords without looking completely ridiculous. Yes, this is a Samurai movie, wherein skilled warriors can defeat many opponents with nothing but their awesome skill. But at the same time, no Samurai, no matter how badass, can take on thirty-six sword-wielding maniacs at once and survive, and we know it, which makes scenes where they do this look cartoonish. Yes, there's a great history in Martial Arts movies in particular of heroic badasses taking down entire armies by themselves. But this movie purports a very realistic feel for the entire run, and to suddenly see everyone turn into Superman for a mook fight is disappointing. Once more, the original film made all the Samurai into badasses without need for this.
Final thoughts: Perhaps it is unfair of me to judge this film so harshly in the light of Seven Samurai, but this is a personal review, and Kurosawa's film colonized my memory so effectively in terms of what Samurai films ought to be that it's very hard for me to separate out this film, particularly when it takes such pains to emulate Seven Samurai in so many ways. That said, I don't want to give the wrong impression here. 13 Assassins does many things right, especially when it breaks from the Kurosawa format and adds new elements to an already established genre. This film wasn't a masterpiece by any means, but it was a damn good flick, proving once again that even a Flawed remake of Seven Samurai is still quite a thing.
Final Score: 7/10