Japanese cinema can be a pretty damn scary and intimidating thing for us Westerners. The palpability of Japanese movies for us in the ‘States has been a mixed bag over the last decade, for every Ringu, a movie whose remake went on to make over a hundred million dollars on our shores, you have a Big Man Japan, a movie so filled to the brim with that special kind of crazy only Japan can offer that I’m sure many people, both American and Japanese, found the plot maddeningly incomprehensible. So then it’s understandable the worries us Westerners have when heading into a Japanese flick, we just don’t know what to expect. So were my feelings when I sat down on the couch to watch 13 Assassins.Luckily I found a movie so well made it can be appreciated on both sides of the pacific.
13 Assassins features a plot that should be familiar to anyone who has seen Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. 13 Assassins plays out like a reverse version of that movie, here we have a group of 13 samurai warriors brought together to assassinate rather than protect, namely they are to assassinate of a sociopathic samurai lord who is rapidly gaining political power through his Shogun brother. The movie goes through a very slow and deliberate pace during the first hour and a half as it builds up to the final half hour, a buildup with one hell of a payoff. The battle at the end of the movie is violent and kinetic, possessing an energy which grasps you in a death grip and never lets you go. From the opening scene to the thrilling conclusion 13 Assassinssucks you into its world and never lets you go.
Where the plot itself is fairly simplistic the writing of the movie really shines through the characters and atmosphere. Set in front of the backdrop of the last days of the samurai the movie tells the story of an order that the world as turned its back on. The samurai in this film are not the blank noble slates that samurai are often portrayed as in film, they have real problems and personalities. They joke around and get in fights with one another like normal people do, and each one has his own reason for being involved in this mission. They are men who know full well that they will likely die and the characters really get this point across.The quality of the writing, of course, would be all for moot if the acting couldn’t sell it. 13 Assassins lucks out by focusing on only a few of the assassins for the movie, going into the real depth of only those few rather than spread itself thin by trying to juggle 13 characters. The actors chosen for these lead roles do their job splendidly, each actor bringing something wholly different to the movie and selling their character expertly. Particular praise needs to be given to Goro Inagaki who plays the murderous Lord Naritsugu Matsudaria. Matsudaria is character much deeper than the villain role initially given to him and we learn more about the duality of his nature. Inagaki plays with these dualities splendidly and every moment he is on screen is a joy to see.
Oscar winning director Takashi Miike handles the film with the finesse expected out of him. The pacing he brings to the script is nice, especially considering that if this script were in the hands of someone less talented it would have really dragged in the early parts. Under Miike’s rule even when nothing is really happening on screen it is still an engaging movie due to both his shot direction and the tone of the movie he created.
Despite its quality, 13 Assassins is not a movie for everyone. While never reaching the levels of brutality featured in other Asian movies such as Oldboy and I Saw the Devil, it is still a pretty violent movie, especially in the latter half of it, and this violence would probably draw some people away from it. It is never distasteful, but this is still a pretty bloody film. If you are not a fan of foreign cinema 13 Assassins is likely not going to change your mind either. Everyone kind of looks similar, choosing to wear the same clothes and have the same hair styles. This combined with the subtitles and multiple references to Japanese history make the movie somewhat obtuse for film goers not used to the foreign market.
Overall though 13 Assassins is an excellent movie kept afloat by great directing, writing, and acting. It succeeds in almost every aspect it tries and is a great homage to old samurai films yet stands on its own. For someone wanting to get introduced to Japanese cinema, yet is having trouble navigating the sea of insanity that endeavor requires, 13 Assassins is surely a great way to see what it is all about.