One You Might Have Missed: 13 Assassins

Being unjustly regulated to a smattering of small, independent theaters, Takasi Miike’s samurai epic “13 Assassins” is one of the best films to be released in 2011 and it is available now on DVD and Blu-Ray.

Set in the mid 19th century, “13 Assassins” follows a group of samurai warriors, a title which itself is fading in respect and necessity, who attempt to kill a sadistic Lord Naritsugu before he has a chance to take the throne and plunge the country into violence, death and despair. After Naritsugu ruthlessly kills innocent citizens, even taking to rape and dismemberment, Shinzaemon, a man well practiced in the fleeting way of the samurai, is brought in to council and eventually lead the small rebellion against the Lord’s tyrannical rule.

Koji Yakusho as Shinzaemon

While the film doesn’t offer any new plot devices to the samurai genre, it does plunge into the mythos and supposed grandeur of the samurai, questioning the validity and humanity of a life dedicated to death. Shinzaemon, played with heart and a brilliant weight by the superb Koji Yakusho, has spent his years dedicated to protecting life and stability, even if it means sacrificing himself for the cause. But when he sees a ruler and supposed heir to the throne treating life with such carelessness and brevity, he begins to challenge the very ideals that rule and guide his life.

The first half of the film serves as an introduction not only to Feudal Japan, but also to Shinzaemon and the warriors he has assembled to kill Naritsugu. Perhaps the most difficult challenge during this first half is keeping the characters straight amongst one another. It could be easily said that all the assassins look the same with their matching hairstyles, wardrobe and weaponry, but once you get past the outfits you will find thirteen of the most interesting and exploratory characters in recent foreign or domesticated cinema. Each is defined in their purpose for wanting to join Shinzaemon’s suicide mission, and the fate of each assassin is as treasured and emotionally relevant as the next.

Six of the 13

Every action and line of dialogue builds to the climactic battle, a cinematic wet dream in itself, in which the assassins have bought out a small village which Naritsugu is set to travel through, and rigged every inch with explosives, weapons and other traps that will hopefully give them, the outnumbered, the tactical advantage and leave Naritsugu’s soldiers scared and crippled.

On their journey to the village, the then twelve assassins encounter a young thief who they adopt as the thirteenth, playing as a free-spirited opposite to the dedicated and strictly enlivened samurai. With the countries stability hanging the balance, Naritsugu arrives in the village, albeit with a few hundred more men, and the stage is set for the final, epic battle for the ages.

Hirayama and his pupil Ogura preparing for the next wave

Miike is a master storyteller and here he takes a shot at a genre long dismissed, adding a new flare and depth into the world of the samurai, challenging their values in an increasingly heated and honor-less world. The gusto in which Miike approaches the film is inspiring, for he juggles steady prose and ideologies as easily as he does action and blood-spurting violence.

He has crafted a visually enthralling piece and created an experience unlike any other. It is a film that went criminally unnoticed but now has a chance to be revered, inspiring and enjoyed: everything a good film should be.