Thursday, August 11, 2011

"13 Assassins" (2010)

Starring Koji Yakusho, Hiroki Matsukata and Takayuki Yamada
Written by Daisuke Tengan
Directed by Takashi Miike
Rated R - Violence, gore, nudity
Running Time: 126 Minutes

I thought the trailer for Takashi Miike's "13 Assassins" looked pretty cool, but the limited time it was playing near me, I wasn't able to get out to the theatre to see it.  Thankfully, Netflix comes through in a pinch and delivers it via their 'Watch Instantly' streaming service.

In 1830s Japan, a young lord adopted by the family of the ruling Shogun is revealed to be a deeply corrupt individual.  Naritsugu (Goro Inagaki) rapes and kills without any regard for others, seeing his servants as property he need not respect in any fashion.  Another member of the Shogunate, Doi (Mikijiro Hira) orders a decorated Samura named Shinzaemon (Koji Yakusho) to assassinate Naritsugu in order to save the people from his tyranny.

Shinzaemon begins to gather his friends and students together, including his nephew Shinroku (Takayuki Yamada), his student Hirayama Kujuro (Tsuyoshi Ihara), his friend Kuranaga (Hiroki Matsukata), Kuranaga's students, enemies of Naritsugu, and more.  Soon he has gathered a group of 13 warriors who are prepared to give their lives for honor to save the people from the wrath of Naritsugu.

They set out their plan to intercept Naritsugu on his journey from city of Edo to the territory of the Akashi clan.  Thinking that Naritsugu has a mere 70 warriors as an entourage, Shinzaemon and his men prepare a trap in the town of Ochiai, ready to turn the entire town into a vicious set of booby traps to ensnare and destroy Naritsugu.  But when Naritsugu arrives, Shinzaemon and his men make a startling discovery: instead of 70 men, the 13 assassins face an army of 200 troops.  But the men have pledged their lives to this mission, and quitting is not an option.

I didn't discover until I was finished watching it that there are, in fact, two versions of this film.  The complete film is 146 minutes long, while the shorter "international" version is just over two hours at 126 minutes.  What I found out after watching "13 Assassins" is that the version available on Netflix streaming is the shorter version, which is sad, but will allow me the excitement of seeking out the longer version now.  Despite this, "13 Assassins" is still a fantastically entertaining film. 

The film is a slow burn, to be sure.  Much time is spent gathering warriors, setting up the characters, and then watching their plan unfold.  But that by no means is me telling you that "13 Assassins" is boring.  Instead, while much the film is buildup, it still moves at a good pace.  The characters are well drawn and interesting to watch, and their relationships as well.

Probably the best is between Shinzaemon and Naritsugu's lead bodyguard Henbai (Masachika Ichimura).  The two were former classmates, and rivals.  Now they stand on opposite sides of Naritsugu.  What makes Henbai fascinating is that he understands that Naritsugu is an animal, but he is bound by his word and his duty as a Samurai.  At the same time, Shinzaemon is more concerned with doing what is right for the people rather than adhering to strict tradition.  I don't know enough about Japanese history or politics, but given the tag lines at the end of the movie, I suspect this is the filmmakers attempting to make a statement about the shifting times the film is set during.  I think Shinzaemon represents a more democratic future while Henbai is indicative of the more traditional political system of the past. 

That relationship forms the emotional core of the film.  These two don't want to fight each other, but they must, and each confrontation between them is loaded with tension.  Both actors work extremely well together, and director Miike makes the atmosphere of these scenes heavy with regret. 

The climax of the film is an extended battle sequence between the assassins and Naritsugu's army.  With all the traps and different sections of the town, Miike manages to keep this lengthy collection of fights from growing stale.  The battle is epic, and totally awesome, filled with all kinds of badassery.  The assassins' traps are clever and fun to watch unleashed on Naritsugu's men.  But the film is not for the faint of heart; the bloodletting is vicious, men are hacked, chopped, burned and blown to bits, and some of the women fare even worse. 

One thing about the film that's strange is related to the shortened version; one of the characters, a hunter named Kiga (Yusuke Iseya) may not even be human.  According to my research, the lengthier version hints much more strongly at this, while the shorter film it is rather confusing how Kiga manages to survive the horrific injuries he sustains with nary a scratch.  I picked up on this slightly, but it felt strange and out of place.  Hopefully, the longer version will clarify this and streamline things a little.

I heartily recommend "13 Assassins" to fans of foreign films, Samurai flicks or action movies.  It's well-written and acted, and the action is epic.  I can't wait to check out the longer version and see what was missing.