07 May 2011
Taksahi Miike’s latest (although it’s hard to keep a tab on his output as he is inhumanly prolific) is a remake of a 1963 film of the same name and owes a tad too much to the Kurosawa classic, Seven Samurai - perhaps the greatest of all samurai films, a benchmark with which every other jidaigeki is a unfairly measured. Unfair, because Seven Samurai is an indelible classic of grandiose action film-making.
13 Assassins offers a more than satisfactory action sequence, which eats up one half of the movie, in which cattle-on-fire, elaborate booby traps, and insane sword fighting ensue. This is the centrepiece of the story, in which 12 samurai and ronin, plus a wayward rambler-hunter, face a violent lord and his 200-strong personal army in a remote village in rural Japan.
What the movie offers in the amount of action and set pieces, it lacks in character development.
With the exception of the evil Lord Naritsugu (more of whom later), the rest of the characters are just names uttered and subsequently forgotten. There is plenty of dialogue about honour and loyalty, but that is to be expected from the genre. Perhaps 13 is too large a number to actually empathise with any of these characters, but, regardless of the abundance of samuraiin the title, Kaneo Igekami’s script should have devoted a little bit more time to build up the apparent camaraderie between his protagonists.
Perhaps Miike is to blame for this, as depth of character is not really his forte. If this is his maturity (as has been evidenced in his later output), then he still has some ways to go. What he does best (hackings, blood, and insane action), he delivers with great conviction.
With Lord Naritsugu, he has a villain for the ages - his dastardly acts include (but is not limited to) hacking off his servant girls’ limbs and tongues, practising his arching techniques on his subjects, and just raping and killing whomever he pleases. Goro Inagaki plays him with an annoying air of calm and menace - it feels like he has stepped out from an altogether more sinister and violent film. There is no reason why he shouldn’t be cult favourite.
Sadly one fantastic villain does not a good film make. 13 Assassins fails on too many levels and wins in only very few. Still, if you’re looking for a great (but too long) action sequence and a villain to … ahem … kill for, then you would be pleased. Just be prepared to be bored long before the credits roll.