Takashi Miike, 2010
Starring: Koji Yakusho, Takayuki Yamada, Yusuke Iseya, Goro Inagaki
During peacetime, an aging samurai, Shinzaemon, is secretly charged with the task of assassinating the young, sadistic Lord Naritsugu. He is the Shogun's brother and has legal immunity, but his devastating acts of cruelty and murder have forced the council to move against him. Shinzaemon begrudgingly comes out of retirement to gather a small band of warriors for this suicide mission.
Shinzaemon gathers 11 other samurai and their apprentices. Among them are the experienced, sassy Kuranaga, his second-in-command, who brings some of his students, and Shinzaemon's nephew, who drinks, gambles, and otherwise has nothing to live for. Most of the band are either older, experienced ronin samurai looking for one last battle, or newcomers hoping to prove themselves. They also accidentally collect a dirty, renegade hunter who guides them through the forest and stubbornly stays on to fight.
With some incredible planning, the assassins intend to confront Naritsugu and his men in a village they have emptied and outfitted with a variety of nasty booby traps. When Naritsugu is successfully re-routed from his original path and finally arrives, they are dismayed to find that he has brought 200 men, more than twice the number they expected. It is up to the skill of the samurai and their military-style fortifications to trap Naritsugu and stop him once and for all.
Jusan-non no shikaku aka 13 Assassins is essentially a remake of Eiichi Kudo's film of the same name from 1963. Much to my surprise, I absolutely loved this film. I don't want to sound overly skeptical, because I'm a huge Takashi Miike fan, but I haven't been up to date with his releases over the last few years and wasn't sure what to expect. After the major disappointment of "Imprint," his Masters of Horror episode, I've tried to take his newer work with a grain of salt. Plus, I adore classic chanbara and tend to dislike modern samurai-themed films.
13 Assassins is an absolute joy. It's perfectly paced and has the right mix of adventure, justice dispensing, sword fighting, and general samurai awesomeness to thrill anyone who loves the genre. There are many welcome references to Seven Samurai and other beloved jidaigeki, a sub-genre of Japanese period drama that focuses on samurai and sometimes working class people from the Edo period. If you're unfamiliar, check out Kurosawa films like Ran and Throne of Blood, or the Hanzo and Lady Snowblood series for jidaigeki with a healthy dose of exploitation. A side element of the genre is the use of the supernatural. Films like Ugetsu Monogatari and Onibaba pit working class people against yokai. Miike snuck in an element of this with the character of Kiga, the hunter and guide, who may or may not be human.
There's a great mix of humor with the usual Miike touches of violence and depravity. In particular, there's a gruesome scene in the beginning of the film involving one of Naritsugu's naked, limbless victims. In general, the violence is spectacular. It doesn't feel at all like Miike's earlier, excessive horror films and is perfectly suited to the heroic-epic style of the film. The violence leads linearly towards the death of Lord Naritsugu, his men, and the end of the 13 assassins, though if you've seen films in the genre before, you have a good idea of where things are heading.
Another aspect I really enjoyed, and was again surprised by, were the well-developed characters. For the most part, all 13 of the warriors stand out clearly, even if they are just given little tidbits of personality and motivation. There is something especially touching about the fact that this is a group of men all born in the wrong century. They are sacrificing their lives to restore justice, but it is clear that they would rather be great warriors at one final battle, than live long, healthy, but flaccid lives in a stale time of peace.
I also have to applaud the acting. Koji Yakusho (The Cure, Charisma) is great as the serious, take-no-prisoners Shinzaemon. He's a wonderful actor in everything I've seen him in, but seems particularly suited to play a world-weary samurai. Hiroki Matsukada (Battles Without Honor and Humanity) is equally wonderful as the humorous Kuranaga, who is unmistakably deadly, but capable of some much needed mirth. Goro Inagaki is delightful as the spoiled, villainous Lord Naritsugu. Though he doesn't have an abundance of scenes, he does a lot with the little given to him and our understanding of his character shifts immensely throughout the film.
13 Assassins comes highly recommended and is one of my favorite theatrical releases of 2011. I saw the theatrical international cut, which is 126 minutes, but if you get a chance to see the 141-minute uncut Japanese version, go for it. The Magnolia DVD is the international cut, but the missing footage is included in the extras. If you have a Blu-ray player, you should probably view this like it was meant to be seen, in all its Blu-ray glory.