13 Assassins (2010)
The first true masterpiece of 2011 finds Japanese cult director Takashi Miike proving he can make a great film provided he slows down. 13 Assassins is an unforgettable and immensely entertaining classic samurai film with enough modern flourishes to engage with its contemporary audience. I’m the first to admit that I’ve never been a huge Miike fan – his movies tend to be too frenetic and his perchance for twisted modern J-horror often too grotesque for my cream puff tastes. These tenancies, while still evident throughout parts of 13 Assassins, have been dialed way back and the result is something sublime – a slow building art-house actioner that ends in a bloody battle of truly epic proportions.
In feudal times, a nobleman commits hari kiri to protest the actions of the evil Naritsugu, the Shogun’s depraved and barbaric half brother. This opening scene is shot with a quiet restraint I didn’t think Miike possessed and it signals that his approach to 13 Assassins would be quite different than one might have expected. It’s rare that any bloodletting in a Miike film takes place off screen.
With Naritsugu next in line to succeed the current Shogun, he remains outside the reach of the legal authorities and therefore impossible to remove from power. Instead, a secret assassination plan is hatched and the services of an honourable samurai named Shinzaemon Shimada (the excellent Kôji Yakusho) sought out by the senior Shogun magistrate to execute it. Shinzaemon assembles a small team of other noble samurai to carry out what can only be described as a suicide mission to kill the sadistic and heavily-protected Naritsugu.
There’s good news and bad news about how this all shakes out. The bad news is there’s only one real fight. The good news is it lasts for 45 relentless minutes of outright ass-kicking mayhem. It’s an exhausting and exhilarating fight that pits our patriotic little band of assassins against Naritsugu’s army of protectors. Heads will and do roll. Blood will and does flow. Buckets of it in fact.
I’m not sure who 13 Assassins might appeal to. Joe and I chuckled when we were deciding how many to order that 2 would probably be enough, as he and I were very likely the only ones interested in watching it. I hope not, because 13 Assassins, while not without a few glitches, is very possibly the best film released to DVD thus far in 2011. It received a well-deserved 96% fresh rating on Rottentomatoes, an 87/100 rating on Metacritic and a 7.9/10 on IMDb. It is a classically-structured samurai film that ranks amongst the best in a genre that already includes a dozen or so certified masterpieces.
13 Assassins releases to DVD and Blu-ray on July 5th.