13 Assassins

Sweat, swords, and Samurai leave ADAM LANDA feeling lucky.

Arnold Schwarzenegger Japan Japanese katana samurai Seven Samurai Takashi Miike

Directed by Takashi Miike

Seen at Cambridge Arts Picturehouse

[rating: 4/5]

Samurai, ultraviolence and flaming oxen – 13 Assassins delivers action and blood by the gallon. The last hour of the film alone would impress Rambo. But what makes Assassins such a satisfying overall experience is that this isn’t just another Asian popcorn flick – Takashi Miike (best known for Audition) proves to be a smart filmmaker, challenging our brains as well as our stomachs.

The film takes place in Feudal Japan, where the depraved Lord Naritsugu’s outrageous actions threaten to shatter the uneasy peace. It is decided that Naritsugu (a splendidly creepy Goro Inagaki) must be ‘removed’ by releasing a team of elite samurai to ambush and murder him (of course!).

What follows is a pretty traditional ‘men on a mission’ tale, familiar to anyone who’s seen Seven Samurai (clearly a big inspiration) or the like. Our heroes train, grimace, philosophise over duty and honour, and then murder the heck out of armies of men. It’s all done pretty well; Miike knows how to tell a story, and the protagonists are believable and likeable. Little splashes of physical humour spice up a story that is both easy to follow and very satisfying.

The only sections that don’t feel as natural are early in the film, where we are shown ‘just how evil the baddie is’. It does the job well, but maybe a bit too well – Naritsugu’s depredations could have jumped out of one of Miike’s horror films, and don’t connect very well with the more traditional style of the rest of the movie.

Rather than plumping for the standard ‘old vs. new ideology’ debate, 13 Assassins pits ‘old vs. even older’. The villain takes noble power to the extreme – in his twisted mind, his status grants him the right to do whatever he wants. On the other hand, our heroes feel that the right and honourable path is to massacre this villainous lunatic, and if they die gloriously, all the better! The most tragic and thought-provoking character is the villain’s chief bodyguard (Masachika Ichimura). Although appalled by his master’s ways, he defends him with his life out of a misplaced sense of duty.

But let’s face it: nice as it is for action flicks to be smart, the audience isn’t showing up to satisfy their raging intellects. Fortunately, Miike delivers the action spectacularly. The last hour of the film consists of breath-taking, non-stop violence in the style of an ‘80s-era Schwarzenegger movie. Our heroes massacre their way through literally hundreds of soldiers (the line ‘70 down, 130 to go!’ got a cheer), but the stunning action never gets boring.

CGI is used sparingly, and the fighting feels very real. Forget giant computer-animated robots: 13 Assassins shows us just what it’s like to be hacked up with a katana, and it ain’t pretty. The sound is fantastic: the clashing blades and crunching bones are sickeningly satisfying. The visuals are amazing too – the Japanese mountains are gorgeously shot, and the costumes are a real treat (although by the end of the film they can barely be made out beneath the mud and blood).

Whilst not for the faint-hearted, 13 Assassins is one of the best action films in recent years. If you like epic screen violence, Japanese cinema and really smart storytelling, then this is one film you won’t want to miss.