13 Assassins, the latest film by Japanese master of gore and suspense Takashi Miike, is a tale of duty and honour, and what happens when those laudable virtues are used to excuse vile deeds and prop up a corrupt and dying system.
Set in the 1840s, at the end of the Shogunate age, 13 Assassins tells the story of Shinzaemon, a trusted and wily old samurai, who is given the task of assassinating a high official in the state senate. Lord Naritsugu is the brother of the Shogun, and untouchable in the eyes of the law. He is also a sadistic psychopath. He cripples and mutes a servant girl for daring to fight back while he raped her – an act that sparks an unofficial assassination attempt.
Shinzaemon is handed a black bag operation. The closest I can come to a modern explanation is if Prince Harry suddenly started gleefully raping and murdering his way around the country, and the only way to stop him was by secret, and officially deniable, extreme sanction.
Duty and honour are the driving force of the film, and the curse of the society in which it is set. Everyone is sworn to protect Naritsugu, no matter what the cost. He uses and disposes of those he considers to be beneath him (as noted above, that’s more or less everyone) with as little thought as we would end the life of a fly. He is utterly amoral, and roused to violence at a single misplaced word or presumed insult. Always dressed in white (the Japanese colour of death, don’t forget) Gorô Inagaki plays Naritsugu as a blank-faced automaton, an inhuman monster. He is utterly convinced that his status gives him the right to do anything he wants, and chooses to exercise that right without a second thought. Slights to his honour are met with merciless brutality. No-one can lift a finger to stop him without endangering their own honour, failing to do their duty. Either way means death.
13 Assassins is both an unflinching satire and a loving tribute to the samurai films of the past. A remake of the 1963 film of the same name, and based on a true story, it takes many of the tropes and cliches of the jidaigeki genre and subtly subverts them. The language is naturalistic, the violence brutal yet believable, with none of the hosepiping of blood from sword hits. There’s little CGI (or at least little that’s obvious) and Miike uses film stocks and techniques that reminded me of the great widescreen Technicolour Westerns that have so freely cribbed from the genre. No stylised Chinese-style landscapes here – 13 Assassins feels real, grounded in its period and setting.
Miike also skewers the idea that the high-ranking members of society are always heroic – or at least on the side of good. Naritsugu is the villain of the piece, but Miike also makes the point that the system in which a monster like him can be allowed to flourish is equally to blame for his excesses. Honour and duty stand in the way of justice. The corrupt, wicked but powerful cannot be directly punished – in fact they must be protected at all costs. Failure to do so is tacit admission that the ruling principles of the state are at fault. Shinzaemon is given the funds and the permission to do what he must to ensure that Naritsugu falls – but he must work outside the system to accomplish that aim.
All of this makes 13 Assassins sound a bit dry, an airless political intrigue in nice costumes. It’s not. It’s fast-moving, uncompromisingly violent, sharply told, acted and directed. Kôji Yakusho plays the head assassin Shinzaemon with the perfect degree of gravitas, every inch a man that you could trust to lead you through hell. The final 45 minutes of the film, in which Shinzaemon springs his traps in a town that he has turned into a death trap, are a tour-de-force of action cinema. Gritty, bold, and breath-taking, a puzzle box full of vicious surprises, you won’t see a better battle scene this year.
13 Assassins works on every level. As a satire, it’s sharp and on point, yet still respectful to it’s sources. As social and historical commentary, it’s open, inclusive, and insightful. I left feeling that I knew more about the end of the Shogun era than when I walked in.
As a samurai movie, it’s damn near flawless. It’s full of moments that will make your jaw drop and the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end. A remarkable achievement, and one that I can heartily recommend if you’re not squeamish. Raw and brutal, yet lyrical and thoughtful. An action film for grown-ups. At last.