By Andrew Hamlin
Northwest Asian Weekly
“13 Assassins,” the new historical samurai epic from notable Japanese director Takashi Miike, opens with a samurai warrior committing hara-kiri, or ritual suicide. It is a grisly undertaking reserved for warriors who have either spectacularly failed or shamed themselves in some way.
Oddly enough for a Miike film, the specifics of this scene are not shown, only the samurai’s face as he gasps his final breaths. This is an early sign that “13 Assassins” will actually be a restrained movie, relative to the buckets of gore Miike usually employs onscreen.
As the film progresses, we learn of the dead samurai’s connections to a wicked warlord, Lord Naritsugu (played by Goro Inagaki). A younger brother of the ruling Shogun, Naritsugu cannot be stopped by any legal means. His horrible acts, both in public and behind closed doors, result in death, ruination of families, and shame that brings on hara-kiri.
A secret band of samurai assassins, led by Shinzaemon (Kôji Yakusho), assembles to stop Naritsugu in his tracks. That’s not an easy job. The lord always travels with a small army of trained bodyguards. The assassins will have to train hard and carefully plan where and when to strike.
This wouldn’t be a Miike film without a lot of violence, so “13 Assassins” duly delivers plenty of stylish swordsmanship and running blood. But it spares the viewer the excessive gushes of gore, which turn some people off to Miike’s work. For a pleasant surprise, the film actually makes the swordsmen’s personalities, and interactions, as interesting as the kinetic action.
Kôji Yakusho has long been regarded as one of the finest Japanese actors of his era. He’s like the country’s answer to Robert de Niro. In “13 Assassins,” he infuses Shinzaemon with a soft side, gentle wit, and sad laugh. The warrior knows he must undertake an extremely dangerous mission, but he leads the others with wisdom and restraint.
Hirayama (Tsuyoshi Ihara), who studied under Shinzaemon, stays fiercely loyal to his master. He’s gone out into the world, worked as a ronin (a sword-for-hire), but has always longed for a serious mission at Shinzaemon’s side. The campaign against Naritsugu will test his fighting skills and his dashing, sleek sense of confidence.
A third crucial member of the team is Sahara (Arata Furuta). A distinctive samurai, he prefers a long spear to the usual samurai sword. He also has a cynical sense of humor.
As an older samurai, Sahara bears the scars and the hardened skin of one who’s seen intense combat and come through it by skills and wits. This inspires admiration and envy amongst the younger samurai, many of whom have never seen an actual battle and have wondered if they ever will.
A narrative with 13 heroes against a single villain could easily become confusing. It’s a testimony to Miike’s skill that we almost always know who’s talking to whom and about what. The human factor is never far from the surface in “13 Assassins.” Its final epic blood-streaked battle sequence feels like a logical conclusion to the plans and the passion of every character involved. ♦
“13 Assassins” opens Friday, May 20, at Seattle’s Varsity Theatre, 4329 University Way N.E. in Seattle’s University District. Call 206.781.5755 for prices and show times.
Andrew Hamlin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.