It’s a fascinating departure for such an irreverent stylist as Takashi Miike to go formalist with this old-school samurai/bushido tale. 13 Assassins has so many similarities to Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, right down to Yusuke Iseya’s hunter Koyata evoking Toshiro Mifune’s Kikuchio, that it feels like a re-imagining if not an outright remake. It’s almost as though Miike said to himself, “Only seven samurai, I’ll give them double that!” Yet, 13 Assassins is actually a remake of the previous 1963 film of the same name, Jûsan-nin no shikaku, directed by Eiichi Kudo.
The story is set in the waning days of the samurai, who represent a certain kind of honor, nobility, and loyalty. But many samurai are homeless and without masters, unable to even find a noble cause to take up. This degradation of the value system is best exemplified by the rise of the supremely evil Lord Naritsugu, using his station and privilege to do whatever he wants, including committing rape and murder at whim. After a wronged lord has his family destroyed by Naritsugu and publicy commits seppuku, government official Doi Toshitsura realizes the level of Naritsugu’s depravity, and the fact that he will only become more powerful as time goes on and his shogun family keeps him above the law. Toshitsura hires Shinzaemon, and older samurai looking for a last mission to be able to end his life serving in honor.
Shinzaemon and his nephew slowly assemble a group of ten more samurai, a ragtag bunch with some older and past their prime, and some younger but untested and without any real experience because of the changing times. Their journey to intercept Naritsugu takes them across the countryside, and they eventually settle on a remote village to stage an ambush. Along the way they pick up one more addition, hunter Kiga Koyata, who fights with rocks and slings. The village is converted into a convoluted deathtrap, and the final fight that takes place there is epic. The samurai have to fight 200 of Naritsugu’s troop, including his personal samurai Hanbei, an old acquaintance of Shinzaemon’s. Even though Hanbei may not agree with Naritsugu’s actions, he’s bound by the samurai code to continue fighting for him to his death. Despite the fact that 13 Assassins features some bloody, gory violence as well as some incredible action and set-pieces, it’s also rich with themes and subtext about living an honorable life by a moral code even when that code makes you a relative dinosaur in the face of a changing world. And though the film never violates its own time period to overtly make comparisons with our world today, there are certainly parallels one can draw to our contemporary society as its overrun by technology and we run the risk of losing much of a sense of personal responsibility and individual moral codes.
The cinematography of 13 Assassins is incredible. And the set design, featuring long takes of entire sections of the village being employed in various traps, is amazing as well. Miike also favors a lot of long takes that really highlight the fight choreography, which is also exquisite. Really every technical aspect of 13 Assassins is a marvel, and it’s supported by some amazing, subtle, and complex acting from an excellent ensemble led by Koji Yakuso as Shinzaemon. This is a film that really can stand head and shoulders next to the best of Kurosawa, and it does so in a way that’s very loyal to its historical time period and an appropriate film aesthetic, while taking advantage of contemporary advances in make-up and filming conventions. Yet those things are always in service of that older aesthetic; 13 Assassins does everything as practically as possible– you’re not going to see many special effects employed tweaking or cheating shots, or visually stylization. That’s part of what makes the final battle in the village such a masterpiece, and again it pays fitting tribute to Seven Samurai while probably even topping it. I really can’t say enough good things about 13 Assassins, and if there is any justice in the world, this is destined to become a timeless classic.