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UPDATE: The site “Basement Jockey’s” is no longer in existence. Below is a reproduction of my original 13 Assassins review.
For a movie so captivating and elegant, the plot of Takashi Miike’s 13 Assassins is straightforward. The story takes place in feudal Japan, during an age of peace under Shogun rule. But amidst the tranquility, a sociopathic Lord by the name of Naritsugo threatens to ruin it all when his half brother, the Shogun, decides to give him a position of political power. Sir Doi, the chief adviser to the Shogun, knows that appointing Naritsugo to a place of such power will only lead to war. Being unable to openly defy the Shogun, Sir Doi secretly recruits samurai Shinzaemon Shimada to assassinate Naritsugo while he’s in transit to take his new position. To accomplish this mission, Shinzaemon recruits twelve other men to help him take down Naritsugo and his escort of 200 men—including Naritsugo’s head samurai and Shinzaemon’s old training buddy, Hanbei Kitou.
While there is much to be admired in 13 Assassins, I’d like to focus on the characters. In a movie like this, character is easy to ignore or force into a template. But Miike establishes characters to make them diverse, unique, and convincing in a relatively short amount of time. The way they act and present themselves allows us to know who these people are without long introductions, and gives us an idea of how they’ll react in certain situations without being told. Each of them has their own distinguishing quirks. While they also all have their own personal reasons for joining this suicidal mission (love of gambling, a desire to prove oneself, etc), the uniting motivation shared by the assassins is not wholly expected. While everyone is willing to do what’s right (killing a depraved psychopath before he can drive the country into ruin), they are also eager for the opportunity to die as warriors, for a noble cause; an opportunity which a samurai in an age of peace doesn’t often get. Shinzaemon even says, when presented with the mission, that he’d been praying for such a chance. Miike establishes that it is this mentality that separates our thirteen assassins from the fakes. It is also this mentality which makes this suicidal mission even more sympathetic to a modern audience. These are not people who think they’re going to survive, nor is that their goal, which makes them that much more heroic.
Every character is motivated by personal morals and philosophies. Sir Doi, who’s a relatively small character, comes across as tortured by his semi-betrayal of the Shogun, but also by his inability to put a knife in Naritsugo himself. Hanbei is especially tortured, as he knows his master is a sadist who will only bring pain to the nation, but his duty as samurai forbids him from defying or questioning his master. Even Naritsugo is convincing. This is a guy who murders a five-year-old boy’s family in front of him before shooting an arrow through this boy’s heart—this is a guy who cuts the limbs off a woman, before he uses her as a sex toy. Yet Naritsugo has his own moral philosophy which makes all of this not only okay, but righteous in his own eyes. His conviction, and the creepily sound logic of his reasoning, makes him an even more frightening antagonist—because he’s that much more real to the audience. It makes the mission for his death—something that would otherwise seem barbaric—not only necessary but noble.
Whether you want excellent performances, stunning visuals, an engrossing story, or a kick-ass action sequence that lasts forty-five minutes, Miike’s 13 Assassins is a must-see.