It is the feudal age in Japan, and the age of the samurai is in its twilight. The shogun has consolidated power among the lands and dominant houses, and the fledgling nation is establishing order. This means the need for swords-for-hire and retainers is on the decline. There are few true samurai left, and most of them just sit around thinking about the good old days.
This is not the plot of the 13 Assassins, but the setting. It is this – the time and place, the mindset of the people, and the attitude towards honor and death – that makes the movie interesting.
The story isn’t bad either. Lord Naritsugu is a man of unfathomable cruelty, who rapes, murders, and mutilates with impunity. He is the son of a former shogun, and the brother of the current shogun, so he can do what he wants and no one can stop him. A senior official has had enough, and cuts a shadowy deal with an old and honorable swordsman named Shinzaemon – take a secret mission to kill Naritsugu before he can do any more damage to the people of Japan.
This is without question my favorite scene in the film – when given this task, obviously a suicide mission doomed to fail, Shinzaemon starts to tremble and nervously giggle. He is happy almost to the point of tears to be able to die in battle. Due to it being peacetime, he thought he would end up dying a “dog’s death” (i.e. natural causes), and now he has a chance to die like a samurai.
The movie itself is simple – Shinzaemon assembles a team of warriors and sets out to kill the evil Lord. He has 12 men, and the Lord has over 200. Shinzaemon uses his cunning to transform a small town into a fortified maze of deathtraps, and then, as they say, IT’S ON.
13 Assassins is part historical epic, part bloodbath action movie. The beauty of it is how it marries these two aspects into one slick, entertaining movie. The costumes, set design, and overall style of the movie is top notch (with the exception of one scene involving bulls set on fire – the weak CGI effects make it ‘top botch’). Director Takashe Miike has really grown as a filmmaker, and this is his epic.
The action is excellent, with all the sword fighting any die-hard action fan could want. The entire last hour of the film is one prolonged battle, and its enthralling. But what really makes the movie captivating is how it presents the mind of the samurai. Men who are not eager to die, but who embrace it as a part of their code – they live by the sword, and they all really really hope to die by the sword, as well. This sets the movie apart and makes it memorable.
Overall, 13 Assassins is an almost-great film, that I would highly recommend to anyone who doesn’t have a phobia of subtitles or a weak stomach when it comes to dudes committing seppuku. (Savor it, people – that’s the best seppuku related pun you will see all week).