First off, I’d like to apologise to the audience of the Melbourne International Film Festival for bringing my cold and cough along with me to the second screening of 13 Assassins. Normally I wouldn’t subject other people to my colds, but I felt it was necessary under the circumstances. Although I wasn’t the only one coughing, I still feel bad for everyone that had to put up with it. Damn Melbourne winters.
13 Assassins begins with a man committing seppuku. He performs this act to bring attention to Lord Naritsugu, a somewhat vile and sadistic man. This will not be the only bloody death before this tale ends. It is quickly established that Naritsugu will one day soon achieve a higher ranking in the government of the time, and a group of individuals fear that this will only bring about more pain and suffering. A plan is hatched that will see Shinzaemon, a trusted elder samurai, along with a group of eleven other samurai and a hunter they pick up on their journey, with a job: killing Naritsugu during his ‘Long Journey Home’, a practice where those loyal to the emperor travel from their home to the capital or back again once a year. During this journey they can ambush him and his forces and just maybe pull off the impossible. Or die in the attempt.
The first act of this film establishes how vile Lord Naritsugu really is, as we are shown witness testimony that tells the tale of how he forced himself upon a man’s wife, while in the man’s home, and then killed him in front of his wife. Other shock testimony comes from a girl that has had each of her limbs amputated and her tongue cut out. We also witness directly the evil bastard using the tied-up family of the man that committed seppuku as archery practice. Takashi Miike really knows how to sell a character to his audience as a vile, twisted monster of the highest order. From there, we then get a slow build-up of tension: both sides know what the other is up to, and prepare for the coming epic forty-five minute battle that makes up the entire third act.
This probably isn’t going to be remembered as one of Miike’s great works like Audition. It follows a formula that audiences familiar with samurai films like Seven Samurai and even other action fare can probably see coming. What elevates this film above the genre is Miike’s own stamp of style, particularly in terms of the violence and cruelty from the vile Lord Naritsugu — even if it is toned-down compared some of his more outrageous previous work. Even when it is hitting the formulaic notes — like having a character who has never killed anyone before be horrified at the result of his first kill — it feels like a master craftsman working his magic, and the moment feels right, instead of it feeling like a tacked-on moment that a lesser filmmaker couldn’t pull off.
Speaking of characters, it should be noted that while there is development there for a large number of the thirteen, the Lord and his some of his bodyguard, it can be hard in the heat of the final battle to remember who is who, and whether or not they are getting their cathartic moment in the sun. Maybe in a repeat viewing I’ll be able to follow the characters through the chaos better.
I had a good time with 13 Assassins, and while it wasn’t my favourite film of the Melbourne International Film Festival, I firmly believe that it was worth leaving the house (despite my cold!) to go and see it in a sold-out theatre.
Also: don’t watch the trailer for the film. It spoils at least one surprise twist.