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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs. Pick of the Week: New. 13 Assassins


“13 Assassins” (Three and a Half Stars)

Japan: Takashi Miike, 2010 (Magnolia)


13 Assassins. The sons of the Seven Samurai?

In an abandoned mountain village that they have turned into a huge, ingenious booby trap, 13 samurai, or free-lance fighters, assembled by an idealistic master warrior, await their enemy: 200 heavily armed crack soldiers of the emperor. The 13, assembled hastily, full of spirit and courage, are led by Shinzaemon Shimada (Koji Yakusho), a brilliant and spiritually noble samurai so disgusted at the bloody excesses of the current Shogunate that he has abandoned his old masters, and plans to send the very worst of them to Hell.

The 200 guards trying to stop him are among the nation’s finest soldiers, and they are gurding one of the most purely evil villains any recent movie haves given us: an insane young rich-boy degenerate murderer named Lord Naritsugu Matsudaira (played by Japanese rock star Goro Inagaki). Half brother of the stupidly tolerant Shogun, who wants to promote this maniac even higher, Lord Naritsugu not only rapes and kills and chops people up, wantonly, at will, for his own amusement, but is offended at the idea that his right to rape and kill is disputed by anybody, especially the lower classes and any people inferior to his station — which, to Naritsugu, means almost everybody.

13 Assassins, directed by Takashi Miike, is a samurai battle movie deluxe. It has moody landscapes, blistering action, and a great cast, especially Yakusho as the brave, just warrior Shinzaemon, Masachika Ichimura as Shinzaemon’s old friend and Shogunate counterpart Hanbei, and pretty-boy rocker Inagaki as the homicidal madman heir Naritsugu. These three carry the bulk of the drama and they’re more than a match for everything imagined by the director, the celebrated cine-rebel Miike and his screenwriter Daisuke Tengan (director Shohei Imamura‘s son). Or anything borrowed from their source: director Eiichi Kudo‘s 1963 black-and white Thirteen Assassins, scripted by Kaneo Ikegami.

So we will eventually come to the midway point described above, before the last bloody act: waiting for the battle, as are the 13 new assassins, as are the 200 government soldiers. By now, we hate Naritsugu so much, and are so partial to the 13 — including the clownish Koyata (Yosuke Iseya), whose part suggests a bit of Toshiro Mifune’s hell-raiser in Kurosawa’s Samurai — that we are expecting something amazing. We will not be disappointed.

The final battle of 13 Assassins will last about 45 minutes — not so long as the incredible hour long Battle of Borodino in Sergei Bondarchuk‘s complete 8½ hour Russian War and Peace (the grandest of all movie battle sequences), but unusually long. Not executed with as great a mastery as the climactic fight in the rain in Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece Seven Samurai, the obvious inspiration for a lot of this movie — but still a blow-away of a sequence. Miike‘s battle is gripping, utterly engrossing, and so thrilling that Naritsugu himself starts raving about it while standing in the middle of the carnage toward the end. That’s partly because we’ve spent so much time with all the characters, learning who they are, and what the stakes are, that every sword-slash carries some throb of meaning and feeling.

The movie 13 Assassins may lack the outlandishly elaborate special effects of most of the movie battles we see these days (in Transformers: Dark of the Moon, for example) but its better: as full of character, drama, plot twists and wild humor as it is of spectacular action and scary bloodshed, holding us in thrall for the entire 45 minutes, and all the setup time before, in scenes charged with drama and emotion. Drama. Emotion. That was Kurosawa’s secret, and Ford’s, and Leone’s, and Hawks’ — and Miike’s as well. This is what adventure and action cinema are all about — or should be.

If you love Seven Samurai — and it’s one of my all time favorite films — you have to be happy or pleased, or at least intrigued, that it’s become the model and impetus for another ambitious Japanese samurai adventure film. You have to be pleased, at least a little, that Takashi Miike, Japan’s reigning New Wave-ish master of offbeat genre movies, has decided to remake a movie, the 1963 Thirteen Assassins, which is so obviously inspired by Seven Samurai and its brethren. And it’s better, in a way, that he chose not to do an actual remake, like the John Sturges-Yul Brynner-Steve McQueen-Elmer Bernstein and Leone-Eastwood Western remakes of Seven Samurai and Yojimbo, as The Magnificent Seven and A Fistful of Dollars.

It’s better that this movie instead is simply in the mood, or the spirit, or with a plot close to Seven Samurai, because otherwise we would have probably kept complaining that Miike wasn‘t up to the original — as if we could have expected it.


Here, with this material, the often perverse and deliberately shocking Miike shows how classical he can be, when he feels like it. The sometimes off-the-wall genre-bending artist who made Audition and Ichi the Killer and Full Metal Yakuza and dozens of other — obviously knows just as well who Akira Kurosawa and Masaki Kobayashi and Hiroshi Inagaki all are, and he shows us.

If you’re expecting too much the old Miike, the helmsman of zombies, vampires, juvenile delinquents and mad gangsters, be advised that this movie resembles very little he‘s done before, at least that I’ve seen, in his staggeringly prolific and often madly audacious career — though I wouldn’t be unhappy if he continued in this vein, for a while at least. There should be plenty of opportunities. Miike averages several movies a year — making almost 50 so far, in his 20-year career — and though they’re of many types, they’re usually violent.

One loves this kind of movie, done well, because it makes you feel. Strongly. One despises Naritsugu right from his first scene, when he demonstrates a bloodthirsty sadism and disregard for life that should shock even the most jaded Miike-watcher, because he also makes us feel, and react, and rage inside. And one loves the samurai, as we love all good samurai — especially when they’re so horribly outnumbered, so staunchly determined and faced with such appalling evil — because they will fight, we know, to the end.

13 Assassins. The sons of Seven Samurai. A wind blows through the village. The horses whinny and stir. Arrows. Swords. Rifles. Ready. It begins….  (In Japanese, with English subtitles.)

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I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

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~ David Simon