The Japanese created their own unique war movie subgenre when they invented the samurai film. Although many of these movies have been made, most Westerners are only familiar with one - “Seven Samurai”. For many war movie fans, it may be the only subtitled movie they have seen. Before I got serious about reviewing war movies, it was the only foreign war movie I had seen. It took me a while to see a better samurai film, but now I have seen “13 Assassins”. This 2010 release attempts to bring the samurai film into the 21st Century. In fact, it is a remake of an Old School 1963 movie. It was directed by Takashi Mike. He is known for graphic violence. You can see it on Netflix streaming.
The movie is set in feudal Japan in 1844. This was the Edo Period and toward the end of the Tokugawa Shogunate. The shogun’s younger brother is a sadistic psychopath who could hasten the end of the shogunate. The movie opens with a sepukku by a noble to protest mistreatment by the supervillain Matsudaira Naritsugu (Goro Inagaki). A flashback depicts the mistreatment as the rape of his daughter-in-law and murder of his son by Naritsugu. Sir Doi, the shogun’s adviser, visits an old samurai acquaintance named Shimada Shinzaemon (Koji Yakusho). Shimada is in retirement, but dreams of a samurai-worthy death. Doi has a proposal that will allow him to go out in glory. But Shimada is no ronin, he has a conscience and decides to sign on to Doi’s scheme when Doi introduces him to a limbless and tongueless woman who would like to be avenged. This scene will stick with you, as will the next one where Naritsugu kills a family. Supervillain established. Shimada gathers his dozen samurai that run the gamut of samurai stereotypes, except that this being the 21st Century, we get two that are explosives experts. The thirteenth assassin is a hunter they rescue in the woods who comes along as their guide. He’s also along to provide comic relief. The plan is to ambush Naritsugu and his private army at a village that they will fortify and boobytrap. We are headed for “who will survive?” territory.
This one takes the samurai template and updates it. Although it is not a remake of “Seven Samurai”, it does have similar characters. There is the leading duo of veterans, the nutcase (Kiga is the equivalent of Mishune’s Kikuchiyo), the master swordsman, the youngster, etc. More is better, so we get almost twice as many samurai. That way we can have more deaths and a longer fight scene. Unfortunately, more means less character development. Some of the thirteen are indistinct. The big improvement is the villain. Naritsugu is so hate-worthy that any other ending would have led to riots in the theater. Inagaki’s portrayal is in the slime-ball hall of fame. The rest of the cast is up to the action. The acting is first-rate even though it doesn’t need to be. Acting can’t overshadow the incredible kick-ass melee that takes up the last quarter of the movie. Everything, including the kitchen sink, shows up in that scene. Check out the burning cows! You’ll be sated by the end of the flick. Surprisingly, the action is gory, but not too graphic. Mike must have listened to his critics.
“13 Assassins” updates the “Seven Samurai” plot as well. The thirteen are not defending the village, they are using it for a higher purpose. The purpose is to keep a madman off the throne. At one point, in the middle of the melee, Naritsugu remarks that he wants to bring back warfare like this. Set in feudal Japan, the film is interested in commenting on the blind loyalty to one’s lord that the period was noted for. One of the most intriguing characters is Naritsugu’s top retainer Hanbei. Hanbei knows his master is evil, but he insists on remaining loyal. He also is an old rival of Shimada, so you can see where this is heading, climax-wise.
“13 Assassins” is an amazing movie. If you loved “Seven Samurai”, you’ll love this movie. In fact, it will sound like blasphemy, but it is superior to that earlier classic. (Heck, I think “The Magnificent Seven” is better – how’s that for heresy?) I don’t fawn over the classics, although I love the Kurosawa epic. It is possible for modern movies to top Old School movies. It’s safe to say, it is more in tune to modern audiences than the earlier film is.
GRADE = A