Hannibal Lecter is the perfect example of a sociopath — a man who can think up and carry out unspeakable horrors without so much as batting an eyelash. Lord Naritsugu Matsudaira, in 13 Assassins, is the perfect example of a sociopath with unlimited power and influence. He rapes, mutilates and murders with impunity. Even more callous and frightening — he does it all while looking at the friends and family of his victims with an ear to ear smile on his face.
Realizing the greater good (i.e., a samurai should protect the people from injustice and not mindlessly serve his master), Sir Doi (Mikijiro Hira) enlists fellow samurai, Shinzaemon (Kôji Yakusho) to assassinate Lord Matsudaira (Gorô Inagaki) before any additional harm befalls the people of the land. A feat such as that is obviously easier said than done — Naritsugu is guarded by several hundred samurai led by the fabled swordsman Hanbei Kitou (Masachika Ichimura). To gain the advantage, Shinzaemon recruits fellow ronin (hence the title of the movie) and sets forth planning an elaborate trap.
Now for those of you aching for a dazzling display of swordplay, you’ll have to wait for more than half of the movie to transpire before the going gets good (and by good, I don’t necessarily mean skilled or well choreographed). Director Takashi Miike (who has directed more movies than I can count) takes 75 minutes or so to do introductions of the individuals that comprise the “suicide squad” and to lay down the foundation for the viewers to understand the feudal Japanese society 13 Assassins takes place in. The political yarn is rather interesting — samurai live by a strict code (known as BushidÅ) and to break it weighs heavily on their mind — and the manner in which it is explained definitely helps in connecting the viewer with the samurai on both sides of the battle lines. The introductions, on the other hand, well they’re more confusing than anything else. A name and mini back story for each is presented so quickly that there really was no way to differentiate one from the other (especially once the bloodshed begins).
Ah, now to the bloodshed and dismemberment. Hundreds of sword wielding warriors versus 13. As you can expect with these odds, there has to be some amount of belief suspension employed (although had the assassins continued to shower the battlefield with arrows, belief wouldn’t have had to be suspended quite so much). But hey, it’s all about the whirlwind of chaos — the formal sword craft versus an untrained tidal onslaught; the painting of streets with rivers of blood — and if the enemy was taken down via arrows there would be none of it. Miike uses a wide array of camera techniques to capture the action — close-ups to focus in on the intensity, wide lensed shots for some of the larger, crazier action set scenes and handheld shaky cam for the up close and personal fighting. Unfortunately, neither of the latter two methods can hide the sword swing that misses its mark by a country mile (yet the assaulted flop to the ground in death throes) or the “lazy circle” in which the mob encircles the hero and attacks one at a time instead of en masse.
Nonetheless, the action in these 30 minutes or so gets the heart pumping and is a lot of fun to watch unfold. And the epiphany one of these battle weary warriors has during the climax was an unexpected poignant moment that was a cherry topping to the carnage’s sundae.
It’s clear Takashi Miike wanted 13 Assassins to ascend to something greater than a basic slash ’em up samurai flick — the time spent on developing the story arc and characters proves that. The end result, however, is no Seven Samurai; 13 Assassins is a mostly forgettable, muddled slash ’em up samurai flick that just so happens to have a fantastically memorable madman at its core.