Very few filmmakers have the ability to shock an audience quite like the master of that emotion, Takashi Miike.
That’s exactly what was given to attendees at this year’s SXSW Film Festival, although in a much different way than viewers of his films are used to. The director has returned to the film world with his latest piece, the shogun action thriller 13 Assassins. Arguably his most action filled film since Ichi The Killer, Miike is not only one of the film world’s most beloved foreign names, but he’s also one that doesn’t like to stick to the same genre multiple times in a row.
And thank heavens he doesn’t, because 13 Assassins is a samurai action-er unlike anything we’ve seen in a very long time.
Seemingly inspired by tales like Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, 13 Assassins follows the story of Shogun official Sir Doi, who after his Lord’s recent streak of cold blooded murders, calls on legendary samurai Shinzaemon Shimada to take him out. Teaming with a small group of samurais, the team takes on the mission, and from there on, we are given one of the most action packed, albeit schizophrenically paced, films in quite some time.
When talking about 13 Assassins, one must discuss the film as it is, two wholly separate entities. Both are brilliantly crafted by director Miike, but are ultimately tonally and atmospherically polar opposites. Opening with roughly two acts worth of stunningly dense mythology, fans of Kurosawa style samurai films will be right at home with this opening. Introducing us to each player with a wholly original sense of style, the film is both inspired and inspired by, giving us obvious shout outs to classics in the genre, while also featuring a dark and darkly comedic style wholly Miike’s. Not shy on visual flare, Miike doesn’t shy away from giving us beautiful brutality, particularly when showing us just how vicious the film’s villain truly is.
However, when paired with a balls-to-the-wall final act, the film may be engaging, but it’s ultimately far too incoherent tonally to truly work. The final act is fantastic visually, proving that while he’s not known for it, Miike is a really gifted action director. However, feeling a bit overlong, the ending doesn’t quite know what it wants to be, or where it wants to go. In and of itself mixing realism and surrealism, the final act is tonally all over the place, and doesn’t quite have the geography in either time or action that one would expect from an otherwise extensively detailed film and world. Also, clocking in at two hours and twenty two minutes, the film itself as a whole is far too long, and could have used a bit of a trim.
Acting wise, the film really shines. Featuring top level performances from the likes of Koji Yakusho, Takayuki Yamada, Yusuke Iseya, Goro Inagaki, Masachika Ichimura, Mikijiro Hira, and the fellow members of the 13, the film is a really fantastic actor’s showcase in an otherwise action heavy film. The film’s biggest stars are the threesome of Goro, Koji and Yusuke, with Goro being the film’s brightest light. He’s so darkly vicious as the evil Naritsugu, that it’s both a really jarring and disturbing performance, but also one that adds an interesting comedic level in an absolutely pitch black way. Really, the cast as a whole give knockout performances all around.
The opening two acts truly stand out as the most stimulating both narratively and intellectually, and these performances are to be given the full credit. It’s a stunningly poetic opening hour/hour and a half, and is really the film’s strongest aspect. That said, with a final hour that literally does not stop, fans of pure adrenaline and pure action, will have more than enough to chew on. Seemingly inspired by films throughout the genre, 13 Assassins is a really interesting combination of moods and styles ranging from the meditative nature of Kurosawa to the insanity and political depth as the films of Oshima. While the film’s themes ultimately become too close to the foreground come the film’s conclusion, it says a lot of interesting and compelling things from the first frame to the last.
As a whole, 13 Assassins is a deftly compelling, madly absurd and intellectually stimulating film drawing on inspiration from throughout the film world, that ultimately undoes itself by a poor and schizophrenic sense of style and pacing. Featuring great performances, Assassins is a masterful action film, despite flaws rooted at its very core. If you can stand the rather silly length, this is a truly rewarding film, and a welcome addition to the samurai genre. Not for everyone, this may not be the best film around, but it’s really unlike anything you’ll see anywhere else.