10 May 2011

13 ASSASSINS- Review

It was announced last week that the director of The Tournament, Scott Mann, who hails from my hometown, has signed up to direct a modern remake of Seven Samurai. Yeah, that Seven Samurai. It's not to say it won't turn out perfectly fine, but it's difficult to discount that we've already had The Magnificent Seven and even A Bug's Life, as well as a period piece set in Japan that owes a debt to Kurosawa's original, 13 Assassins.

Young Lord Naritsugu enjoys a position of privilege above practically everyone else, because he is the younger brother of the Shogun, and so his life is sacred. Unfortunately, he's also a sadistic monster who murders and destroys at will. As the age of the samurai is on the way out, an old samurai named Shinzaemon is hired to assassinate Naritsugu. He discreetly recruits 12 more assassins to his suicide mission and prepare for a confrontation.

The version of 13 Assassins now playing in UK cinemas is 126 minutes long, and it's comprised of one part historical politics and one part balls-to-the-wall, headsploding, sword-slicing mayhem. Seasoned director Takashi Miike has constructed what some are calling his masterpiece, and not without good reason. The plot, with all of its historical implications and faith to the political entanglements of feudal Japan, is deceptively simple. The first hour serves to develop the characters, and all else is a sustained battle sequence that is just awe-inspiring.

Although I maintain that the film owes a very clear debt to the formula of Seven Samurai, it's also a film that throws in a flaming stampede of cows to prefix its centrepiece action sequence. Just to repeat that- the cows are on fire. Samurai films may be nothing new, and this may repeat elements of previous outings, but it has cows on fire. Its surprisingly funny and always innovative moments of spectacle are what set it apart.

It's unfortunate that the titular assassins are less distinctive from one another. Seven Samurai has almost half as many protagonists and it's a much longer film, so it's far more difficult to fully characterise every single one of Shinzaemon's mates. Naturally, the eccentric loon, as played by Toshirô Mifune in Kurosawa's film and by Yûsuke Iseya in this one, stands out. The rest are less lucky, and it's easy to lose sight of who's dead and who's alive in the final melee. On the plus side, Kôji Yakusho makes Shinzaemon a well-rounded character, particularly in his stand-offs with the baddies.

Almost as if to compensate for the vagaries of all those protagonists, Shinzaemon has a conflicted friendship-cum-rivalry with Hanbei, a former samurai who works as an adviser to Naritsugu that's really quite transfixing. These two men strategise against one another with utterly opposed objectives, and it's their story that really comes to the fore. Gorô Inagaki must also be applauded for his deliciously villainous turn as Naritsugu, a villain you really can't wait to see getting his comeuppance. It only makes that extended climax sweeter.

Although you have more to go on from their motivation than you do from the characters of most of our titular 13 Assassins, Miike has made a triumphant tribute to the samurai epic. It is ludicrously enjoyable, inventively choreographed and just an all-around satisfying movie experience. More importantly, it's a film with all the trappings of a modern classic. For a director as prolific as Miike, that's something very special indeed.

13 Assassins is now playing in select cinemas nationwide. It will also be released on DVD and blu-ray on September 5th.
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If you've seen 13 Assassins, why not share your comments below?

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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