Samurai spectacular – 13 Assassins review

13 Assassins – Starring Kōji Yakusho and Gorô Inagaki. Directed by Takashi Miike. Rated MA. By Hilary Simmons.

Takashi Miike’s latest warlord period drama opens with a samurai warrior preparing to disembowel himself in a ritual act of hara-kiri. It’s significant Miike doesn’t show the knife going in – he must be growing up. He contents himself with gruesome sound effects and a slow pan over a sickening pool of blood as the dead man folds in on himself. This is, remember, new work from the director notorious for distributing vomit bags at the premiere of Ichi the Killer in 2001. Remade from a 1963 classic, 13 Assassins is more subdued and stylised than Miike’s previous work; deaths are often implied rather than fleshed out on screen in excruciating fetishistic detail.

Set at the end of Japan’s feudal era, 13 Assassins tells of a sadistic brother of the Shogun, Lord Naritsugu, and the sword-wielding fanatics who bring his tyranny to an end. Naritsugu is a truly nasty piece of work who cuts off women’s arms and legs and casually uses children for archery practice. Summoned by the Shogun to dispatch this psychopathic Lord before his bloodlust ruins the country, seasoned samurai warrior Shinzaemon Shimada (Kōji Yakusho) sets about recruiting a band of master swordsmen to help assassinate him. No prizes for guessing how many assassins there are.

This film assumes you know a fair bit about Japanese history, and delves deeply into the samurai moral code of honour unto death. Given that it is a niche genre, the sacrificial values of the samurais and their sense of “noblesse oblige” may only be convincing to those who are really, really passionate about samurai ideology. That said, I’m not one of them, yet I did find the beautifully crafted battle scenes compelling; not to mention the slick portrayal of the sociopathic Naritsugu as a universal symbol of psychotic evil.

13 Assassins is an elaborate ballet of brutality that is based on actual historical facts and legends, but ultimately, its strengths are also its weak points. Unless you are a knowledgeable, hardcore fan of the genre, you may find its demands on your credulity just a little bit over the top.


13 Assassins arrives on DVD and Blu-ray in Australia January 11, 2012.

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