Thirteen Assassins 十三人の刺客
Costume martial arts
2010, colour, 2.35:1, 142 mins (original version)/125 mins (international version)
Directed by Miike Takashi (三池崇史)
By Derek Elley
Thu, 21 October 2010, 00:34 AM (HKT)
Engrossing samurais-on-a-mission epic, with director Miike Takashi blending eastern and western genres. Beyond festivals, some theatrical potential in the West.
1844, late Edo period, Japan. On 4 March, Mamiya Tosho (Uchino Masaaki), a nobleman in the Asaki domain, commits seppuku in front of the house of top shogunate official Lord Doi (Mikijiro Hira) as a protest against the sadism and cruelty of Lord Matsudaira Naritsugu (Inagaki Goro), the adopted son of the Shogun. Afraid that the peace and stability of the realm are threatened by Matsudaira's vicious acts - especially as he is soon to become a power at court - Doi recruits aging samurai Shimada Shinzaemon (Yakusho Koji) to quietly put together a crack team of fighters to eliminate Matsudaira when he makes his annual journey from the capital, Edo, to his Asaki domain the following month. The assassination must take place before Matsudaira reaches the safety of his home domain, and Shimada decides to ambush him and his troops in the village of Ochiai, with the Makino clan (one of whose women was horribly dismembered by Matsudaira) diverting him there. Shimada recruits his dissolute nephew Shinrokuro (Yamada Takayuki) and 10 other samurai and ronin in the potentially suicide mission. They are joined en route by Koyata Kiga (Iseya Yusuke), a wild hunter who guides them when they get lost in the forest and is always up for a good fight. Meanwhile, however, Matsudaira's head samurai Kito Hanbei (Ichimura Masachika), has got wind of the secret mission, and knows Shimada well from when they were sparring partners in the same dojo years ago.
The maverick MIIKE Takashi 三池崇史 has waited a long time — some 80 movies and 20 years — to make his first, fully-fledged samurai movie, but it's been more than worth the wait. In his many yakuza pictures, and others like time-travel samurai film Izo 以蔵 (2004) and sushi western Sukiyaki Western Django スキヤキ・ウエスタン ジャンゴ (2007), he's been pacing around the perimeter of the dojo, almost afraid to enter till the time was right and most of the bugs were out of his system. The fact that he finally chose to remake a well-regarded movie (KUDO Eiichi 工藤栄一's The Thirteen Assassins 十三人の刺客 (1963), little known outside Japan), which was itself from a novel inspired by a real-life incident, shows him taking out a major insurance policy against screwing up, with a structure already in place. Miike adheres pretty closely to the framework of Kudo's film, opening with an act of seppuku, then showing the recruitment and planning of the operation, and devoting most of the second half to the final battle.
It's a tried and trusted formula familiar from Seven Samurai 七人の侍 (1954) — whose realistic, mud-spattered look Miike replicates in widescreen and grungy colour — to The Dirty Dozen, whose rough humour is similar to that of his own films. Thirteen Assassins 十三人の刺客 (2010) is not so much Miike discarding his maverick, unpredictable side and finally "settling down"; it's more him showing respect for a homegrown genre and also showing (if more proof were needed) that he's a true chameleon, journeyman filmmaker.
Underneath its deceptively "classical" surface, there's plenty going on that would fit into a more typical Miike movie. The sadistic excesses of Lord Matsudaira — underplayed with a cool sense of anarchic evil by SMAP member INAGAKI Goro 稲垣吾郎 (University of Laughs 笑の大学 (2004)) — are shown briefly but horrifically, with the scrawled message of a female amputee becoming the 13 assassins' banner of righteousness. And though KITA Nobuyasu 北信康's cinematography is often classically composed in the first half, the lighting goes out of its way to be as naturalistic as possible, with murky and underlit interiors a far cry from the bright halls of classic costume dramas. Finally, just when it seems that Miike has deliberately downplayed the gore in favour of lots of grunting and screaming and the swish of slashing swords, he hits the viewer between the eyes in the final moments with some highly visceral violence.
The same can be said for the performances, which humanise the characters in small, effective ways not found in regular samurai movies. KUROSAWA Kiyoshi 黒沢清 regular YAKUSHO Koji 役所広司 (Cure ＣＵＲＥ (1997)) — now looking comfortably full-faced in his mid-50s — makes Shimada into an almost avuncular figure, a believable "samurai in an era of peace" who's been looking for a place to quietly die but instead takes on an almost suicidal mission for the good of the realm. Yakusho's performance grounds the whole film, and provides a strong-and-silent tentpole for the others to mill around: YAMADA Takayuki 山田孝之 as Shimada's dissolute nephew, ISEYA Yusuke 伊勢谷友介's priapic forest hunter (who provides some refreshing knockabout comedy), IHARA Tsuyoshi 伊原剛志's young ronin who wants to join the mission, and FURUTA Arata 古田新太's ageing ronin who cheekily asks for money upfront for his family. These are characters who would also fit easily into Hollywood westerns or "mission" movies and, thanks to the clean direction and screenplay, have an individuality from the very start that pays off emotionally when the fighting gets going.
Like the cinematography, both production and costume design go for a realistic look without overdoing the mud under the fingernails. What is disappointing is that there's no sense of geography to the booby-trapped town in which the last stand takes place: fighting is shot at close quarters with a narrow depth of field, which tends to isolate each character rather than place them within a rousing battle taking place on many fronts. The reason may be that Miike wanted to keep his powder dry for the final, most important confrontation — between Shimada, his old sparring partner Kito Hanbei (wiley played by ICHIMURA Masachika 市村正親) and super-villain Matsudaira. The surprising face-off between Shimada and Matsudaira is one of the final delights of a movie that hardly puts a foot wrong.
It's a major shame that a decision was taken to make an "international version" that is 17 minutes shorter. This version, which omits an eve-of-battle bordello sequence that provides some sexual relief from the movie's thoroughgoing male-ness, premiered at the Venice Film Festival and is being sold in the West. The complete version (reviewed here, and shown at the Pusan festival) easily sustains its length on the big screen and should be any buyer's version of choice.
ContactSales: HanWay Films, London (email@example.com)
Premiere: Venice Film Festival (Competition), 9 Sep 2010 (international version). Theatrical release: Japan, 25 Sep 2010 (original version).
Presented by The Thirteen Assassins Film Partners (JP/UK). Produced by Sedic International (JP), Recorded Picture (UK), TV Asahi Movie (JP), in association with Toho, Dentsu, Sedic Deux, Rakueisha. Executive producers: Nakazawa Toshiaki, Jeremy Thomas, Hirajo Takashi. Producers: Umezawa Michihiko, Ichikawa Minami, Shiraishi Toichiro, Ohno Takahiro, Yoshida Hirotsugu, Ujo Masaaki.
Script: Tengen Daisuke. Novel: Ikemiya Shoichiro. Original film: The Thirteen Assassins (dir. Kudo Eiichi, scr. Ikegami Kaneo, 1963). Photography: Kita Nobuyasu. Editing: Yamashita Kenji. Music: Endo Koji. Production design: Hayashida Yuji. Art direction: Sakamoto Akira, Kubota Osamu. Costume design: Sawataishi Kazuhiro. Sound: Nakamura Jun, Shibazaki Kenji. Action: Tsujii Keiji. Visual effects: Saka Misako.
Cast: Yakusho Koji (Shimada Shinzaemon), Yamada Takayuki (Shimada Shinrokuro, his nephew), Iseya Yusuke (Koyata Kiga, the forest hunter), Inagaki Goro (Lord Matsudaira Naritsugu), Sawamura Ikki (Mitsuhashi), Furuta Arata (Sahara, his ronin), Rokkaku Seiji (Otake), Namioka Kazuki (Ishizuka), Kondo Koen (Horii), Ishigaki Yuma (Higuchi), Ichimura Masachika (Kito Hanbei, head samurai to Matsudaira), Hira Mikijiro (Lord Doi), Takaoka Sosuke (Hioki), Kubota Masataka (Ogura), Ihara Tsuyoshi (Hirayama Kuzuro, the ronin), Matsukata Hiroki (Chief Inspector Kuranaga), Fukiishi Kazue (Tsuya, Shinrokuro's wife), Uchino Masaaki (Mamiya Tosho), Mitsuishi Ken (Asakawa), Abe Shinnosuke (Ideguchi), Kishibe Ittoku (Tokubei, mayor of Ochiai), Matsumoto Koshiro (Makino Yukie), Saito Takumi (his son), Tanimura Mitsuki (Makino Chiyo, the amputated woman), Yamazaki Tsutomu, Kato Meguru.