Review: 13 Assassins

Set in feudal Japan, where a shogun’s vindictive brother threatens to disrupt the peace of the land by raping and torturing women, and becoming a symbol of fear among the peasant community. Thirteen samurai unite to take down the effete psychopath, Lord Naritsugu Matsudaira (Inagaki Goro) in this new movie by Miike Takashi.

Director Miike Takashi is well known in Japan as the ‘bad boy’ of the Japanese film industry. With no less than 80 films under his belt from the last 20 years alone, his experience has helped with both stunning shots of Japan and disturbing scenes of violence and gore. However, the scenes where there is torture, are almost tastefully done, albeit quite shocking. One scene sees the mad Lord practicing with his bow and arrow, using a tied up peasant family as target practice, and that’s not even the worst part. As horrific as these scenes are, it’s the least to be expected from Takashi’s work. All relevant of course, the gruesome pictures of torture are used to explain the madness and terror of Lord Naritsugu Matsudaira, thus prompting the rebellion by the thirteen samurai. Simply put, he’s an evil man in a white kimono, with blood splatters.

It is quite difficult for a film to have abundance of main characters, and with the title being 13 Assassins; you would expect to know a little about each of the samurai. This is where the movie falls short somewhat, as the other samurai are overlooked, and very little is known about them. They play a key role in the rebellion, but from a stylistic perspective, they are used as the pawns, whilst the ‘main’ samurai have more of a back story (and live longer). Admittedly, 13 Assassins is heavily influenced by the classic 1950’s film The Seven Samurai (which subsequently had its own anime adaptation, Samurai 7). For a more modern version of a similar story, it does it some justice – the only problem being the lack of character exploration for over half of the samurai in 13 Assassins. Perhaps this was too much ambition to fit into a film that runs for a little under two hours.

Besides that, the film is gripping, and the epic 45 minute battle sequence at the end is nothing to be dreaded – it has got to be one of the most beautifully choreographed samurai battles in Japanese film history, and has you on the edge of your seat. Unlike some martial arts films, when a character gets a death blow, they do indeed die (not like The House of Flying Daggers, where they are ‘killed’ several times, and carry on fighting). The realism of the film really puts you in the era of feudal Japan and helps you identify and bond with the main cast of characters as they fight for the peasants.  The violence is not over the top, and what makes it more unique is the lack of music during the battle, giving it quite an eerie and not overly dramatical feel. The sets used are traditional and breathtaking, with collapsing buildings and huge wooden gates crashing together.

If the prospect of a long battle and gory scenes put you off, then you’re really missing out here. Future samurai films will have a hard job of following this film, because it is of such a high standard and is historically correct. The final act will linger in your mind long after you’ve left the cinema.

13 Assassins is in cinemas now, and will be released on DVD and Blu-Ray on the 5th September 2011.

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