Film Review: 13 Assassins (2011)


Posted by in May's Magazine

One man who can easily go head to head with any purveyor of grotesque and grande guignol imagery is Takashi Miike, a man whose new film 13 Assassins has recently released in the UK. The surprise factors here are firstly that a film by this director has been given a cinematic release at all and secondly that it is a fairly straight remake of a samurai classic.

Takashi Miike is perhaps the most terrible of Japan’s enfant terrible directors and believe me they have a few. His back catalogue contains tales of primary school hit squads (Fudoh), zombie musicals (Happiness of the Katakuris) and Robocop/gangster mash ups (Full Metal Yakuza). The extremes of his cinema are matched only by his prolificacy, producing as many as five films a year. It’s mostly his more outrageous fare which filters through to the fanboys of the UK and that’s what he’s often judged on, although he’s more than capable of so much more. Miike hits you with so many sledgehammer blows from the leftfield that when one sneaks in from the right it knocks you off your feet. This is what he has achieved with 13 Assassins.

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Limb removal (lots)
For somebody as genre bending and original as Takashi Miike, he has a deep respect for the classic directors of Japan’s past. Perhaps this took root during his early years as assistant to the peerless Shohei Imamura. In 2002 he remade Kinji Fuksaku’s Graveyard of Honour and this year he has gifted us with his take on Eiichi Kudo’s 13 Assassins.

Kudo, who sadly died in 2000, was a director of some repute, specialising in the Yakuza genre, pulp Chanbara (samurai) flicks and some classic Jidei Geki (period pieces). 13 Assassins sits proudly as one of these latter masterpieces. I can’t claim to have seen the 1963 original, it’s not widely available but perhaps the remake may force a change there. I am aware that it’s considered, by those in the know, to be a keystone of samurai cinema. As the title suggests, it concerns a band of 13 men who take it upon themselves to murder an amoral psychopathic heir to the throne. The only hurdles are his legions of bodyguard.
This premise gives Miike licence to go wild in his remake, but by his standards he refrains, perhaps a nod of respect to the source material. We are however given a very ‘Miike style’ most villainous of villains, a prissy spoiled prince with a penchant for limb removal. Honour and loyalty are key themes as would be expected from the genre, but here the director questions their derivation. The depiction of what is right for the master being to the detriment of what is right for the people makes a very socialist statement. Basically the first half of the film is a gradual build up to the 45-minute bombastic battle between good and evil. Here are booby traps and explosions galore, almost like a blood soaked version of an A Team set piece. There ensues a rammy of incomparable levels, enough to rival any drunken, sun-stroked, Leith gala day. If, by the way, I haven’t made myself clear my conclusion is that this is a great film, go see it.

Mortal agony
Inspiration in Japanese film has fallen on stony ground in recent years. Could this reflection of the past clear the path for a new future? Miike told the Guardian last month, “Have I managed to resurrect the genre? Maybe 13 Assassins is the mortal agony and death rattle of a Japanese film industry that has abandoned its creative talent.” Let’s hope not. His next samurai epic will be released next year in 3D. Perhaps a fresh new age does beckon. Alan Bett

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