13 Assassins

Movie Information

The Story: A small band of samurai set out to assassinate an evil lord before he plunges the entire country into violence and warfare. The Lowdown: Top notch action -- with an absolutely amazing showdown -- combined with an intelligent story that has something to say make this one of the best films of the year.
Score:

Genre: Action
Director: Takashi Miike
Starring: Koji Yakusho, Takayuki Yamada, Yusuke Iseya, Goro Inagaki, Masachika Ichimura
Rated: R

Takashi Miike’s 13 Assassins may well be the most wholly accomplished and satisfying film to come our way all year (and bear in mind, the year is creeping up on the halfway mark). In some ways, it’s essentially a standard samurai film, but in other ways, it completely subverts that claim. Setting the film in an end-of-an-era time when the samurai and their code are about to become extinct, it would have been an easy task to trade on the inherent emotional kick that comes with watching an era pass, and to sentimentalize the samurai. 13 Assassins, however, has very little use for senimentality of any kind, and instead makes the case that there are very good reasons for this era to end—even suggesting that the samurai code of unswerving allegiance is itself at fault and flawed, and needs to die to make way for modern man.

Do not, however, get the idea that 13 Assassins is in any sense a deeply meditative think-piece. This is a full scale epic. It trades in spectacle and is essentially a really big Western that takes place in 1844 Japan. To give some idea of how much the film sticks to the action/spectacle concept, nearly the entire second half of the film consists of the prolonged showdown between our 13 assassins and the much larger forces of the story’s central villain, Lord Naritsugu (Goro Inagaki), who, by the way, is the most thoroughly detestable and frightening bad guy to come along in some considerable time.

The film spends its first half establishing the insane perfidy of Naritsugu and the reason behind the outnumbered 13 samurai’s (well, 12 samurai and one eccentric hanger-on) equally insane mission to assassinate the man. Naritsugu redefines the idea of the degenenerate aristocrat. He doesn’t merely think nothing of raping and viciously murdering anyone any time it strikes his fancy, but he revels in his innate sense of superiority and the psychotic kicks he gets from his actions. The central issue is forced when he rapes the daughter-in-law of a host, hacks her husband to death when he dares to object, and then knocks off the ravished lady for good measure. It is this—combined with being shown the lone survivor (a woman left with no arms, feet or tongue) of one of his murderous escapades—that prompts the retired samurai Shinzaemon (Koji Yakusho) to come out of retirement and assemble his elite band of assassins. He—along with the people who desire his aid—realizes the depths into which the country will be plunged when Naritsugu attains his full power.

Some time is spent on assembling the crew, intelligently mapping out their campaign, and—for the sake of good drama—setting up the fact that Naritsugu’s chief samurai protector, Hanbei (Masachika Ichimura), is an old classmate of Shinzaemon—and his old nemesis. There are no prizes for guessing the order in which the various showdowns that make up the film’s final section will take place.

What makes the film work—beyond the performances and the magnificently staged last section—has much to do with the inclusion of that 13th nonsamurai assassin. This is Koyata (Yusuke Iseya), a wily, disreputable mountain hunter, who doesn’t think much of the samurai or their code from the onset and becomes progressively less impressed as the story unfolds. In many ways, he seems to represent the modern man—one who thinks for himself and is increasingly skeptical of tradition for its own sake. I suspect this is why Miike’s final scene is the major instance in the film that topples over into something like outright fantasy.

But the big selling point, of course, is that final showdown between the valiant 13 and Naritsugu and his men—and it works from start to finish. It’s huge, it’s exciting, the action is coherent, and its choreographic violence is a delight to behold (though bear in mind that is very violent and bloody, though not excessively bloody). Few action films have ever even attempted to sustain such a scene this long—and even fewer have succeeded. Do yourself a favor, though, and see this on the big screen. This does not belong on a TV. Rated R for sequences of bloody violence, some disturbing images and brief nudity.

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress since December 2000. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

36 thoughts on “13 Assassins

  1. Dread P. Roberts

    I hadn’t heard of this movie prior, but now I really want to see it. My only reservation is that I despise drawn-out, violent rape sequences. It’s just an unpleasant annoyance of mine. Should I be properly concerned in that regard?

  2. I hadn’t heard of this movie prior, but now I really want to see it. My only reservation is that I despise drawn-out, violent rape sequences. It’s just an unpleasant annoyance of mine. Should I be properly concerned in that regard?

    No.

    This is Miike’s best film.
    This is also one of the best samurai films ever.
    DO NOT MISS THIS FILM!

  3. Dread P. Roberts

    No.

    Ok, thanks for the answer; but you didn’t really need to elaborate so much.

    This is Miike’s best film.
    This is also one of the best samurai films ever.
    DO NOT MISS THIS FILM!

    I look forward to seeing it in all it’s (hopefully) epic, big-screen grandeur.

  4. luluthebeast

    I’ve been wondering whether to spend the $6.99 for the pay-per-view on this. I guess you just helped me make up my mind!

  5. Dread P. Roberts

    I don’t mean any offense, but paying $7 to watch a movie at home sounds downright tragic to me. It’s only a tiny bit more for a big, theater screen. You’re missing so much without really saving money. That makes me sad inside.

  6. luluthebeast

    Makes me sad too, but when you live in a smaller city, with no hope of this movie coming to either of the theaters here(both owned by Marcus Corp), it’s either that or wait and see if one of the cable channels ends up carrying it.

  7. Ken Hanke

    We all too often forget how well off we really are here in terms of what plays in theaters thanks to the Fine Arts and The Carolina.

  8. Dread P. Roberts

    Yes, I sometimes forget how blessed we are to have access to films like this. I’m sorry – that didn’t even occur to me.

  9. Watched this for a second time last night, and I think that this could be my favorite film of the decade so far. Yes, I know that we just started the decade, but the statement packs more of a punch.

  10. Ken Hanke

    I wasn’t going to actually point that out. Then again, for the way we tend to look at decades (for instance, we don’t look at a film from 1940 and think of it as belonging the previous decade), you could be said to be about a year and five months into the decade.

  11. If we are technical though isn’t the decade from 2011-2020?

    If anyone missed it at the theaters (don’t!), it’s coming out real soon on dvd.

  12. Ken Hanke

    If we are technical though isn’t the decade from 2011-2020?

    Who did you see wait till 2011 to include 2010 on a best of the decade list?

  13. Movies are coming out so fast these days from theatrical release to whatever that I believe I saw everything I loved from 2010 last year. Valhalla Rising was my number one film and that came out on dvd in December.

  14. Justin Souther

    I saw this again today and it’s still the best thing I’ve seen this year. I can’t say it’s even close, really.

  15. Ken Hanke

    Movies are coming out so fast these days from theatrical release to whatever that I believe I saw everything I loved from 2010 last year.

    That’s not my point. Yes, technically, years run 1 thru 10, not 0 thru 9, but when assessing the last movie decade, everybody did it at the end of 2009 and included 2000. So if you don’t put 2010 at the beginning of this decade, it’s going to be orphaned. It may be wrong, but it’s not new. If you pick up a book on 1940s movies, it’s going to include the movies from 1940.

  16. Ken Hanke

    I saw this again today and it’s still the best thing I’ve seen this year. I can’t say it’s even close, really.

    Nothing is coming immediately to mind, but I’d have to go over a list of everything I’ve seen to be sure I’m not forgetting something.

  17. Justin Souther

    Nothing is coming immediately to mind, but I’d have to go over a list of everything I’ve seen to be sure I’m not forgetting something.

    Besides Rango, I can’t say there’s much that’s come out at that’s impressed me all that much this year. I think your list is a bit longer, though.

  18. Ken Hanke

    Besides Rango, I can’t say there’s much that’s come out at that’s impressed me all that much this year. I think your list is a bit longer, though.

    I will eschew the obvious riposte, but say that you’re probably right. At this point, though, that list shows signs of something like desperation. Paul and Insidious might hold on to the end of the year, but I doubt Drive Angry is likely to, no matter how much I enjoyed it.

  19. JonathanBarnard

    “I should note that Asheville has supported this film pretty handsomely, which is nice to see.”

    Does that mean I can wait for the weekend to see it?

  20. luluthebeast

    Best $6.99 I ever spent! And I know I’ll be buying this when it comes out on DVD to add to the other few dozen Samurai films I already have. I am sorry that I missed the chance to see it on the big screen, it would have been wonderful.
    And you’re right, Ken, the addition of Koyata was inspired, as was his comment about getting stabbed twice with swords, which I won’t mention here. It was a beautiful ending and a magnificent film!

  21. Ken Hanke

    I’m impressed that this held up for another week, but with the additions of Midnight in Paris and Hobo with a Shotgun this week, it brings the art/indie total up to five movies at The Carolina. With Cave of Forgotten Dreams and (I guess this is art/indie) The Beaver down for next week (the latter might change), something’s — or more than one something — gonna have to leave next Friday.

  22. Dread P. Roberts

    I finally got the chance to watch this last night. It’s every bit as good as everyone has said. I loved it!

    SPOILER ALERT
    On a side note, do you think Koyata Kiga is supposed to be a representation of the Monkey God, Sun Wukong? Here’s a strange guy that the samurai just so happen to stumble upon in the middle of nowhere, who (even though he was a ‘traveler’ who didn’t live in the area) knows exactly how to guide them safely through the forest. His only request is that they provide him with food, but then Koyata proceeds to provide them with food, through his outstanding, uncanny hunting skills. He moves about (especially fighting) like a fast and nimble, wild monkey. He humbly offers subtle words of wisdom throughout. Despite his seeming lack of appreciation for the samurai code, he gladly helps them without any hesitation, as if it was the unspoken plan from the onset. Then the big kicker is when the movie alludes to the fact that he is immortal in more than one instance: First is the obvious case of him mysteriously showing up alive again at the end. Second would explain the whole reason he was put into the cage in the woods. Given the time period, I would imagine he was supposed to be killed for his crimes, but upon discovering that he couldn’t be, he was imprisoned. Plus (if you really want to get deep) Lord Naritsugu makes a few references to monkeys, while confronting his victims/enemies, that gives the impression he detests said simians.

  23. Ken Hanke

    I have nothing against the reading — though some real simian value would have been appreciated to make the point clearer and to just generally please me. My own problem is I’m not up on the mythology.

    I think I’m personally a little happier thinking that he represents the dawn of modern man rejecting the blind allegiances of the past.

  24. Dread P. Roberts

    I think I’m personally a little happier thinking that he represents the dawn of modern man rejecting the blind allegiances of the past.

    Regardless of what (if anything) Koyata is meant to specifically represent, there’s no doubt in my mind that the director intended to use the character as a catalyst to make that very statement within the film. To me, both readings seem perfectly valid, working in unison.

    I think the beauty of what Takashi has done, lies in the subtlety of all these things. Neither reading is specifically stated, but rather left in the hands of the viewer to decide on his own. It’s what I often love about good art.

  25. Ken Hanke

    Neither reading is specifically stated, but rather left in the hands of the viewer to decide on his own. It’s what I often love about good art.

    I can think of very few examples of good art — at least that with some attempt at depth — where there isn’t at least some ambiguity.

  26. Ian

    Kagi is a mountain spirit in the least, possibly the Monkey God. Upashi is shown eating her own fetus. That’s the act of demon in Japanese folklore, though demons aren’t always evil per se. The reason he is strung up is because he can’t die so he has to be contained.

  27. Drum in AVL

    Violence has ‘loved you long-time’ in the art of moving pictures. But it may have never been so spectacular. I was clinging to my chair in fear for our heroes! BEST OF ’11!!!

  28. Yao-han

    Demystifying Kiga Koyata (an attempt)

    I was intrigued by Kiga’s character and so I watched the deleted scenes. The Director had decided to omit some scenes that define Kiga as unnatural/special. Unfortunately I don’t understand Japanese, and there were no English subtitles in the deleted scenes.

    This is what I could make out from the visuals alone:

    Kiga Deleted Scene #1:
    Once he leads the assassins to the road (from the jungle), Kiga is offered a purse, but he refuses the reward. He either asks Shinza for food, or to follow them on their quest (I figure). As he is talking to Shinza, Kiga is clobbered on the back of his head with a massive tree branch, but he turns around unfazed and unharmed. He is then hit a second time with the branch, which shatters on impact. The gang stares in awe. They seem impressed and they proceed with their journey, Kagi included and happy.

    Kiga Deleted Scene #2:
    The mayor of the town who recieved the bribe offers the assassins hospitality in the form of food and prostitutes. Kagi is seen delighted as he runs into town carrying a live piglet for his dinner.

    As night falls, the mayor snoops around Kiga’s den. Through sliding windows that are slightly open, he hears moans and screams of people having sex. He opens the windows for a better look and sees Kiga banging away at a girl. The girl can’t handle the extreme(pain or pleasure) and is screaming and writhing on the floor.

    As the mayor walks to the front door of Kiga’s den, he sees 6 prostitutes strewn all over the front lawn, half naked and exhausted, still moaning. Out stumbles the woman Kiga had just finished with, and she falls on her back with her legs open, holding her crotch, moaning and mumbling something I can’t make out. As the mayor decends to her aid, Kiga walks out completely naked and stands with his crotch at the mayors eye-level. The mayor takes a long, hard (excuse the pun) stare at his schlong – his eyes grow wide, his jaw drops and he mumbles something in Japanese. (I’m just guessing that he said OMFG WTF RU.

    There is a rustling in a nearby bush and Kiga sees a woman coming to her senses (I think). He rushes to assume the position and is about to bang her when the mayor stops him, suggesting something in Japanese. Kiga is then seen banging the mayor doggie style, and as the mayor screams in pain, Kagi yells “UPASHI!!!!!

    Summary:
    Add this to the demon Upashi, Kiga’s rejection of money, the rising from the dead, his claims of being a hunter, Kiga eats pork and rabbit, his nimble movements, the “Boss” of Kiga who strung him up, i assume that:

    1) Kiga is a mythical messenger of the Japanese God Oinari.
    2) Kiga is not a monkey god, but a fox deity.
    3) Kiga’s first name, ‘Koyata’ sounds like ‘coyote’ which has a resemblance to the fox, and this may have been done on purpose.
    4) Kiga screws anything, and he is blessed with animal ‘hardware’ and prowess.
    5) Kiga is immortal because he is a deity

    *What I can’t figure out is his disfigured left ear. Or are they gills of a water-monkey?

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