DVD Review - 13 Assassins

The essential conflict depicts a battle, either real or imagined that heralded the end of the Shogunate system in Japan. This is important to filmmaker Takashi Miike and probably to those who live in Japan and are interested in their history. To most Americans, the Shogunate system or its end isn't significant at all. Whether Asian or American, most audiences will undoubtingly take away the impressive, near hour-long fight sequence that caps this film.

Starting in the 7th century, Japan patterned itself after China. An emperor ruled it, but, by the 12th century, a group of warriors known as samurai took control of the country and turned it into a feudal society. The most powerful samurai was called a Shogun. The way the Shogun ruled the land was referred to as the Shogunate system. In the 14th century, civil war threatened to overthrow the Shogunate system, but it lasted until 1867 when the emperor of the Meiji period finally got enough support to disband the Shogunate.

This movie, however, takes place 23 years before the Shogunate disbands. It centers on an elder samurai named Shinzaemon who decides to assemble a team of samurais to kill a lord named Naritsugu. Naritsugu is a brutal and corrupt man who has committed many evil deeds, including rape, torture and murder, and unfortunately he is next in line to become Shogun. Shinzaemon and his men are tasked to stop Naritsugu permanently before he comes to power.

The first hour is the setup that establishes this dilemma and the Japanese politics and logistics that dictate what they must do. It's also in this first hour that we're supposed to get to know the eventual 13 men who comprise the film's title. However, there is a line of dialogue that's repeated during a scene at night when the assassins are naked and bathing themselves by a river where they say, "We are nobodies."

Aside from six of the assassins, we don't really get to know any of them, and really we get only glimpses into the aforementioned six. We get glimpses of Shinzaemon who is the leader. We also get his nephew Shinrokuro, the eldest Sir Doi, the first recruit Hirayami, the youngest samurai named Ogura, and the non-samurai named Koyata Kiga who's notable because he was found in a trap atop the trees and he eats a large, live insect in front of them. But, beyond them, none of the other assassins are that distinguishable. Even the six eventually get lost in the shuffle, and once the battle begins, there's only two that we come to care about or feel like we should follow.

What surprises Shinzaemon and his men is the man whom they plan to assassinate is protected by Hanbei. Hanbei is a samurai and an old classmate of Shinzaemon. Shinzaemon and Hanbei were once friends. Now, they must fight on opposite sides. Shinzaemon decides to have their showdown in an evacuated town called Ochiai. The faceoff begins 75 minutes into the movie and runs for 50 minutes.

Shinzaemon and Hanbei don't start fighting right away. The 13 assassins have to first fend off the virtual army that accompanies Naritsugu. In an interview on the DVD, Miike says that it wasn't his intention to make this film an action flick. Yet, with the exception of Fast Five, the first twenty minutes of that 50-minute battle is by far the best action I've seen all year. It's wild, fierce, inventive and crazy. It's a must-see!

The rest of the 30 minutes is what they call a "total massacre." It's an all-out sword fight with chaos of blade swinging, clanging, slicing and dicing. A lot of faceless deaths, including a lot of blood spill and decapitations, rule this section. Yet, in the end, it all comes down to Shinzaemon versus Hanbei, which actually is rather anti-climatic and not as awesome as the build-up to it might have you hope, but it's still perfect summer film fare.

Four Stars out of Five.
Rated R for bloody violence and brief nudity.
Running time: 2 hrs. and 5 mins.


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