A samurai doesn’t fear death; he welcomes it. What the samurai does fear is obsolescence, and that is precisely the peril that faces the heroes of “13 Assassins.” They live in the mid-1800s, a few decades before the end of Japan’s Edo period and their way of life. When the leader of the assassins, a samurai named Shinzaemon, is presented with his suicidal assignment, a sort of black op hit for feudal swordsmen, he is pleased. “As a samurai in this era of peace,” he tells the governor who orders him to kill, “I’ve been wishing for a noble death.” Like Western gunslingers, particularly the ones from the films of director Sam Peckinpah, are out of place and out of time.
Shinzaemon’s mission, based on a historical battle and previously told in the 1966 film of the same name by Kudo Eiichi, is to assassinate the powerful and despicable Lord Naritsugu (Goro Inagaki). As the brother of the Shogun, Naritsugu is untouchable through official channels. But his behavior — raping, murdering, torturing, and not necessarily in that order — threatens a delicate peace. So Sir Do (Mikijiro Hira) secretly tasks Shinzaemon (Koji Yakusho) with Naritsugu’s murder. The plan calls for Shinzaemon and his samurai to ambush Naritsugu during his next trip home from the capital city. Success is a longshot at best: Shinzaemon eventually recruits a dozen samurai to his cause; Naritsugu has hundreds of swordsmen in his employ. The odds against him don’t faze Shinzaemon. As he tells his men, “he who values his life dies a dog’s death.”
“13 Assassins” was directed by Takashi Miike, the incredibly prolific Japanese director who has made almost 50 films in 18 years. Though he’s directed everything from westerns to childrens’ fantasy, he’s best known in the United States for ultra-violent horror and gangster pictures like “Audition” and “Ichii the Killer.” Fans looking for a violent Miike film won’t be disappointed by “13 Assassins,” which culminates with a 40-minute sequence of blood and blades. The scene is a triumph of escalating tension and a bravura fusion of complex action choreography and stylish camerawork, but its orgiastic celebration of death also seems to glorify the same values the assassins are working so hard to destroy.
Contradictions like that one linger as much as “13 Assassins”‘ unforgettable visuals (flaming cattle stampede, anyone?). The critic in me wants to analyze the film’s depiction of women (victims, one and all) and its attitude toward violence (a total massacre for a total massacre, as it were) while the dudely action fan in me must acknowledge the scene where a samurai swats arrows out of the air with his sword because it’s just so freaking cool (on the Scale Of Ultimate Movie Coolness, deflecting arrows with a sword ranks just between fedora hats and James Dean). “13 Assassins” is cool all right, maybe too cool. After an intensely emotionally charged opening, it devolves into pure spectacle, bloody and bloodless all at once.
Miike himself doesn’t seem entirely sure whether, as in the words of the one assassin, “samurai brawls are crazy fun!” or whether, in the words of another, “being a samurai is truly a burden.” “13 Assassins” raises such provocative questions about duty and honor and violence that it challenges the morality of its own undeniably outstanding action sequences. The massive battle is exhilarating but the images of its aftermath throw Shinzaemon’s philosophy into relief: these men died honorably, but it’s hard to see the honor in a hacked up corpse covered in blood and mud. True, they died for ideals. But those ideals may already be obsolete.
“13 Assassins” is now available On Demand. It opens in limited release on April 29.