Movie Review | '13 Assassins'
Swords Drip Red With RevengeA stirring, unexpectedly moving story of love and blood, the samurai movie “13 Assassins” opens with a dignified man seated alone in a large courtyard. Perfectly centered in the shot, he says nothing, his face a ferocious mask. But words are immaterial given his open shirt and the blade in his hand.
The Japanese director Takashi Miike has no qualms about letting the red run down the screen. Here, though, instead of showing the blade sinking in, he moves in closer, letting the scene play out in the man’s crumbling face, the gray sky framing him as the moist, tearing sounds of the knife doing its terrible work fill the air.
Set at the close of the Edo period, not long before the Meiji restoration, “13 Assassins” is at once a tale of revenge and liberation, though it takes a little while to grasp the stakes. Mr. Miike, a jaw-droppingly prolific director who makes several movies a year and is perhaps best known in America for shockers like “Audition” and “Ichi the Killer,” plunges right into the action in “13 Assassins.” Initially that action is mostly bureaucratic and a question of strategy, one worked out by men plotting in darkened rooms, like the council of elders who convene after the ritual suicide and set the narrative on its course.
The dead man, it emerges, has committed seppuku to protest the baroquely barbaric excesses of Lord Naritsugu (a fantastic Goro Inagaki), the shogun’s half brother, who’s poised to assume even greater power. Pretty, petty and very likely insane, with a lazy walk and small twitchy smile, Naritsugu is the embodiment of outré imperial decadence. He doesn’t just rape the wife of a minion, he also murders her husband in front of her, hacking at the poor man’s (off-screen) body and lopping off the head with so much force it rolls across the floor. Later, during another convulsion of violence, while murdering a family, Naritsugu will kick a ball across a court and still later will boot another severed head in similar fashion. For him it’s all the same.
These cruelties and others serve as the evidence against Naritsugu, justifying the ensuing violence that will wash blood away with blood. This sanguineous deluge comes, but all in good time because first Mr. Miike has to round up his avengers, the 13 warriors of the film’s title. It’s a sign of difficult samurai times that the leader of the group, Shinzaemon Shimada (the great Koji Yakusho), enters perched on a fishing ladder, a pole in his hand. It’s unclear if he’s fishing for food or leisure, but the point is that he’s fishing, not fighting, having resigned himself to a quiet twilight. Like the not especially dirty dozen he assembles, Shinzaemon finds purpose in battle: he becomes a samurai again, with a flashing and wet sword.