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Cinema Review: Thirteen Assassins

May 23, 2011

If you’ve seen any of Takashi Miike’s more notorious films (Audition or Ichi the Killer, for example) then you’ll know what to expect from his attempt at a samurai epic: violence, blood, gore and lots of it.  Thirteen Assassins certainly does have its fair share of shocking scenes, some of which will haunt you long after the film has ended, but it’s also a brilliant story of justice and loyalty with one of the best extended battle scenes you’ll see in a long, long time.

The story focuses on Shinzaemon, an old samurai entrusted with the job of assassinating Naritsugu, brother of the Shogun.  Put bluntly, Naritsugu is quite the evil bastard.  He kills, rapes and tortures people for mere amusement, and with his power soon to be increased, must be stopped.  The film can be split into two very distinct halves: first, the methodical gathering of Shinzaemon’s group of twelve samurai (and one rogue peasant), interspersed with tales of his enemy’s most gruesome actions.  Second, a battle of insane proportions as the group ambushes Naritsugu and his 200 samurai guards in a booby-trapped village.  The action is quite incredible, brilliantly choreographed and shot.  While there are short bursts of welcome humour and some fascinating exchanges, it is essentially fifty minutes of intense, violent, awe-inspiring fighting.  The drama is compounded by excellent sound production-with barely a score to speak of, every slash, grunt and scream stands out-and a gorgeous washed-out palette which evokes Kurosawa’s black and white epics. 

Not to be forgotten, the first hour is also excellent, managing the tricky balancing act of introducing a wide range of characters while also encouraging the audience to care about their individual fates.  However, it is what follows which makes Thirteen Assassins truly memorable and a masterpiece of modern Japanese cinema.


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