by Richard von Busack
TAKASHI MIIKE’S 13 Assassins isn’t nearly as shocking as some of his films but does provide a novel take on the samurai film; it mulls over the terrible thought of being transfixed by a sword, and how much a man has to mentally prepare himself for the possibility. The action takes place in the late 1800s; samurai are used as decoration, requiring no duties. None among them, all the way to the top of the command, is ready for what sword-fighting entails. Miike shows us what that means. He opens with an elder noble committing an act of seppuku in protest. It takes some nerve-steadying for the old man. We don’t see what the sword does to him—instead, we hear what happens, a wet, disgusting sloshing, like laundry being agitated.
The self-murder is the last straw in an unignorable crisis: the shogun’s brother, Lord Naritsugu (Goro Inagaki), is a Caligula who rapes and mutilates anyone he pleases. Recruited to do something about the situation is Shinzaemon, played by Koji Yakusho, maybe the most stirring Japanese actor since Toshiro Mifune. (He has a physical resemblance to Patrick Stewart, and like Stewart he has an aura of authority that matches a personal mildness and humaneness.) Shinzaemon must organize an ambush that can wipe out this highly placed madman. Essential to the assassination will be outwitting the psycho’s all-too-sane general (Masachika Ichimura). It’s a suicide mission; the rebels will be greatly outnumbered.
The time-honored mixed-bag is assembled. The most flamboyant member is Yusuke Iseya as a ragged, mosquito-bitten hunter who is lethal with a rock in a sling. The group also includes a suave gambler (Shinzaemon’s easygoing nephew) and the usual mercenary ronin. The film is capped with a battle of some 45 minutes. It’s a war to end all samurai battles, and frankly, I hope it does. Takeshi dreams up a long, muddy siege with everything that makes war worth avoiding and more: huge mantraps that corral the troops and fire bombs that burn them alive.
The ultimate lesson is that war is less glorious than it sounds. So nothing new. It’s Yakusho’s gravity and the ragged man’s battle cry (“Why are you samurai so arrogant?”) that we take away with us, rather than the way Miike arranges the warriors, which is more of a brutal slam dance than a Kurosawa ballet.