13 Assassins / Jûsan-nin no shikaku (2010)

It’s magnificent. With death comes gratitude for life…

Oh, Hanbei.  Something wonderful has come to my mind. Once I’m on the Shogun’s council, let’s bring back the age of war.

—Lord Naritsugu Matsudaira

Matsudaira’s epiphany to bring back the age of war is punctuated with weary bodyguard and former Samurai Hanbei Kitou responding with blank eyes and recognizing that his Lord is indeed insane. The scene is reminiscent of the end of David Lean’s epic The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957). Character Major Clipton (James Donald) utters in disgust over the sight of a demolished bridge and bodies strewn about in war.  He exclaims: Madness… Madness… 

I wish I had seen 13 Assassins (Jûsan-nin no shikaku) in the theater. Cinematically, it’s a spectacular movie and it’s probably the best new film about feudal Japan and Samurai I’ve seen since Akira Kurosawa’s Ran (1985).  I also like John Frankenheimer’s Ronin (1998), which is actually a Samurai film disguised as a heist caper.  13 Assassins certainly begs comparison to Kurosawa’s superior Seven Samurai / Shichinin no samurai (1954) (and also John Sturgis’ remake The Magnificent Seven, 1960) and Throne of Blood / Kumonosu-jô (1957).  All these films are character studies of desperate men —ronin, searching for redemption in the form of a last hurrah.  However, 13 Assassins differs in delivering one of the most vile villains in the history of cinema.

Director Takashi Miike (director of Audition, 2000) wisely chose to shoot 13 Assassins in three acts. This is the Japanese Jo-ha-kyū —an artform consisting of a beginning, a break and a rapid ending.  In the case of 13 Assassins, the three acts 1) introduce fiendish war Lord Matsudaira (played brilliantly by Gorô Inagaki), 2) introduce the hero Samurai, and 3) present the dénouement, in this case the assault of the 13 Assassins on over 200 Shogun warriors and Lord Matsudaira.  Act 1 is disturbing and we learn to really dislike Matsudaira.  Act 2 draws us in as we observe an uneasy co-alliance and training of young and old Samurai.  Act 3 is a spectacular and well-edited action sequence approximately 45 minutes in duration.  Act 3 is pure kinematic bliss.  It seemed to pass in about 15 minutes.  I was not only captivated by the action, sound, and the elaborate set pieces, cinematography, and stunt work, but also the dialogue and acting.  On all levels 13 Assassins is brilliant film-making.   Yes! See it!

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