In feudal Japan, Lord Naritsugu Matsudaira (Gorô Inagaki), the brother of the shogun rules with a vice like grip. His subjects are meted out the harshest of punishments for the least possible errands and in some cases no errands at all. His insatiable lust for flesh, power, wealth and sheer carnage make him a nemisis for all his subjects. Even the mighty samurai stand silent and helpless as Naritsugu does what he does best “bring destruction” upon his subjects. Doi (Mikijiro Hira), a member of the council, decides to put an end to the sufferings of the hapless subjects and plans on assassinating the Lord on way to the council’s meeting where he is to be crowned as a member who would then become untouchable. For this task Doi recruits twelve Assassins handpicked by Shinzaemon Shimada (Kôji Yakusho), who in turns would lead the Samurai against the Lord. The rest of the movie takes us through the journey of the twelve assassins who are further joined by a mysterious thirteenth member and how they accomplish the task at hand. The endeavors of the assassins are further jolted by the Lord’s impenetrable defense led by Hanbei (Masachika Ichimura) who happens to be a compatriot and long time arch rival of Shimada.
13 Assassins starts off in a leisurely manner and even though that’s not saying that it is not cohesive and focused in its treatment of the subject but it does take its share of time to set forth the characters. I felt that this approach contributed immensely to setting up the premise effectively and also made us care for the characters. The second half of the movie particularly, the last half an hour is dedicated solely to a combat sequence which is choreographed with such conviction that I might dare compare its finesse with the likes of Akira Kurosawa. Each sequence is thought out and edited with aplomb leaving no room for pointing fingers.
The setting of the movie also adds to the mood of the story. There is a constant atmosphere of gloom and even after all is done, there is no satisfaction to be had. Takashi Miike could have easily gone the heroic way and made a satisfying experience out of the assassination, but he chooses to stick close to reality and that pays him rich dividends. After a slow build up, the action takes over in the second half. As is customary with Samurai movies, there are combat sequences aplenty. Swords, Bows and Arrows, maces put to optimum use. There are uses of some high explosives which add to the mayhem. But there is a sense of cohesion and every sequence can be viewed as a set piece.
Each of the characters perform exceedingly leaving the audience thoroughly satisfied. The cinematography is picture perfect and ditto can be said about visual effects sans a couple of sequences which could have been better. The intense drama though will not let you take notice of anything else unless you go for multiple viewings. To absorb the true essence of this movie, multiple viewings would be a good idea. Overall, 13 Assassins is one of the best samurai movies to come out in recent times and deserves all the kudos that it seems to be garnering.