Most filmmakers these days, in general, are terrified of silence. They want constant dialogue, no matter how mindless, or explosions and car chases so that the audience doesn’t have time to reflect on how miserable the movie actually is. Independent films still occasionally take the time to shut up and just let the characters be (writer/director Tom McCarthy is a master of this) without always forcing the plot forward with arbitrary events. Sometimes it’s okay to just be quiet.
Silence is integral to Takashi Miike’s 13 Assassins which forces both the characters and the audience to question themselves and the society in which they live. Ostensibly, the film is a typical revenge-action picture, but in reality it is so much more beautifully unique. Set in feudal Japan circa late-1800s, the film tells the story of a vicious and evil ruler, Lord Naritsugu (Goro Inagaki), who has wrought havoc on the country through his violent and pointless aggression. The top Shogun official, Sir Doi (Mikijiro Hira), knows that something must be done to stop Naritsugu.
By this time, the once feared and respected samurai have become little more than hired guns, most blindly protecting whatever political figure comes along. Some have retired from living by the sword altogether. One of the greatest samurai still living is Shinzaemon Shimada (Koji Yakusho), who is reaching old age, but has not yet crossed the threshold. Sir Doi asks Shinzaemon to assassinate Naritsugu in order to bring peace to the region. Knowing he will be signing his own death warrant, he agrees and begins to build a small, but loyal, team of former samurai warriors.
Miike takes his time setting up the story, the characters and their relationships. We know right away that Lord Naritsugu is the bad guy, but it takes a while to see who the good guy is since so many of the citizens have become apathetic about what the Shogun or his minions do. As Shinzaemon recruits the men who will help kill Naritsugu, we learn each man’s backstory
and why they are willing to risk their lives to kill him. Revenge is a powerful motivator that will make a person do crazy things, but Miike focuses on something that is much greater: love. His characters all fight, in one way or another, for love: of their country, their family, their home or their spouse. What brings the men together is their shared hatred of and bloodlust for Naritsugu.
The most fascinating aspect of the film is the cat and mouse battle of wits between Shinzaemon and Naritsugu’s head samurai Hanbei Kitou (Masachika Ichimura). The two are former friends and were once on the same side. Now, the two are each trying to out-maneuver the other through sheer intelligence and luck. Luck, as is very obvious, plays an enormous role in the
film. There are constant references to gambling, betting, making wagers, etc. throughout the film. Though most people of the time believed in predestination and fate, Miike seems to suggest that a lot more is left up to chance than they may like to believe.
The film culminates in a massive, and extremely bloody, battle that will absolutely take your breath away. The men who are fighting are doing it with their entire body and soul and continue to attack until the last breath leaves their body. In an extraordinary set piece that rivals any in recent memory, we watch men fight to the death for what they believe. The exciting
part is not knowing which side is right.
This movie is rated R and runs 141 minutes.