6 May 2012 | bob the moo
Film of two halves but both work well in different ways
I'm a little wary of films from Takashi Miike as, although they are generally received as good, my experience of them has been that they are bloody and very odd. Thirteen Assassins though seemed a bit more accessible in terms of being more straightforward, which in some ways then makes the violence a little easier to watch. The plot here sees the amoral behaviour of Lord Naritsugu infuriate a small group of men who, led by veteran samurai Shinzaemon, set out to trap him and his 100+ entourage of guards (led by samurai Hanbei) in order to kill him and end his rise to power for the greater good.
This plot essentially cuts the film in half. The first half of the film is the setup and is mostly dialogue driven. It is slow and patient but not dull as the main thing it does is to turn the main character (and the audience) against Naritsugu by virtue of the terrible things he has done. This is brutal and quite shocking in regards some of the things we see, half-see or view the aftermath of. At the same time it gives us some time to get to know the thirteen main characters; although there is an air of honour to all of them, the characters do have traits of humour, weakness, anger and so on, which mark them out but also add some colour to the telling. The second half of the film begins when the trap is sprung and a small village becomes a contained killing field soon to be filled with bodies and blood.
I had wondered how I would find this because there was always the potential that action involving this size of a crowd would just be a mess of flailing and blood and that it wouldn't have any tension or flow to it. To a certain extent, this is a bit of a problem at times but mostly Miike overcomes it by splitting up the characters across the village and mixing smaller conflicts with bigger ones. You do still need to buy the sight of tired individual men cutting through a stream of 20 men but the narrative sort of makes this easy (it is a time of peace with a lower standard of samurai) but also it isn't all this type of action. It is bloody but without being overly gory for the sake of it. The delivery manages to make me believe the concept of the honourable death (not something I do normally) because of how dishonourable Naritsugu is and how likable Shinzaemon is throughout. The cast do well in this regard not only to make characters but also to remain distinguishable in the midst of the chaos and blood. Yakusho is strong in the lead and he contrasts well with Ichimura and Inagaki well; both of whom are also good even if Inagaki has a bit of an open goal in regards doing a simple amoral character. The supporting cast are good and mix their characters well with my favourite being Iseya who is fun and funny even if what his character represents sort of doesn't work for my western viewpoint.
Overall though, Thirteen Assassins is an engaging film that has good build-up which explodes into chaos and violence for the second half. I don't think it is perfect but in fairness some of the problems I had with it came with the plot and the territory, so they are not failings so much as just part of the film.