13 ASSASSINS. Starring: Koji Yakusho, Takayuki Yamada, Yusuke Iseya, Goro Inagaki. Directed by: Takashi Miike. Rated MA 15+ (Strong violence). 141 minutes.
In the tradition of Japanese masters such as Akira Kurosawa (Throne of Blood, Kagemusha, Ran), 13 Assassins is an enthralling samurai epic which uses graphic depictions of savagery to advocate opposite values.
Set in the 1840s, in a time of change, Japan is under the rule of a Shogun whose sadistic younger brother, Naritsugu, is committing appalling atrocities for his own pleasure. The Shogun and his family are above the law, and out of fear of further excesses if Naritsugu climbs higher in government ranks, a plot is devised by a senior government official, Doi Toshitsura, to assassinate him.
Doi Toshitsura approaches Shinzaemon, a trusted samurai, to recruit as many members of the old feudal warrior caste as he can muster without fear of treachery. This numbers 12 altogether, with a hunter supposedly with samurai links added later, as the band passes through a forest.
Knowing they will be outnumbered 13 to70, the samurais plan to ambush Naritsugu and his soldiers in a village. But when Naritsugu’s contingent swells to three times that number, Shinzaemon and his assassins realise it will take more than brute force to defeat their cruel enemy.
13 assassins begins soundlessly with a samurai committing ritual suicide (hara-kiri) in a vast landscape after the pitiless slaughter of his family by Naritsuru, whose pleasure in his actions is equalled only by his cold mercilessness and precision.
Nobuyasu Kita’s stark minimalist photography accosts the eye, and time after time the viewer is left numbed and mesmerised by both cruelty and beauty. Similarly the acting is realistic and choreographed, invoking in this long mesmerising film both awe and despair at what human beings represent, and what they are capable of doing.
In many ways a tour de force, 13 Assassins is a reminder of the very best in Japanese cinema, a gift for artless juxtaposition of opposites without any sacrifice of humanity.
Jan Epstein is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.