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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Seven samurai? Try thirteen instead

Illustration for article titled Seven samurai? Try thirteen instead

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: The release of George Clooney’s The Monuments Men has us fondly recalling other movies about groups, teams, squads, and merry collectives.


13 Assassins (2010)

In the pantheon of great battle scenes, the climactic skirmish in 13 Assassins is right up there with Helm’s Deep, The Battle Of The Ice, and the rain-soaked finale of Seven Samurai. It’s a showdown for the ages, really—40 odd minutes of ferocious combat, as the titular, vastly outnumbered swordsmen cut a bloody swathe through the defenses of the sadistic lord they’ve sworn to eliminate. (Also, some flaming boars show up. You read that right.) Were there nothing else to 13 Assassins but the derring-do of its final act, the film would still be well worth a watch. But awe-inspiring violence is just one recommendable attribute of this 17th-century adventure yarn, a rousing remake of Eiichi Kudô’s 1963 samurai picture.

Coming from Takashi Miike, the Japanese oddball director of Audition and Ichi The Killer, the film is also a winning departure—hard proof that when he throws his back into it, and eases up on the shock tactics, the man’s capable of classical genre thrills. Miike relegates the characteristic depravities to the first half, when the sight of a limbless, speechless sex slave inspires a retired samurai (Kōji Yakusho) to assemble a cavalry of iron-willed, iron-wielding killers. Their (suicide) mission: to take out the Shogun’s cruel, pitiless half-brother (Gorô Inagaki), an insane tyrant whose ascent to power would surely plunge Japan into a new era of terrible warfare. But what chance does this baker’s dozen have against the might of an empire, especially with the loathsome lord under the protection of a duty-bound, morally conflicted master swordsman (Masachika Ichimura)?

13 Assassins relishes every passage of its bare-bones plot, from the early scenes of feudal intrigue to the building of the team to the on-the-road camaraderie among its brothers in arms. (Each warrior is granted little more than a single defining trait, but the actors playing them invest their characters with slivers of personality.) And there’s something strangely, archaically moving about Miike’s portrait of honorable men in search of an honorable death. Relics of a more chaotic age, the film’s samurai heroes find purpose in preserving their obsolescence; to their eyes, there’s great nobility in fighting (and probably dying) to keep the peace. For all the astounding carnage that arrives in the final act, 13 Assassins is never more profoundly, troublesomely stirring than when Yakusho’s leader lays eyes on that poor, deformed peasant—his empathy hardening into ruthless conviction, his eyes dancing with the promise of a true calling. Any genre junkie lucky enough to stumble upon this new classic will share his rush of righteous adrenaline.

Availability: 13 Assassins is available on Blu-ray and DVD, to stream on Netflix, and to rent or purchase through the major digital services.