Although described as a mere copy of Kurosawa’s masterpiece Seven Samurai by critics when released in Japan, Eiichi Kudo’s Thirteen Assassins proves to be nothing less than one of the top ‘cruel jidaigeki’ made during the ’60s. A realistic and violent tragedy mocking the rules of the feudal society.
After a decade spent producing entertaining and joyful jidaigeki in colors, japanese film studios took a new direction, introducing some more mature, serious period films. The ‘cruel jidaigeki’ sub-genre is born. Shot in black and white, with a realistic touch, these new productions managed to dig into the dark stories of the feudal era, playing with genre codes, to criticize both men & society’s cruelty (read more about it). Without forgetting the audience, entertainment comes first.
Like Harakiri, Thirteen Assassins’ story was carefully hidden from official records. Officially, a minister never asked 13 samurai to assassinate the Shogun’s brother, who has been causing too much trouble. Because officially, the Shogun’s brother died of sickness. This simple fact reveals that the Government didn’t care about samurai. The code of honor has become a useful tool forcing men to die for something they don’t understand. A bunch of dogs.
The title is clear on that point. The 13 samurai are taking so seriously their mission, they fail to realize they’re acting like assassins. Like people without honor nor humanity. Eiichi Kudo plays with this absurd motivation all along the story, only to reinforce ultimatly the tragedy. He could have easily turned the film into a dark comedy a la Sword of Doom, opposing the seemingly seriousness tone with the reality of actions.
As usual with a japanese ’60s film, visually, it’s astonishing. The composition work serves the narrative purpose, and Kudo tends to create lots of visual layers which divides space to isolate characters while taking advantage of the Japanese architecture. For example, the opening shot (see the image) where a man killed himself in front of a huge mansion, this sums up the whole story as it directly points out the consequences and meaning of loyalty to, whether it’s an Institution or a moral code.
Not as political as Kudo’s next film The Great Killing, but way more pessimistic than Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, Thirteen Assassins isn’t flawless but deserve to be watched, at least for its deadly final ‘mousetrap’ attack. Will Takashi Miike’s remake be as good & thoughtful?