Japanese director Takashi Miike’s first foray into the samurai epic is a nearly flawless film, perhaps his most accomplished work. Evoking such classics as Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, Mizoguchi’s 47 Ronin, Aldrich’s The Dirty Dozen, and Eastwood’s High Plains Drifter, 13 Assassins is a thrilling tale of honor and revenge, inspired by a true story. In mid-nineteenth-century feudal Japan, during a time of peace just prior to the Meiji Restoration, Lord Naritsugu (Gorô Inagaki), the son of the former shogun and half-brother to the current one, is abusing his power, raping and killing at will, even using his servants and their families as target practice with a bow and arrow. Because of his connections, he is officially untouchable, but Sir Doi (Mikijiro Hira) secretly hires Shinzaemon Shimada (Kôji Yakusho) to gather a small team and put an end to Naritsugu’s brutal tyranny. But the lord’s protector, Hanbei (Masachika Ichimura), a former nemesis of Shinzaemon’s, has vowed to defend his master to the death, even though he despises Naritsugu’s actions. As the thirteen samurai make a plan to get to Naritsugu, they are eager to finally break out their long-unused swords and do what they were born to do.
“He who values his life dies a dog’s death,” Shinzaemon proclaims, knowing that the task is virtually impossible but willing to die for a just cause. Although there are occasional flashes of extreme gore in the first part of the film, Miike keeps the audience waiting until he unleashes the gripping battle, an extended scene of blood and violence that highlights death before dishonor. Selected for the 2009 Cannes Film Festival and nominated for the Silver Lion at the 2010 Venice Film Festival, 13 Assassins is one of Miike’s best-crafted tales; nominated for ten Japanese Academy Prizes, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay (Daisuke Tengan), Best Editing (Kenji Yamashita), Best Original Score (Koji Endo), and Best Actor (Yakusho), it won awards for cinematography (Nobuyasu Kita), lighting direction (Yoshiya Watanabe), art direction (Yuji Hayashida), and sound recording (Jun Nakamura). 13 Assassins is screening August 13 in Long Island City as part of Socrates Sculpture Park’s free summer Outdoor Cinema series and will be preceded by a live performance, with Japanese food available for purchase as well. The sixteenth annual series continues August 20 with Claude Nuridsany and Marie Pérennou’s Microcosmos and concludes August 27 with a double feature of Maxim Pozdorovkin and Mike Lerner’s Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer and Vittorio De Sica’s Umberto D., both of which were rained out earlier this summer.