Thirteen Assassins (1963)
Directed by Eiichi Kudo

Thirteen Assassins
Jusan-nin no shikaku
Starring Chiezo Kataoka (Shinzaemon Shimada), Ryohei Uchida (Hanbei), Kotaro Satomi (Shinrokuro), Ko Nishimura (Hirayama), Tetsuro Tamba (Sir Doi), Ryunosuke Tsukigata (Makino), Kantaro Suga (Lord Naritsugu), Kanjuro Arashi (Kuranaga), Satomi Oka (Tae), Junko Fuji (Kayo), Yuriko Mishima (Chise), Isao Natsuyagi, Shingo Yamashiro, Masaharu Arikawa, Choichiro Kawarazaki
Screenplay by Kaneo Ikegami
Music by Akira Ifukube

Toei Company, 125 minutes
B&W, 2.35:1 scope ratio
English-subtitled DVD: AnimEigo

Thirteen Assassins serves as the first installment of what has come to be known as the "Samurai Revolution" trilogy or simply the Kudo Trilogy, a set of brutal samurai epics that also includes The Great Killing and Eleven Samurai. The films were not conceived as a connected trilogy, but they share a number of plot elements and belong to the cruel jidai-geki movement depicting betrayal, corruption and hypocrisy among the samurai class. Filmmakers like Eiichi Kudo fought with their studios to produce these more realistic and downbeat movies as an alternative to popular feel-good chambara adventures, and it was only with the financial backing of star Chiezo Kataoka that Kudo was able to get Thirteen Assassins made.

All of the films in Kudo's de facto trilogy share the same basic plot: a small band of outraged samurai team up in a desperate, outnumbered plot to eliminate a corrupt high-ranking official in the name of honor and/or revenge. Curiously, the targeted bad guy in all three movies is played by the same actor, Kantaro Suga. In Thirteen Assassins he is Lord Naritsugu, the sociopathic brother of the shogun. Naritsugu has been tolerated as a nuisance, but now he's due to be promoted to a political advisor position where he could cause major havoc. His senior retainer commits seppuku in protest to no avail. So a cabal of concerned senior officials decides that covert ops are necessary to prevent the travesty. Sir Doi enlists government inspector Shinzaemon Shimada to organize a strike force to kill Naritsugu.

The story itself is undeniably derivative. Thirteen Assassins could be considered the bastard offspring of The 47 Ronin and Seven Samurai, and not just because they've all got prime numbers in their titles. It combines the political intrigue and bushido scheming of the Chushingura legend with the emotional impact and explosive climactic raid of the Kurosawa classic. As Shinzaemon rounds up his Dirty Dozen plus one, we encounter character types similar to Kanbei's seven: Kuranaga, the trusted elder lieutenant; Hirayama, the stoic master swordsman; Sawara, the jovial ronin who wants to earn a few ryo to pay his debts and live high-handed; Ogura, the eager young apprentice whose inexperience would have disqualified him in less dire circumstances; and Koyata, the unofficial "country samurai" out to prove his legitimate valor.

Shinzaemon's nephew Shinrokuro also joins in after initially declining what he considers a suicide mission. Shinrokuro is played with passion and verve by Toei matinee idol Kotaro Satomi, and familiar Toei actress Satomi Oka puts in a cameo as Shinrokuro's geisha girlfriend. Even better, the great Ryunosuke Tsukigata is magnificent as Makino, the grieving samurai who tells Shinzaemon how Lord Naritsugu raped his daughter-in-law and killed his son. Along with the sterling Chiezo Kataoka in the lead role, it's thrilling to see so many Toei company players seizing a rare opportunity to take part in a more prestigious production and succeeding admirably.

All the teambuilding, talking and map-pointing that makes up the first hour of the movie could have grown tiresome, but what maintains the dramatic tension is the character of Hanbei, chief of security for Naritsugu. A shrewd and honorable samurai, Hanbei figures out that Shinzaemon is planning to attack his master somewhere along their journey from Edo back to Naritsugu's home territory. He even sits down for a cordial meeting with Shinzaemon while members of the assassin squad stand poised outside ready to draw their swords. It's very much like the friendly but tension-packed conversation between the two ninja adversaries in Kudo's previous film, Castle of Owls. The fact is, Hanbei is not a bad guy. He doesn't totally approve of Naritsugu's actions and under other circumstances Shinzaemon and Hanbei might have been great friends and allies. But Hanbei is sworn to serve his master, and his decency makes him more compelling than your typical nasty villain.

And the viewer's patience is rewarded in their final showdown, one of the longest and craziest action sequences not just in jidai-geki history, but in all of motion pictures. This is what Thirteen Assassins has built its reputation on. Shinzaemon determines that Naritsugu's procession will be passing through the inn town of Ochiai Station, so he sends his men to buy out the property owners -- all 75 inns. Then the assassins work feverishly to turn the whole town into a death trap. Hanbei and his 50-some men ride into town and find their path walled up, and the bridge they just crossed is torn down, and they find themselves sitting ducks as the thirteen assassins rain arrows down on them. They scatter to protect the lord, scramble down alleys in search of escape and engage in sword clashes, and the insane melee goes on for a solid half hour.

With the possible exception of contemporary Michael Bay-category excesses, movie action scenes usually go on for about five to fifteen minutes before the audience gets to take a breather. We stretch those parts out in our minds, but really the chaos is generally confined to short bursts. When the action goes on relentlessly for such an extended period, the effect is profound. Some critics say this fight marathon is overkill and causes their eyes to glaze over, but I find it mesmerizing. Shinzaemon's battle strategy unfolds beautifully and the fight choreography is convincing. It's not just heaps of senseless violence, it's a struggle to determine whether Shinzaemon or Hanbei will prevail in their solemn duties. And as we're reminded, during this peacetime era it's unlikely that any of the combatants have ever risked their lives in combat until now.

Eiichi Kudo may not have been a grand master of Japanese cinema, but it's a testament to his vision that Thirteen Assassins can still take our breath away a half century later, even with our jaded modern sensibilities inured to cataclysmic CGI mayhem. Takashi Miike must have agreed, as evidenced by his excellent and respectful 13 Assassins remake in 2010.

The Jidai-Geki Knights