Sometimes you revisit a film and you're amazed to find how much better (or worse) it is than you remember. And you're struck by the realization that since the film obviously hasn't changed, it must be you that has. When the film seems better, you've changed for the better (and when it's worse, you realize what an idiot you used to be). Fortunately for me, the former was the case when I went back and watched Eiichi Kudo's The Thirteen Assassins (1963). Screening the film several years ago, I'd found it tedious and dull up until the big finale. Perhaps I was just watching too many samurai films at the time. In any case, re-watching it the other day I finally got it.
Perhaps I have a greater appreciation now for the intrinsically Japanese passion for planning than I did here to for. It's an intense pursuit that, in the case of this period film, reflects not only a fastidious intellectual acuity, but also a deep knowledge of the forms of etiquette and ritual of the samurai ruling class (and the best ways of subverting same). One cannot truly appreciate The Thirteen Assassins without some interest in such matters.
The plot is essentially contained in the title: Thirteen guys are going to kill a guy. As I say, it's not the what but the how that is of interest here, and the fact that the thirteen guys are up against incredible odds. Their target, a cruel and detestable daimyo (feudal lord), is on one of his annual trudges back and forth to Edo (this time on his way back to his fief), heavily guarded and in the company of a wily and resourceful retainer capable of matching our baker's dozen samurai's maneuvers feint, parry and thrust.
Cast-wise, The Thirteen Assassins is stellar. You've got Toei veteran Chiezo Kataoka at the helm as master strategist Shinzaemon Shimada. He's hired by Lord Doi Oi-no-kami (The Inevitable Tetsuro Tamba) to knock off Lord Naritsugu Matsudaira (Kantaro Suga). Naritsugu is aided by the more than capable Hanbei Kito (Ryohei Uchida) who matches wits with Shimada throughout the picture. The master swordsman among the thirteen assassins is Kujuro Hirayama (Ko Nishimura). I'm a big fan of Nishimura, one of the most expressive and unforgettable faces in Japanese cinema. You may remember him as Shintaro Katsu's skeevy boss in the The Razor films, or as the guy Toshiro Mifune literally drives insane with fear in The Bad Sleep Well. Ryohei Uchida you'll know from Samurai Wolf and Shadow Hunters. And Tetsuro Tamba? Forget about it. He's been in every Japanese film ever made (plus Bond film You Only Live Twice and the spaghetti western Five Man Army).
In terms of story, The Thirteen Assassins bears more than a passing resemblance to Kurosawa's Seven Samurai. There's the seasoned pro leading a team that includes a trusty lieutenant, a master swordsman, a country bumpkin wannabe samurai, a young dude, etc. They're hired to eliminate a menace (swap out bandits for a heinous lord). Even the manner in which they execute their plan is similar. So no points for originality there.
Nevertheless, The Thirteen Assassins is an absorbing film, far more well paced than I'd remembered, and the 30 minute melee at the end is fantastic. Yes, I must reexamine Eiichi Kudo. I recall not liking his The Great Killing either. Hmm. Watch this space ...