Takashi Miike is one of the biggest names in world cinema but not necessarily among the Harvey Weinstien crowd. Miike has only been working for a little over twenty years, but he already has 86 director credits to his name. In this sense Miike is kind of like the Lil Wayne of Japanese cinema; rather than filtering the wheat from the chaff he opts to release a huge quantity of material and allow his audience to find the moments of brilliance within the many stacks of mediocrity. Of course, most of Miike’s films never cross the Pacific but the ones that do have gained a lot of notoriety for their extremely graphic violence. In fact Miike is sort of a poster child for the cottage industry of Asian imports beloved by those looking for more and more transgressive content. His film Audition was a clear influence on the Saw and Hostel franchises, and his 2001 film Ichi the Killer gained notoriety for the distributor’s decision to hand out barf bags at the premiere. As “extreme” as Miike’s films can get, he is capable of making more “legitimate” films that aren’t strictly intent on grossing people out. His latest film 13 Assassins is one such example and was distributed much more widely because of it.
As the film opens we’re treated to dense title cards filled with names, dates, and titles. Shortly thereafter we hear dialogue which is similarly filled with historical allusions, and a sense of panic went over me. What had I gotten myself into? How am I going to keep this all straight? But as it turns out, this is actually an extremely simple story based on a simple premise: the nobleman is evil and must be killed. That nobleman is Lord Naritsugu (Gorô Inagaki), a sadistic bastard who’s next in line to become a powerful shogun, an office he could use to rain terror across Japan. Deciding that this is unacceptable, an aging samurai named Shinzaemon Shimada decides to take it upon himself to bring down Naritsugu, believing that this will be his last chance to die a noble death in the age of peace that he’s living in. As such, he assembles a group of thirteen co-consperitors and plans to take down Naritsugu while he’s taking a trip from Edo to his heavily fortified homeland.
The setup of “group of ronin samurai on a mission” of course evokes Kurosawa’s classic Seven Samurai, but comparisons to that are best left at a minimum. This is much more action oriented than that film, whose combat scenes were gritty and realistically awkward. This film is closer to something like Shogun Assassin: the action is bloody and highly choreographed. Most of the fighting is contained in the film’s finale, an epic battle scene in which the assassins literally fight off hundreds of Naritsugu’s guards. The bodycount in this scene is almost videogame-esque in its one-sidedness with individual good guys slicing down massive numbers of enemies. There’s a lot of bloodshed to be found here, but it is worth knowing that this film is merely extremely violent rather than outright gruesome and borderline sadistic in the way that some of Miike’s other films have been. This finale is awesome and fans of action and/or martial arts should not miss it.
As for the rest of the film… it’s good, but it certainly isn’t what you’d call great drama. If there’s anything I’d complain about, it’s that we don’t really get to know any of the assassins except for Shinzaemon, his nephew Shinrokurō, and a hunter they pick up along the road named Koyata. Everyone else involved in the conspiracy don’t stand out and serve little purpose other than to be cannon-fodder. I guess this is to be expected; it took Kurosawa almost four hours just to turn seven warriors into distinct characters, and this has 127 minutes to introduce almost twice as many. I know that the Japanese version of the film was something like fourteen minutes longer but I don’t really see that being enough time to solve the problem, and frankly I did appreciate the fact pace that the film’s current running time allowed.
Does that mean that the film is completely shallow entertainment? No, there are some legitimately interesting themes of honor and duty, and the characters that are examined can be fairly interesting. But the focus here is clearly on the action and the technical filmmaking, and on that level it delivers better than a lot of Hollywood films and the weird touches that Miike brings in on the film’s fringes also set it apart from your average Asian martial arts epic. The film is recommended for lovers of samurai films and lovers of… well, I guess not much else. But samurais are awesome, so simply appealing to lovers of samurai films should be good enough.
***1/2 out of Four