2010 // Japan // Takashi Miike // May 27, 2011 // Theatrical Print (Landmark Tivoli Theater)
My familiarity with the absurdly prolific, genre-defying Japanese director Takashi Miike is, predictably enough, limited to the two films for which he is most notorious in the West: Audition and Ichi the Killer. His new film, a rough remake of an unfamiliar 1963 samurai film from Eiichi Kudo, does not represent the first feature foray into period action-drama for Miike--that would be, apparently, Izo--but this particular nexus of director and genre is, as they say, new to me.
Unsurprisingly for a director best known for bloody, stylized yakuza pictures, 13 Assassins is a lean, mean sort of samurai film. It gets right down to the business of establishing the utterly diabolical character of its villain, Lord Naritsugu (Goro Inagaki), the brother of the shogun and also a ice-hearted sociopath, the kind of entitled monster who calmly murders and rapes his way across the countryside because... well, because he can, I suppose. Miike complicates things a touch by providing Naritsugu with an honorable and conflicted lieutenant, Hanbei (Masachika Ichimura), but in general the viewer is expected to side overwhelmingly with the titular ragtag band of assassins who take aim at the depraved lord.
Secretly tasked by the shogun's loyalists to eliminate this black sheep, out-of-work samurai Shinzaemon (Koji Yakusho) sets about recruiting twelve other swords, plus one unlikely forest barbarian, for his Hail-Mary mission. At bottom, 13 Assassins is not really a martial arts showcase or a gritty war picture, but a heist film in the spirit of Ocean's 11, and the beats will be familiar to Western viewers. Accordingly, once Naritsugu's singular wickedness is established, the film's action is more or less divisible into a Putting the Team Together section, followed by a Last Big Score section.
In this case, the latter is mostly comprised of a 45-minute battle in a muddy village, pitting the assassins against two-hundred-plus bodyguards. There's no doubt that Shinzaemon's band will ultimately succeed, but as with any heist picture, the pleasure lies in watching their scheme unfold. Most of the assassins' preparations for the ambush occur off-screen, such that the tactics they use to demolish Naritsugu's entourage are genuinely unexpected. Unlike most heist films, however, the overall tone of 13 Assassins is grim rather than lively, and the context for all the blood-soaked action is the growing difficulty that Shinzaemon and his fellow ronin have had finding their place in the world as the Edo Period wanes.
I'm a tad reluctant to call such a brutal, melancholy film "fun," but it's unquestionable that 13 Assassins' raison d'être is the sheer giddy spectacle of a small band of guys on a righteous mission slicing their way through hordes of enemies. It's elemental, to be sure, but fashioned with such effortless regard for pacing and visual crackle, there's no doubt one is watching a seasoned action director operate on all cylinders. Miike delivers the kind of thrilling and straightforward tale of against-all-odds heroics that is a rare beast from Hollywood in the current era.