Even if you’ve never seen one of his films before, most cinephiles have at least heard about Japanese director Takashi Miike at some point in their lives, because he’s one of the most controversial directors working today. Those walking into “13 Assassins” expecting something sick and twisted, however, might be surprised to discover that it’s one of Miike’s most reserved films to date – a classic samurai tale that, while very similar to Akira Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai” in spirit, is actually a remake of the 1963 film by Eiichi Kudo. It’s a first for Miike, but he still puts his stamp on the material with some great visuals, buckets of blood, and one of the best (and without a doubt longest) fight sequences of the last 30 years.
The film takes place in Feudal Japan, where the era of the samurai is approaching its end and a sadistic young nobleman named Lord Naritsugu (Goro Inagaki) lives above the law, raping and killing as he pleases because he’s the half-brother of the current Shogun, Sir Doi (Mikijiro Hira). But even Sir Doi realizes the danger that Naritsugu presents should he succeed him as Japan’s leader, and so he secretly hires a trusted samurai named Shinzaemon (Koji Yakusho) to assassinate him. Though there are few worthy samurai still living within the country, Shinzaemon sets out to recruit a small group of warriors to ambush Naritsugu before he can reach the safe haven of Akashi and be promoted to second-in-command. But that’s easier said than done, especially after Shinzaemon learns that his old sparring partner, Hanbei Kitou (Masachika Ichimura), is Naritsugu’s private bodyguard – a position he holds with honor despite his master’s cruel ways.
And just what kind of perverse behavior is Naritsugu capable of? Fortunately, Miike doesn’t indulge in showing too much, although we do see the remnants of one of his “sex toys” – a limbless woman who’s had her tongue cut out that one of Sir Doi’s senior officials presents to Shinzaemon to convince him to join the cause. Apart from that one grotesque moment, however, the film is pretty tame when compared to Miike’s usual grab bag of depravity, which is a little surprising because Naritsugu makes for such an interesting monster, wonderfully played by Inagaki with a disturbing, child-like curiosity for violence. The rest of the actors aren’t nearly as memorable as him, although screen veterans Yakusho and Ichimura bring a quiet intensity to the long-running rivalry between their characters that makes the long wait for their inevitable face-off worth it.
“13 Assassins” will definitely test your patience, because the first hour crawls by at a snail’s pace, with Miike taking the time to give each samurai a proper introduction. In fact, it can even be downright confusing between the large cast of characters (most of whose names you’ll never remember) and a prologue that flies by so quickly, you sort of have to put the pieces together on your own along the way. Still, it doesn’t present as big of an issue as you initially might think, because the film is essentially just a men on a mission story with one helluva finale. Though there isn’t much in the way of action before the final showdown, the last hour is a wildly entertaining orgy of swords, blood, fire and mud that goes on longer than it probably should, and yet never gets tiresome.
The scope of the battle is simply incredible, and it’s the kind of set piece that would make even guys like Michael Bay walk away from the film speechless. Still, it’s not the only reason for its success. The visuals are gorgeous, with Miike utilizing a muted palette that gives the movie an almost monochromatic look, while the occasional comedic moments help to lighten the mood and prepare the audience for the rousing, stand-up-and-cheer climax that’s just around the corner. It may not carry the same emotional weight as Kurosawa’s samurai classic, but “13 Assassins” is way more fun.