Director: Takashi Miike
As an agent provocateur, few can match Takashi Miike. His films boast a terrible ability to disgust, horrify and generally assault the nerves and/or stomach. Next to Audition or Visitor Q, a feudal samurai picture is a relatively tame affair. The operative word is relatively, as Miike is never knowingly understated. There’s bloodshed for sure, but putting it in the context of samurai warfare gives it a veneer of respectability. What a pity there’s very little underneath that veneer.
On paper the idea of a band of warriors standing up to the army of a villainous warlord is a doozy. Shinzaemon (Koji Yakusho), who is in the employ of Sir Doi (Mikijiro Hira), volunteers to hunt down the treacherous and violent Lord Naritsugu (Gorô Inagaki), who rapes, kills and destroys at will and with impunity. Since Naritsugu is heavily guarded, Shinzaemon has to do that Ocean’s Eleven thing of assembling a team who are all very different, but can accomplish their task together. In true ensemble fashion, we get an inexperienced youth (Masataka Kubota), a roly-poly older man for comic relief (Seiji Rokkaku) and a close relative of the group’s leader (Shinzaemon’s nephew Shinrouko, played by Takayuki Yamada). Once this jolly little group is assembled, they head off to face their foe/destiny, picking up an extra member on the way in the form of crazed hunter Koyata (Yûsuke Iseya). Let battle commence… eventually!
There are certain elements that are synonymous with Japanese jidaigeki (period pieces). They all boast a certain introspection and dignity, but 13 Assassins is too introspective, going beyond the point of interest or patience. The first act explores the notion of honour that is so engraved in the minds of the samurai (scenes of people committing ritual hara-kiri are a grim reminder of their commitment to honour), but we get the idea within 10 minutes, and then the film just keeps talking. And talking. And then talks some more. It takes Miike over an hour to tell us that the samurai are full of honour and that Naritsugu is a bit of a naughty boy. Bring on the swordplay already! Once the assassins finally undertake their mission, the film kicks up a notch. As they arrive at the village where they will trap Naritsugu and his forces, preparations begin for a bloody and brilliant third act, as the baker’s dozen faces off against Naritsugu’s 200-strong private army. Angry blood-soaked chaos reigns, but one would wish someone had taken a sword to Daisuke Tengan’s screenplay as efficiently as the assassins lop off limbs. Miike’s strong points are visual intensity and colour, not character and plot. In 13 Assassins, we get a lot of both sides, resulting in a periodically exciting but overly worthy piece of samurai cinema.