Takashi Miike is one of the most prolific directors from Japan in its contemporary cinema, having as diverse a filmography as possible in churning out a slew of works from perverse gems to delicious grindhouse, whether films meant for kids, or broad based entertainers. A rare craftsman indeed to have dabbled and tackled such an amazing variety of film genres and with a steady stream of output, and 13 Assassins, a remake of the 1963 film supposedly based on a true incident in the late Edo period of Japan, really seals his reputation as one who can straddle between commercial blockbusters, and those of the more artistic fare.
13 Assassins is that big budgeted, ramped up samurai action picture in the same spirit as Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai, where a group of skilled swordsmen get their destiny all charted out when the people look toward their expertise to uphold justice, and the men stepping up to be counted in the face of societal adversity. It's that typical story of moral courage of a few good men chosen to execute a mission to try and reset the status quo, or die trying while at it.
Miike's film is structured in a wonderfully simple way, and it starts off with perversion in introducing the main villain, Naritsugu Matsudaira (Goro Inagaki) who is the Shogun's brother, but earning a reputation of being a cold heated killer, rapist, and just hell bound bad guy with zero morals or respect for the sanctity of human life. This film would not have worked without this basic, powerful half hour set up where a character so vile gets luxuriously painted to get you to thoroughly hate the person, his action and his guts, while painting him to also be a formidable, skilled opponent that you wonder just how difficult it would be to get to him for a face off, but how delightful it would be to finally get that shot to take him down.
The film then launches into its midsection which played out like a typical heist movie, with the recruitment of the would be perpetrators and an introduction to what they bring to the table, coupled with the meticulous planning in preparing for an almost suicidal mission where a few men would be taking on an army, guessing and second guessing intent and what the enemy would likely react to any planted changes, in an effort to stay an extra step ahead. And there's the tense face off between the leaders from both camps, rivals once when young and now standing on opposites, engaging in barbed dialogue and scare-mongering, psychological tactics to size up a known opponent. It's a poignant scene on how each are duty bound by their orders through their honour and the usual samurai values they live and die by.
With 13 heroic characters crammed into 141 minutes meant an unequal amount of screentime getting devoted to each of them, so a tradeoff becomes inevitable, but the ones who do get introduced in depth thankfully turned out to be as varied and as interesting as can be. There's the leader Shinzaemon Shimada (Koji Yakusho) who got tasked to take up this mission, and in doing so assembled his team which included trusted deputy Saheita Kuranaga (Hiroki Matsukata), a star pupil Kuzuro Hirayama (Tsuyoshi Ihara) whose skill is excellent par none, and various other inner circle, trusted members to undertake this secret mission, including his nephew Shinrokuro Shimada (Takayuki Yamada who also worked in Takeshi Miike twice in the successful Crows Zero series) a compulsive gambler and womanizer who's obviously in this mission on a quest for redemption.
But the character of Koyata Saga (Yusuke Iseya) served as the most interesting of the lot, not being of samurai stock, and chanced upon by Shinzaemon and team en route through a forest, before Koyata's wit and know how in navigation earned his place to be with them. Providing a fair share of comedy and critique on the ways of the samurai, I thought this chap personified a higher being for his stunning turnaround scene at the end which may leave some bewildered, as well as to provide Miike an outlet to deal with some of his more signature stuff, including Koyata's an incredibly large member and high sex drive which did stick out like a sore thumb in the more serious build up where Shinzaemon's troops got down to fortifying and booby-trapping the village.
One needs to look no further than the two Crows Zero films to know that Miike can deliver full scale assaults with balletic qualities, accentuated by an adrenaline pumping soundtrack. If it's action you're craving, 13 Assassins delivers by the loads through a gloriously choreographed 45 minute action set piece utilizing a series of weapons from bows and arrows, spears and explosives, where it becomes like a reverse Bodyguards and Assassins where every angle of the ambushed town got covered in blood and body parts, with plenty of on-screen dismemberment of limbs. It's no holds barred where the element of surprise, and the discovery of being grossly outnumbered, brings forth that sense of inevitable dread amongst those from both sides, as one seeks to cut off the head of the hydra, while the other frantically looking for a way out of being uncharacteristically cornered. Plenty of pathos got built in as well especially in that final few fights, where you will find it hard not to weep for the fallen.
It isn't easy to take down the corrupt who have power and the sworn loyalty amongst the powerful, but this film inspires in that provision of hope that so long as good and able men are willing to make that sacrifice for the common good, there is still that fighting chance to make right the things that have gone wrong under the hands of the criminal. Even Fate would also lend a hand. Definitely highly recommended as this swashbuckles its way to be amongst the best of this year's selection.