I’ve seen Miike do a big-budget action film with Sukiyaki Western Django, and I’ve seen him do period drama with Sabu. And both of those movies were kinda boring. So I knew not to expect the world from Miike’s 13 Assassins, despite online reviews calling it the best thing he’s ever done. He throws a few bones to the longtime extreme-cinema fans – like a tidal wave of blood when a sympathetic character gets blown to bits – but mostly it plays like a high-quality studio samurai drama. It’s classically well constructed – I’m guessing it’s this glossy lack of rough edges (what some would call personality) that has the casual Miike followers raving, but I can’t see anyone who was impressed by Big Bang Love being too wowed by this. I haven’t seen the 1960’s original 13 Assassins, but I’ve seen Seven Samurai, and if I didn’t know this was a remake of one, I’d guess it’s a remake of the other. It plays like a remake. Whiny complaints aside, it’s a fine, entertaining film. I had a good time and all.
Shinzaemon (Kiyoshi Kurosawa fave Koji Yakusho) is our hero, hired by government man Sir Doi (Miijiro Hira, star of Sword of the Beast, psychiatrist in The Face of Another) to kill an heir to the throne, Lord Matsudara (Goro Inagaki of Hypnosis, one of many Japanese horror movies I rented in a flurry back when The Ring came out). The Lord is extremely evil – rapes a girl at random then kills her husband and, for good measure, ties up his entire family and uses them for close-range target practice.
Shinz is going to need a lotta swords to take on Lord M’s army of guards so he hires 12 more guys, only a few of whom get personalities because hey, we don’t have all day here. Most of the movie is build-up as it is. He gets his hard-gambling nephew (Takayuki Yamada of Crows Zero, who will be one of the only survivors, not that he particularly earned it more than the others), a badass ronin with a spear (was his name Sahara?), a couple explosives novices, and finally Koyata (Yusuke Iseya, awesome leader of the white clan in Sukiyaki Western Django), a wild man with a sling they find in the woods. Of course Shinz has a personal rivalry with the leader of Lord M’s guard, Hanbei (Masachika Ichimura, voice of Mewtwo), in order to up the stakes.
A ton of the fighting comes down to a bunch of indistinguishable, muddy brown-robed guys slashing at each other amongst clanging sound effects and quick editing. But the best parts involve Shinz’s master plan to turn this entire town into a trap, full of spring-loaded gates, explosive-rigged houses, and flaming bulls (quite cartoony, but they got a good laugh), like Seven Samurai or Three Amigos. Fun ending – Koyata, having been stabbed through the neck to his death, shows up alive and unscratched.
What is surprising about 13 Assassins is how far it goes in upending the samurai picture. In Miike’s mind, there’s nothing honorable about the thoughtless commitment to honor and code, especially if it means protecting dastardly men who don’t deserve that kind of loyalty. With 13 Assassins, he’s made a film both punk and moral.
The actors playing Sir Doi and Otake previously worked together on a movie called Big Shitty Marathon (“Biggu Shiti Marason”).