It's a shame that Takashi Miike's reputation in the United States is based almost solely on his double whammy of extreme gore, Ichi the Killer and Audition. Those of us without the constitution for such horrific displays of excess turn away from the director, walling off the considerable corpus of one of the world's most prolific, varied and stylish filmmakers. Able to work in seemingly every genre and put a unique stamp on such worn tropes as the yakuza movie, the detective film and even the spaghetti Western, Miike guarantees to have at least one movie in his vast catalog for everyone.
13 Assassins, a remake of Elichi Kudo's 1963 film of the same name, may be one of his most broadly pleasing efforts. Spotted with a few examples of Miike's twisted imagination and caked with blood, 13 Assassins nevertheless proves engaging enough not to wallow in its occasional dips into the hellish realm Miike established with his two most famous films. Clocking in at just over two hours (in the version released internationally, at least), the film covers considerable ground, introducing the 13 characters plus supporting players and antagonists in half the time before unleashing Miike's pent-up ferocity for nearly a solid hour.
Miike lets the audience know who made the film from the start, opening with a drawn-out act of seppuku with only the disciplined grunts of suppressed anguish escaping the suicidal man's mouth filling the speakers. The nobleman killed himself in response to dishonor incurred at the hands of Lord Naritsugu (Gorô Inagaki), the rapacious and murderous brother of the Shogun who commits atrocity with impunity because of his station.
But soon even the Shogun recognizes the danger of Naritsugu's rampages and arranges for a secret assassination when the lord leaves the capital of Edo to return to the Akashi territory Naritsugu rules. A senior adviser turns to Shinzaemon (Kôji Yakusho), an aged samurai jaded by living in the dying days of the feudal era, memories of the last major conflicts decades ago mocking his current idyll.
Most of the reviews I read long before I knew I'd get a chance to see this film before its belated home video release noted the slack pacing of the first half; on the contrary, I found it to be a judiciously timed arc of character and plot that demonstrated how good Miike can be at solid, conventional storytelling. He does not have time to flesh out all of the 13 fighters who trickle in, ronin seeking honor and apprentices trailing masters, but he manages to differentiate between them and even build sturdy foundations for Shinza; Hirayama (Tsuyoshi Ihara), a master swordsman and former pupil of Shinzaemon; Shinroukuro (Takayuki Yamada), Shinza's disgraced nephew; and Kiga (Yûsuke Iseya), a half-mad hunter channeling the spirit of Mifune's wild performances in both Rashomon and Seven Samurai.
Impressively, Miike finds a surprising link between the grace of a jidaigeki film and the blunt grit of a modern action blockbuster. His framing inside the paper walls of Shinza's dojo and Naritsugu's palace is immaculate, the blocking perfectly arranging his sizable main cast in each shot. But even the calmest scene has a mild urgency to it communicated through the direction, which feels restless even when static. 13 Assassins contains the usual romantic warrior talk—ex. "A samurai's life isn't measured by length"—but Miike's harsh style lets him slip in less flowery ideas, such as the knowledge that the Bushido code and proper technique give way to "kill at any cost" in actual battle,
Miike uses the film's first hour as much to build the audience's horror and revulsion with the death throes of an evil system as he does our anticipation of the climactic bloodbath. Shots of Naritsugu's reign of terror, from raping a woman and killing her husband before her to mutilating another woman simply for being related to an enemy, boil the blood. But they also show the flipside of Shinzaemon's and the other protagonists' ennui: still trained to be warriors but left without a war to fight, swordsmen like Naritsugu turn their killer instincts to the innocent. Monstrous as he may be, Nartisugu displays the same fluidity and grace in his motions and attacks as Shinza or Hirayama; those actions just feel worse because the lord enacts his carnage on the servants he views as toys while the assassins use their blades on soldiers and henchmen.
It's a mature, even-handed view of violence and the hypocrisy of a warrior code of ethics, and one Miike manages not to lose sight of when he goes for broke in the second half and turns an entire village into a holocaust of booby traps, vantage points and strategically placed weapons. I cannot even begin to spoil the various machinations Miike dreams up as the assassins set themselves against an army of 200+ soldiers brought along by the lord's bodyguard, Hanbei, an old friend of Sinzaemon who knows of the assassination plans and swears to defend his lord out of a sense of samurai duty despite his own disgust of the man.
Miike's battle choreography is breathtaking, all the more so because he takes the time in-between his madhouse orchestration of traps and the fury of the hand-to-hand combat to demonstrate the senseless brutality of war. Lest anyone in the audience get too enamored with the fighting, Miike voices this admiration of romanticized combat through Nartitsugu, who delights in the display. Taking a cue from Kurosawa's Seven Samurai, Miike never allows the audience to get a clear idea of how many soldiers are left for the assassins to mow down, fresh waves appearing just as the lines start to thin. Kurosawa didn't have nearly as many bandits to work with, but he too made it seem as if there were always more enemies waiting to fight, until at last he pulled back at the end to show the horrible calm of the finale. Miike soaks his frame with even more blood, making the silent tally at the end all the more disturbing.
Occasionally, Miike has some fun with the film. He adheres to the old maxim that a bully will break down if anyone ever gives him a taste of his own medicine, and some moments carry a definite physical comedy. But there are more sober ideas at work here. Seven Samurai ended with the grim realization that the samurai had, in fact, lost their battle. 13 Assassins seems to suggest that everyone loses in this fight. Building off Kurosawa's connection to the Western, this film, set on the cusp of the Meiji restoration, is The Wild Bunch of the jidaigeki, one last bloodbath to clear out the relics of a time and ethos not worth glorifying. Hard to believe all this can be seen in a film that labors over a shot of a man biting into an insect and slurping the meat inside as if sucking ice cream through the bottom of a cone.