"13 Assassins" comes from Takashi Miike, the Japanese director responsible for "Audition" and "Ichii the Killer," memorable horror films that you might wish weren't quite so memorable. Miike is remarkably prolific, making three or four films a year, but only a few ever make it to this side of the ocean. His last U.S. release was "Sukiyaki Western Django," a pointless, bloody and fun spaghetti western that felt more like a cast and crew having a laugh at us - and occasionally with us - than a film proper.
The parallels between Westerns and Samurai films have been pointed out endlessly, and exploited mercilessly -- there's hardly a Samurai film that can't be turned into a gunslinger flick, and vice versa-- so it's not hard to see "13 Assassins" as both Miike's first foray into his own country's most storied film tradition, and a cultural response to "Django." But perhaps because Miike is working within his own tradition, and doubtless the movies he watched growing up, "13 Assassins" runs deeper, and plays better than "Django," without losing its irreverent edge -- or devotion to rivers of blood.
Clearly a tribute to "Seven Samurai" -- it could almost function as a remake -- "Assassins" is about a band of ragtag samurai who join together to assassinate the vicious and sadistic Lord Naritsugu (Goro Inagaki.) Naritsugu, commits terrible crimes against his people with a disinterested smile; he seems most interested in seeing just how far his power and title can take him before somebody does something about it. Miike fans will find this portion of the film the most satisfying; Naritsugu's crimes and terrible, and the images of them are suitably disturbing and memorable.
Much like "Seven Samurai," Miike uses this premise to call into question the nobility and devotion of samurai, both those who will blindly defend evil nobility, and those who depart from their calling and work for hire. Revered Samurai Shinzaemon (Koji Yakusho) is approached by the lower nobility and asked to eliminate Naritsugu, before he becomes powerful enough to end the era of peace the land has been experiencing. And here's another way Miike pokes at the samurai legend and mythology; peaceful times means starving samurai. Shinzaemon jumps at the opportunity, less because of Naritsugu's crimes against his people and more because it's a chance to draw his sword and die an honorable death - he has little expectation of the mission being successful.
Shinzaemon assembles his team, but it's almost impossible to keep 13 protagonists separate and distinct. Again, like "Seven Samurai," Miike settles for shorthand; each gets enough screen time to establish a one-line identity: the student, the spear fighter, the funny one, etc. -- and then gets on with things. The band of 13 samurai is up against 200 of the Naritsugu's guards, so they work on setting a trap for him while he's traveling. This sets up the final 45 minutes of the film, an extended battle scene between the two parties in which blood flows like rivers, the samurai each fall at spaced intervals, taking dozens of guards with them, and a final showdown is set up between Shinzaemon and Naritsugu. This whole final sequence unfolds predictably and according to convention, but that's not to say it's not exciting and entertaining. Action scenes are almost always predictable when it comes to setup and outcome; where they differ is in execution and creativity, and Miike goes about his work with style.
"13 Assassins" is an enjoyable and exciting film, occasionally beautiful in its cinematography, often graphic in its violence and bloodiness, and even, once or twice, mildly philosophical. It's being hailed by many as a new classic in the samurai genre. It's certainly the best film Takashi Miike has released in the United States, and may introduce Western audiences, and especially those not willing to endure his brilliant but horrific revenge stories and splatter films, to a talented and prolific Japanese director; perhaps the best director working in Japan right now. Miike will probably make 3 or 4 more films this year, and already has plans for a 3D Samurai film to premier at next year's Cannes festival. That sounds like box office magic here in the West, meaning Miike could honestly be the Next Big Thing. Here's your chance to get on the bandwagon early and proclaim "I saw it first" to all your friends this time next year. Don't miss it.