Electric, epic in scope and execution, and exceedingly violent, 13 Assassins is a slam-bang remake of Eiichi Kudo’s 1963 Japanese period classic, a wild pageant of dizzying panache, and a masterful exercise in cinematic butchery, building slowly, accumulating characters and themes, pounding with blood-drenched action, then exploding into a prolonged battle sequence inside a deserted town.
Set in 1840s Japan during the final decades of the Tokugawa shogunate, Lord Matsudaira Naritsugu – the Shogun’s sadistic half-brother who rapes and murders at will – is about to ascend to a higher political position. The Shogunate’s Justice Minister seeks out an older samurai, Shinzaemon, who gathers 11 more samurai and plans to ambush Naritsugu on his official journey from Edo to Akashi. Facing impossible odds, the thirteen confront contempt, carnage, and decapitation until the head-to-head showdown.
Few filmmakers juxtapose cruelty and beauty as audaciously and stylishly as Japan’s cult director Takashi Miike. Always a willfully perverse genre-buster and envelope-pusher, Miike takes on Akira Kurosawa in his sweeping 19th-century spectacle. 13 Assassins is a classically structured rampage that bears serious comparison to Seven Samurai. It also transcribes the anti-war motifs of Paths of Glory, and has a mixture of bloodletting and exultation that would make Sam Peckinpah (The Wild Bunch) sit up in his grave and howl with pleasure.
13 Assassins will floor connoisseurs of action, mood, and the dignity of a pissed-off scowl. Funny, thrilling, visually exquisite, emotionally charged, and featuring a villain who transcends evil and ascends to a realm of barbaric madness, it’s a traditional swords-and-sandals film with postmodern blood and guts. With wide-screen cinematography from Nobuyasu Kita, full-scale sets and special effects, and immersive action scenes, 13 Assassins is nearly the samurai classic it sets out to become. We get the fatalistic honour code, the courtly intrigue, the stately camerawork, the impressive gardens, the scenes of self-disemboweling, the strategic cat-and-mouse game.
The last third of 13 Assassins consists of sustained combat. Yet Miike throttles back the gore of Ichi the Killer and the creep factor of Audition; he doesn’t use jagged cuts to manipulate or impose tension. He is conspicuously gifted at mapping out fast-moving tableaux of grunting, wounded men, circling one another with feral formality. Every ambush, every sword fight, every instance of hand-to-hand combat, is cleanly shot, culminating in an ingeniously plotted and inventively configured 45-minute battle scene. The film is built as a long crescendo, opening at a level of Zen-like reflection and ending with a cacophony of elaborate annihilation.
Miike knows you have to kill off characters you care about; the hardest and noblest achievement is that he makes you care in the first place. Capturing the elegiac futility of a fight to the finish, 13 Assassins opens with an act of hari-kiri and closes with a choreographed bloodbath in a roadside village that’s been converted into a death maze. It’s an action adventure with horror credentials, a study in criminal pathology, a vivid samurai drama, and an insane work of genius.