The maddeningly prolific Takashi Miike has helmed more than 50 films, and he’s probably already directed another one in the time since I sat down to start writing this review. Best known as the bad-boy of extreme Asian cinema, Miike’s notorious Audition scarred a generation for life, and his gonzo Ichi The Killer singlehandedly cured my best friend of squeamishness—much in the way climbing Mount Everest might conquer your fear of heights.
Yet the shock and delight of 13 Assassins comes from what a classical, throwback samurai adventure picture it turns out to be. Much in the same way those snarky Coen Brothers subverted their subversive reputations by playing things (relatively) straight with True Grit, 13 Assassins allows the filmmaker’s penchant for transgressive, anything-goes filmmaking to color in the margins of a defiantly old-school, ripping yarn.
Remaking a 1963 film by Eiichi Kudo, Miike indulges in modern-era gross for only the first reel or so. It’s 1844, and the flagrantly amoral, spectacularly loathsome half-brother to the shogun, Lord Naritsugu (an indelible Goro Inagaki) amuses himself by raping villagers, killing indiscriminately and sometimes firing arrows into the heads of peasant children when he’s bored. Poised to inherit a discomforting amount of power, let’s just say Naritsugu has become a problem.
The powers that be enlist the help of wise elder samurai Shinzaemon, gloriously played by Koji Yakusho with a beguilingly specific 50-something sadness, plus a welcome glint of mischief in his eyes. Peacetime hasn’t been easy on these aging swordsmen—Shinzaemon’s first glimpsed fishing and obviously bored to tears—the opportunity to take up the blade for one last job leaves him literally trembling with anticipation.
It also gives him a chance to rehabilitate his loutish nephew (Takayuki Yamada), who has taken after the dirty old uncle by wasting his days in gambling parlors and whorehouses. Before long they’ve both assembled a ragtag band of 12 colorful Ronin mercenaries and honor-debt settlers, who for reasons of screen-time economy are typically painted in bold, larger-than-life archetypal strokes. The 13th warrior is rounded out by Yûsuke Iseya’s goofball big-game hunter and impromptu forest guide, carving some delicious, rambunctious ham in a deliberate throwback to Toshiro Mifune in Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai .
Of course Kurosawa looms large over 13 Assassins. Miike’s clean frames and elegant compositions are an obvious homage to The Master, yet weirdly enough there are even more DNA samples from Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, my personal favorite movie of all time and perhaps the reason watching this thing hit such a sweet spot.
Shinzaemon’s pursuit of that dastardly Naritsugu is complicated by the presence of Hanbei (Masachika Ichimura), the worthless heir’s sworn bodyguard and our hero’s childhood friend. Mirroring the complex push-pull between former amigos William Holden and Robert Ryan in Peckinpah’s towering masterpiece, 13 Assassins sets worthy, AARP-ready adversaries against one another on an arduous chase that soon becomes a battle of wits, while both are saddled with unarmed compatriots. Their fundamental moral disagreement over the samurai code and subservience to the master versus The Greater Good echoes The Wild Bunch’s immortal one-liner: “It’s not your word that counts; it’s who you give it to!”
Of course this can all only end one way, and Miike does not disappoint. The final 45 minutes of 13 Assassins consists of one single, astonishingly staged set-piece in which a very unlucky podunk farm town becomes an elaborate booby trap for Shinzaemon’s baker’s dozen versus what appears to be the entire Japanese army. (“Great. Only 130 more of them to go,” one samurai mutters after a particularly amazing slaughter.) Eschewing all the quick-cut, close-up slo-mo that has become too fashionable in action pictures of the past 20 years, Miike shoots the ever-escalating mayhem in retro wide and medium shots, granting a welcome spatial coherence to the extraordinary fight choreography. Also, five words: Flaming oxen used as weapons.
Our resourceful heroes have so many sneaky tricks up their sleeves, a fight that lasts for almost half the movie somehow still continues to surprise and delight long after it theoretically should have worn out its welcome. This is all phenomenally entertaining, and Miike is wise enough to tone down the grisliness of the establishing reel to narrow his focus on the sheer athleticism and grace of the swordplay.
The Internet tells me that 13 Assassins was shorn by 20 minutes before its American release. I guess I can see the logic in trimming some of the early, expository business in getting to the juicy stuff quicker for us rubes. But I also can’t help thinking that this cut feels slightly imbalanced, and perhaps a bit more time spent with these characters could make their exits even more iconic, and could add even more to the movie’s exhilarating, exhausted, Peckinpah-worthy sensation that we’re watching an entire era end not with a whimper, but with a bang.
Director: Takashi Miike
Starring: Kôji Yakusho, Takayuki Yamada and Yûsuke Iseya
Run time: 141 minutes
2014 Films: The Year’s Most Likely