So far in his ludicrously prolific career, Japanese provocateur Takashi Miike has been a consistently above average (if gratuitously extreme) genre director, who has occasionally, through sheer quantity of product, managed to pull off a near masterpiece or two. He last did this nearly a decade ago with the audacious and infinitely harrowing Audition, a Lynchian horror show that was as artfully subtle in its deceptive front half as it was truly monstrous once the gloves came off. Now, with 13 Assassins, Miike achieves a similar coup, seemingly dialing down his tendencies for the grotesque to make an old fashioned samurai film in the lofty tradition of Kurosawa, before unleashing a torrent of swords and buckets of blood in a sustained, hour long battle scene that is both brutal and elegant.
Invoking the Kurosawa’s name is not entirely the sacrilege it sounds. Miike’s scope here treads in similar epic waters, displaying a respect for tradition and a surprisingly strong development of, and sympathy for, character. Working within the codified tropes of a samurai film seems to have forced Japan’s enfant terrible to restrain his penchant for cartoonish and ugly excess, the result being an immensely satisfying bloodletting that never seems needlessly gratuitious.
The film opens in 1844, with an aged samurai committing hara-kiri in front of the current Shogun’s palace, as a protest of the rise of Lord Naritsugu, the Shogun’s bastard half-brother. Naritsugu, an unredeemable sadist, has been responsible for innumerable massacres in villages throughout the Japanese countryside. He rapes and kills for sport, with no other aspiration than the pleasure he gets in killing and the chaos that ensues (Miike does get to indulge his love of the grotesque in a few, fortunately brief, shots of the warlord’s victims).
Naritsugu’s relation to the Shogun ensures his immunity to reprisal. This appalls Sir Doi, the head of the Shogun’s samurais, and though powerless to come out against Naritsugu openly, he drafts Shinzaemon, a fellow and much feared fellow samurai, to assemble a posse to take out the warlord before he tears Japan apart and plunges it into civil war. What follows is a fairly standard assemblage of the titular assassins, various samurai from different backgrounds, who bring different skills and talents to the table. Miike comes close to coasting on autopilot here, hewing close to the traditional script for such a film, to the point where the film almost seems to become inert and you wonder if Miike is actually the director behind the camera.
It’s all a slow burn, a good hour of prep work and necessary ground-laying, but the payoff is huge. Shinzaemon works out a plan to ambush Naritsugu and his entourage as they travel across Japan, the assassins lying in wait in a village across the warlord’s route. Once Naritsugu’s own gang of samurai and mercenaries walk into the ambush, the film explodes in a tremendous, expertly choreographed battle scene that takes up the remainder of the film’s two hour run time.
Miike’s execution here is simply stunning (and wholly unprecedented in his prolific oeuvre) a perfect fusion of mayhem and tightly controlled direction. The sustained action is relentless and savage, but never boring, as so much of the blurry, jump cut action is in American films. Part of this comes from the ingenuity of the assassins’ plan, which is born out of necessity of being outnumbered 20 to 1. Their ambush makes use of the tightness of the village—its narrow streets, irregular buildings, and convenient gangways between roofs—and turns the entire place into a huge boobytrap, with all sorts of explosive and devious traps being triggered every few minutes (I especially liked the stampeding herd of warthogs engulfed in flames). But also forces Miike to limit the number of combatants on the screen at any given time, the better to isolate and follow the action.
The film continuously delights and surprises when all this hell breaks loose. All the swordplay and running and fighting is easy to follow, even as the bodies start to pile up and the carnage becomes increasingly graphic; the explosions more numerous; the fires more raging out of control; and streets flowing with torrential rivers of blood. Such visual excess in any other hands would seem gratuitous, but with Miike he actually seems to be reining himself in, playing it all matter-of-factly and not giving in to the sort of reveling in the tidal wave of blood that I would’ve expected of him.
At the end of the day, once the smoke clears, 13 Assassins emerges as a superior genre film that works as an elegy to a code of honor that has disappeared from the modern world; as a homage to the great Japanese samurai pictures of the past; and as a possible career reinvention for Japan’s most notorious director.
The extras on the DVD release of 13 Assassins are not numerous, but are adequate as supplementary props to the main action. An 18 minute interview with Miike for Japanese television reveals that during shooting and postproduction, he always thought of the film as a drama first and foremost and shot is as such. The huge action sequence, though the obvious focal point of the film, was always just the logical outgrowth of the story and characters. While not exactly dismissing his brauva setpiece of sustained mayhem, he does seem to want to direct the audience’s attention more to the slow first half, which to him forms both the emotional core of the film, and the important links back to cultural and societal traditions.
About 20 minutes of deleted scenes accompany the film as well, which I imagine are the 20 minutes missing from the US release that were actually included in the 140 minute cut of the Japanese release. Most of these scenes are from the first half of the film, and add greater depth to several of the characters who seems to get short shrift.
The scenes don’t sequence well by themselves, though, and unless you watch them right after the film, it might be hard to slot them into their proper places in the film in your memory. I have no idea why they weren’t just kept in the film itself. Perhaps a leaner run time, and quicker lead in to the main course of the battle scene, was imperative for the American distributors. In any event, unlike with other caches of deleted scenes, where you know exactly why they were left out, here I’m scratching my head as to why they weren’t kept in. The film is no worse for it, but it would’ve been even more epic with the 20 minutes added on.