Though primarily known as a prolific supplier of extreme horror films like Audition and Ichi The Killer, director Takashi Miike has proven to be a versatile genre stylist, dabbling in Westerns (Sukiyaki Western Django), musicals (The Happiness Of The Katakuris), and avant-garde(ish) art movies (Big Bang Love, Juvenile A). But how might Miike handle the samurai picture, a genre (and an era) grounded in history both actual and cinematic, and featuring characters bound by code and tradition? 13 Assassins’ enthralling answer: by calling those codes and traditions into question at every opportunity. Much as he did in the first hour of Audition, Miike spends the patient build-up of 13 Assassins looking like another, less irreverent filmmaker, expertly aping the classicism of The Seven Samurai and other examples of the genre. Then out come the flaming boars, and suddenly it becomes a Takashi Miike movie.
A reworking of a 1963 film of the same title, 13 Assassins opens in 1844 and follows a covert effort to cut down a sadistic young lord insulated by his political status. Played by a deliciously evil Gorô Inagaki, the lord rapes and murders his subjects at will, knowing his atrocities will go unchallenged. The great Kôji Yakusho stars as a revered samurai who decides that enough is enough, and sets about assembling the assassins of the title like a men-on-a-mission movie. (Call it The Dirty Baker’s Dozen.) Once the battle lines are drawn, the two sides finally clash in a small village where Yakusho’s men are vastly outnumbered.
Though 13 Assassins’ setup could stand some tightening, it’s all necessary prelude to a spectacular, action-packed final hour where all hell breaks loose and the streets and rooftops flow with blood. Facing a severe disadvantage, with Inagaki’s hundreds against their 13, Yakusho and his men create some leverage through an ingenious series of booby traps and other elaborate feints. The mayhem that results isn’t a surprise from a filmmaker of Miike’s reputation—though he handles it with more aplomb than usual—but what is surprising about 13 Assassins is how far it goes in upending the samurai picture. In Miike’s mind, there’s nothing honorable about the thoughtless commitment to honor and code, especially if it means protecting dastardly men who don’t deserve that kind of loyalty. With 13 Assassins, he’s made a film both punk and moral.