Dir: Takashi Miike
13 Assassins is a stunningly simple film. It is the dying days of Japan's samurai era, and local warlord Naritsugu (Goro Inagaki) is carrying out a reign of terror, indiscriminately raping and murdering as he pleases. Despite the fact that is supposed to be off limits samurai warrior Shinzaemon (Koji Yakusho) decides that he must be stopped, and recruits another 11 elite warriors to the cause, which is clearly a suicide mission. Along the way they are joined by a 13th, a bandit with impressive fighting skills and little left to live for, before taking over a village to prepare for the showdown with the warlord's private army of samurai.
Director Takashi Miike is known in the West largely for his extreme works; gangster films, gore movies and thrillers, but he's a more versatile talent than that, his 80 plus films covering all sorts of genres (even the odd kids movie). I've often found Miike a little indulgent and his films a touch unfocused (which can perhaps be blamed on his astonishing work rate), but 13 Assassins is neither of those things; it's a single minded and tightly constructed work in which tension and action complement one another beautifully, and which treats the samurai era and the samurai characters with seriousness and respect. It builds up the main characters well (though some of the 13 Assassins do become little more than sword waving props), and the film builds effectively to both a large scale battle and a personal conflict between Shinzaemon and Naritsugu's bodyguard Hanbei (Masachika Ichimura).
13 Assassins divides quite neatly into two halves; the first establishes Naritsugu's credentials as a legendary murderous bastard and charts the building of the team of 13, while the second half consists entirely of the awe inspiring battle between the 13 and the samurai army. The first half does, despite the twenty minutes that have been cut since the film's festival showings, occasionally feel like it needs speeding up, but equally it is packed with standout scenes be it the opening images of a samurai committing hara kiri, or the shockingly violent backstory of why one of the 13 so desperately wants to take down Naritsugu.
The second half; the battle, is astounding. It could easily be dull, it's basically close to an hour of swordfights, but Miike finds little dramas in many of the individual encounters, as well as keeping both camera style and choreography inventive throughout. Happily the violence isn't given the shakycam treatment often, and when it is the stylistic choice has purpose, putting us inside the viewpoint of a defeated samurai, rather than just being employed to disguise the shabby efforts of yet another director who can't shoot action. The restrained camera style (though that's all that is restrained here, despite the 15 certificate the claret flows in rivers) also means that despite the frenetic nature of the battle the action is always intelligible; I knew where people were and who they were at all times - which has not been so commonplace as you might think in recent action cinema. All this adds up to make the battle scenes involving, exciting, dramatic and fun, if you can't get swept up in the last hour of this movie you may as well give up on cinema; it's not for you.
The performances are perhaps best described as fit for purpose. The actors making up the ranks of the 13 may not have tremendous depth, but they are individual enough for you to know who they all are, and to care when they are imperilled during the battle. The leads are excellent though, with Koji Yakusho and Masachika Ichimura impressing as the two respectful but equally ruthless warriors with a history, and again this lends weight to what could easily just have been a bit of splashily violent fun.
I haven't seen as much of Takashi Miike's work as I should have, but this is easily the best I've seen from him thus far; a muscular, beautifully shot, exciting and entertaining film, but one that has enough depth to engage on levels beyond the visceral. Go and see it.