Takashi Miike is arguably one of Japan's hardest working directors who has tackled several different genres, generally with good results. It used to be he would do a dozen or so projects a year, and more in his earlier days. This, of course, has diminished in place of bigger projects, but the man still remains one of Japan's most well known and prolific directors. So, it shouldn't surprise anyone that his undertaking of yet another new genre, the samurai epic, is something of a highly anticipated film. And yes, it succeeds in being another brilliant masterpiece from the man.
13 Assassins, though full of characters, is quite simple actually. A master Shogun samurai is charged with the killing of a cruel and masochistic Shogun lord before he can become more influential in the Japanese Shogunate. With this mission, he gathers together 13 samurai to join him in what appears to be a mostly suicidal mission as they take on a small army of soldiers. For years I have argued that Miike is a master filmmaker that doesn't get nearly the kind of recognition he deserves, as his experience and resume put him up with the likes of other classic filmmakers. This shows in Assassins as he brilliantly puts together this simple, yet purposeful film that calls back to the era of epic samurai films of the likes of Akira Kurosawa. In fact, the influence of Seven Samurai is quite apparent here, even going so far as to model some similar characters. However, do not be mistaken, as this is very much a Miike film, a combination of his abilities to craft a mainstream film and a cult hit.
And the trademarks are certainly there, with the sadistic young Shogun lord bearing the bizarre violent fetishes that have been displayed in Miike's more obscure works, namely Ichi the Killer. As you might suspect, the violence early on is shocking, effective, and often unexpected. This gives way later on to more stylish violence, but none the less, the film is incredibly violent, worthy of a hard R rating by American standards. Miike fans should be very pleased as he both employs his skills as a filmmaker while at the same time adhering to the general guidelines of making a samurai film. Here, he delves greatly into the genre, showing what it means to be a samurai and questioning their purpose through multiple views. Our master samurai, Shinzaemon, sees samurai as being for the people, while Hanbei, his rival, sees them as entirely in servitude to their master without question. Even the young lord, Shinzaemon's target, has a view, thought it is certainly the most negative of any of them.
If I have any complaints, it's two. First, the film does little exposition of the large cast and most of the assassins are simply there to be a fighting force. We learn very little about most of them, and even the samurai we do learn about, including Shinzaemon, get little exposition besides what we already expect, that he's a great samurai of justice. The second would be the clunking over the head about samurai ideals. Miike continues to push messages we've already acquired early in the film and it becomes slightly redundant by the end. However, these are minor complaints that are mostly easily ignored as the film runs at a fast pace with a 45 minute battle that is one of the best samurai battles I've seen on film, comparing to Azumi or Zatoichi's finale, but arguably handled better and with a master's touch.
It's hard to know if this is Miike's pinnacle. He certainly creates a modern samurai masterpiece of an epic here. One particularly powerful scene will remain with you for a long time, and this is the power of Miike's film, one that goes to places many are afraid to tread to leave a lasting impression. Violent, entertaining, and with good examination of the samurai and their duties, fans of Miike's previous films and fans of the samurai epic will not be disappointed.