How can you resist a Japanese action epic called 13 Assassins?
By rights, it should be nearly twice as good as Seven Samurai. Although Takashi Miike's swashbuckler might not be a masterpiece for the ages like Kurosawa's, it's easily as entertaining, and just as that classic spawned The Magnificent Seven, perhaps Miike's film will also have its own Western remake – The Dirty Baker's Dozen?
It's safe to say that there's never a dull moment in 13 Assassins – not always the case in samurai dramas, where there's often much time spent debating the formal and ethical intricacies of the warrior code. There's something of that here too, but this film's maker is not one for hanging around. Takashi Miike is not to be confused with director, actor and cult heavy Takeshi Kitano, although they share a taste for provocation. In fact, Miike is an even wilder card than Kitano – a phenomenally prolific director equally at home in action, horror, crime and outré comedy, with a work rate (some 80 titles in two decades) that makes François Ozon and Michael Winterbottom look like slouches. He's best known in Britain for the exceptionally violent Ichi the Killer and for Audition, an essay in sexual psycho-horror that was all the more shocking (and I mean really shocking) for its chilly, formal restraint. Miike's is a truly dark sensibility, and it's no surprise that he earnt himself a cameo in torture thriller Hostel. But he can be a Dadaist joker too – I can heartily recommend the demented Gozu, which starts as a gangster story, then turns into a Lynchian nightmare involving a minotaur creature with a very slurpy tongue.
That said, 13 Assassins is surprisingly sober – for an extended study of violent bloodshed. A remake of a 1963 drama, this is a samurai tale knowingly framed in classic form. There's a certain amount of stiff formality to contend with at the start, as solemn elders assemble to discuss protocol and matters at hand. It's 1844, the end of the samurai era and a time of peace, under the rule of a shogun. However, the shogun's younger brother, Naritsugu – who's under his protection and stands to become immensely powerful, is a languid decadent whose only amusement is to satisfy his sadistic whims. An early flashback shows he's also a very ungracious guest – raping his hostess and killing her husband, in a scene all the more disturbing for the aesthete's eye that Miike applies to the splash of blood on a candlelit white kimono.
Things have got so bad that the shogun's own top official engages a veteran samurai, Shinzaemon (Koji Yakusho), to dispatch the brute. To show him the extent of Naritsugu's depravity, the official introduces his key witness, a woman whose limbs have been hacked off. This is a truly nightmarish image, and the film's most extreme insight into Miike's black imagination: but it offers an authentic echo of the Japanese horror tradition of such Sixties films as Onibaba and Kwaidan.
Confronted with such horror, Shinzaemon's face lights up: now at last he can look forward to dying with honour (peacetime being generally bad for samurai self-esteem). "I will achieve your wish – with magnificence," he promises. His plan is to dispatch Naritsugu while he's on the road, and by and by, Shinzaemon recruits 12 good men and true: among them, dissolute nephew Shinrouko (Takayuki Yamada), who'll make a samurai yet; and Sahara, a dishevelled, jovial ronin, whom you immediately warm to because he's the only one who demands payment upfront. The last assassin doesn't turn up till later, but he's a show-stopper – a manic forest-dweller (Yusuke Iseya) who's at first mistaken for a "raccoon goblin" and who might well have some sort of supernatural indestructibility.
But Miike isn't that interested in his characters – they're largely there to make up numbers and provide expendable manpower in the final showdown between Shinzaemon's crew and Naritsugu's retinue. The latter proves to be 200 strong, and snakes across the landscape in a way that reminds you why they invented the widescreen format. Before Shimzaemon faces his oldest samurai rival, and then Naritsugu himself, Miike pulls out all the stops at a small town that Shinzaemon has lavishly booby-trapped. Cue collapsing and exploding buildings, massive wooden gates that swing out of nowhere, and – a distinctive Miike touch, although he claims historical accuracy – a CGI stampede of blazing cattle.
The swordplay and the ballistics are spectacular and relentless. The film's a slow burner, but once we get to the fireworks, it doesn't let up for a moment. By the time the last survivors are wading through a morass of blood, mud and arrow-spiked bodies, the abstract codes of war, honour and nobility are comprehensively shredded; step by step, the proud language of these elegant warriors is replaced by animal-like grunts and roars.
Koji Yakusho makes an imposingly grave warrior sage; when he utters the line, "I must do what must be done," you hear a legacy not just of samurai chiefs but of Western sheriffs girding up to do what they gotta do. But you can tell that Miike is more interested in his villain Naritsugu – a poker-faced de Sade-style exquisite who, in the film's most laconically ghoulish moment, distractedly polishes off an entire family with arrows. Played with icy chic by Goro Inagaki, this pampered ghoul greets the samurai onslaught with polite rapture. Witness at last to the slaughter he's only been able to imagine, he decides that, if this is war, he likes it: in fact, he'll bring back the Age of War as soon as he's in power. Naritsugu represents Miike's own distinctive style of savage amusement and black mischief in what might otherwise have been an augustly traditional exercise. But, being a Miike film, 13 Assassins is classic genre material given a brisk rub-down – and achieved, as promised, with magnificence.
Jonathan Romney takes his raygun to south London for Joe Cornish's hoodies-vs-aliens adventure Attack the Block.