Takashi Miike is not known for his subtlety. When his film Ichi the Killer premiered, the audience were given vomit bags (several of which, apparently, were used.) He is also one of Japan’s most prolific filmmakers, often churning out more than one film a year. It is not often, though, that he focuses on true historic events. His latest film, 13 Assassins, looks to 19th century Japan, when an evil Lord wreaked havoc across the Japanese countryside, using his power to torture, kill, and mutilate innocent citizens whenever it struck his fancy. One man, Sir Doi, decides he must be stopped, and assembles a rag-tag group of men (and boys) from various clans in order to band together to kill the evil Lord, though they know that by doing so they risk several decades of peace.
Miike’s films can usual be counted on for straightforward though often-flimsy plots, and lots of blood. Enough to fill a blood bank. So this film stands out as a bit atypical. This is his version of The Seven Samurai; the band bonds as they travel across the Japanese countryside, practicing the almost lost art of the samurai, as the older men prepare the younger men for what is most likely their deaths in the name of justice. After the initial introduction of exposition (which was confusing to many including myself), Miike focuses on the men and their initial small battles.
But this is all build up to the final battle, which takes up almost a third of the film’s running time. At this point it feels much more like a Miike film. As the evil Lord and his troops are trapped by fantastic walls that rise up in front of them like enormous gravestones, the band of assassins ready themselves to take on the over 200 enemy guards. Of course these are ridiculous odds, and of course in reality they would never win. But this matters not to Miike or the audience. The battle begins as soon as that first wall blocks the enemy’s path, and it does not let up for nearly 40 minutes. And yet, rarely is it boring. Miike deftly moves between moments of great battles, where one or two samurai slaughter 50 or so guards, great explosion, and one-on-one fights. I can’t imagine the choreography that took place in planning this scene, as Miike uses every available corner of the set. Arguably, the film could have been cut by about 15 minutes (though not necessarily from this tremendous battle scene.) But Miike has a unique way of making even this historical violence both gross and engrossing.