The spirit of Akira Kurosawa appears in the warp and the weave of 13 Assassins, an old-school samurai epic about revenge, duty and the narrow path of honor between them. Director Takashi Miike clearly has Kurosawa on his mind as he sets out to tell his tale, and the nods to Seven Samurai fly fast and furious as the film goes on. The inspiration proves well-founded, channeling the spirit and essence of that earlier classic while retaining Miike’s own auteurial voice. It may be the best movie of the year thus far.
Those expecting a torture porn abattoir like Audition or Ichi the Killer will find things comparatively tame here. Oh, we start out with some fresh examples of body horror, as 13 Assassins reveals the depths of its chief villain’s depravity. Lord Naritsugu (Goro Inagaki) routinely engages in the kind of hide-your-eyes mayhem normally reserved for Jason Voorhees. He disembowels his hosts on a whim, cuts off the limbs of peasant girls He even finds room for some battlefield humor, timed just right to keep things lively, and uses an entire family for target practice because they looked at him cross-eyed. But as 13 Assassins finds its rhythm, the gore because less of a freak show spectacle and more of a genuine offshoot of the story itself.
That pattern continues as various lords and nobles debate what’s to be done with the psychopath in their midst. Naturally he has to go, but because he’s the Shogun’s half-brother, he possesses the ultimate Get Out of Jail Free card. The law demands that he pay for his crimes; the code of bushido demands that everyone sit on their hands and let him carve up the help like rump roast. Finally, the country’s chief magistrate hits upon the notion of a covert assassination. Let by stoic bad-ass Shinzaemon Shimadia (Koji Yakusho), a select band of samurai must take Naritsugu down without raising suspicion, as wells as dispatching an endless stream of underlings who don’t care what he’s done because you know, he’s the boss.
The first half focuses on Shinzaemon’s efforts to gather trustworthy warriors to his side. Miike revels in the details of 19th century Japan, aided by gorgeous cinematography and a script well-versed in poisonous intrigue. Sinzaemon’s counterpart on Naritsugu’s side knows what’s coming, and the two slowly circle each other angling for the best advantage. As the tension rises, 13 Assassins carefully studies the samurai code: the way it simultaneously traps and strengthens the people who adhere to it, as well as the curious double standard it applies to the use of force.
The implied violence explodes on the screen during the film’s second half: a forty-five minute throwdown between the two sides as gloriously blood-soaked as anything this side of Private Ryan. A fortified village serves as the centerpiece, as Shinzaemon’s baker’s dozen confronts Naritsugu and several hundred of his closest friends. Miike demonstrates exquisite skill in orchestrating the complex choreography, brought roaring to life and set loose before our eyes. We never quite know who has the upper hand, but the film stays focused on the stakes without descending into mindlessness. It even finds room for some battlefield humor, timed just right to keep things lively.
The talent required to pull that off stems from only the very finest directors, something I never thought I would say about this one. His gruesome effectiveness always felt a tad too measured, while gentler films in his repertoire never quite matched their power. Here, he puts all of the pieces together perfectly. 13 Assassins doesn’t quite reinvent the wheel, but it certainly reminds us how cool it looks spinning down the highway. Kurosawa has no peer of course, and 13 Assassins knows it. But a few more films like this might give Miike the title of heir apparent. What a wonderful prospect to contemplate.