Takashi Miike is a filmmaker who churns out movies at an incredible rate – often three or four a year – and occasionally one of those films breaks through and makes an impression on the public at large. The last Miike film to receive widespread acclaim was his creepily compelling Audition, which found an appreciative audience in the UK in 2001, although films such as Ichi the Killer and The Happiness of the Katakuris have achieved some degree of cult status in the past decade. 13 Assassins, however, has the potential to be Miike's most popular hit to date, and deservedly so, as this samurai epic is one of the most thrilling pieces of filmmaking you'll see all year.
The film's breakthrough potential is helped by its apparent conventionality, of course. 13 Assassins is a remake of a 1963 Eiichi Kudo film, and its setup is satisfying in its simplicity. The sadistic Lord Naritsugu (Gorô Inagaki) is about to ascend to a position of power, where his already insatiably taste for rape and murder will have free reign. How sadistic is Naritsugu? We see evidence of his brutality early on, when a young woman, her limbs severed and her tongue cut out, is brought before ageing samurai Shinzaemon (Kôji Yakusho) to convince him that this man must be stopped. Holding a paintbrush precariously in her mouth, the woman scrawls the words "total massacre" on a sheet of paper, and even though 13 Assassins unfolds as a very traditional picture, this sequences feels like a distinctively perverse Miike touch.
In order to take this bastard out, Shinzaemon recruits a team of samurai and prepares for what will probably be a suicide mission ("You've entrusted me with your lives" he tells his men, "and I'll spend them at my disposal"). He is not fearful of this prospect, but inspired; Shinzaemon was a swordsman without a purpose, and Kôji Yakusho's magnificent performance shows us the fire that has been reignited in this character by the promise of a glorious death. All of the warriors who sign up for the task share their leader's sense of duty and adherence to the samurai code, but few of them share his depth as a protagonist. With 12 characters to incorporate into the story, a few of them are, by necessity, little more than sketches. In fact, aside from Shinzaemon, Naritsugu and Shinzaemon's nephew Shinrouko (Takayuki Yamada), the only character who really feels alive in 13 Assassins is Koyata (Yûsuke Iseya). He's a bandit and vagrant who joins the merry band as they march into battle, becoming the 13th assassin, but he spends much of his time mocking the samurai before revealing himself to be as worthy a warrior as any of them. Koyata offers a sense of comic relief, but he also gives the film one of its most appealing and human characters.
The version on 13 Assassins that has played at some festivals is apparently 20 minutes longer than the released film, and while I don't know what exactly has been lost in that edit, I'm glad we're getting a slightly shorter cut. You don't expect to be bored watching a Takashi Miike film – and don't get me wrong, I wasn't bored here – but I was feeling a little restless by the film's halfway point, as the whole process of putting the team together felt a little rote, and I started eagerly anticipating the climactic action. It's a deliberate tease by Miike, giving us a slow build-up before unleashing the explosive samurai action we have all come to see, and the only question that arises with this tactic is whether the climax will be worth the wait.
Oh boy, is it ever. The last 45 minutes of 13 Assassins is essentially one long set-piece in which the heroes take on hundreds of foes in a town rigged with bobby traps and cattle on fire (seriously). Amid the mud and rain, the battle is relentless and it is captured with astonishing skill by Miike, whose camerawork and editing ensures we are right in the thick of the action and constantly aware of where the characters are in relation to each other. I can't recall the last time I saw a sequence in an action film that was so stupendously well orchestrated, or one that balanced bloody violence with moments of humour and pathos, let alone one that sustained these qualities for such a long period of time without threatening to outstay its welcome. It is a breathtaking display of artistry and craftsmanship from a director who has often been lauded for the amount of work he produces rather than the quality of it. One gets the sense that Miike moved beyond this film the minute he put together his final cut (he has subsequently completed two features and has another in development), but anyone who appreciates great filmmaking, 13 Assassins is likely to leave a more lasting impression.