Last year, Hong Kong director John Woo, known for his balletic, over-the-top '90s shoot-'em-ups, went classical with Red Cliff, an epic, period martial arts adventure film. Something similar happens in the form of the new 13 Assassins, a remake of an obscure 1963 film.
13 Assassins is the product of outré Japanese auteur Takashi Miike, a cult favorite best known for violent, button-pushing films such as Audition and Ichi the Killer.
Miike's new film is brutal and bloody in its way as well but is more aesthetically conservative. It's a period piece and a pure genre film — set in 1844, during "the waning days of the samurai."
In size, scope, and assertion of moral weight — if not visual poetry or personality — 13 Assassins evokes the crossover giant of the genre, Akira Kurosawa's 1954 masterpiece Seven Samurai.
Here, the land is plagued by the sadistic, debaucherous Lord Naritsugu, the shogun's younger brother. Amid early political maneuverings, it is decided that Naritsugu's "lust for flesh and dishonorable conduct cannot be pardoned" and, fearing further chaos should Naritsugu rise to power, the shogun's top adviser secretly recruits retired samurai Shinzaemon for an assassination attempt.
This bare plot culminates in a small village where Shinzaemon and his 12 recruits — 11 samurai and one untrained forest hunter picked up along the way — face off against 200 soldiers protecting Naritsugu. If you know your way around the genre, you know that this is a fair fight.
In rushing into a climactic, well-staged battle sequence that makes up the final 50 minutes of the movie, 13 Assassins falters some in giving the viewer a sense of the players and their personalities, though this problem is perhaps more pronounced for Western audiences, and the 20 minutes cut from the Japanese version may have helped in this regard. Among the samurai who do stand out are virile young fighter Hirayama, Shinzaemon's conflicted nephew, Shinrouko, and a pair of young brothers new to real battle.
This world is more narrow than in something like Seven Samurai. A few civilians testify to the evil and brutality of Naritsugu, but, for the most part, samurai, soldiers, and nobles are the only figures on display. But in its limited, genre-bound way, 13 Assassins is a highly satisfying film.
Opening Friday, May 27th