Though he’s also made children’s movies and period pieces, Takashi Miike is best known for bloody, twisted tales like “Ichi the Killer” and “Audition,” which are among the few of the Japanese director’s 70-plus movies to play in Western theaters. His latest, “13 Assassins,” continues the gory trend, combining it with an old-fashioned samurai story. The result feels way too long (and the first cut was even longer!), but it’s worth it for Miike’s masterful depiction of incredible violence.
In the very first scene, a man commits honorable suicide by stabbing himself in the gut. Many directors would show the fellow administering a single tasteful jab and let that be the end of it, but not Miike. Miike has the guy plunge the blade into his belly, then slice himself open some more, then fall forward into a pool of blood. That’s what seppuku looks like, pansies!
The setting is feudal Japan in the 1840s, the waning days of the samurai. The just-mentioned suicide was a response to the actions of the shogun’s brother, Lord Naritsugu (played with devilish bemusement by Japanese pop star Goro Inagaki), who is fond of raping, torturing, and murdering people, and can do so with impunity because of his status. Having finally had enough, shogun councilor Sir Doi (Mikijiro Hira) secretly hires the samurai Shinzaemon (Koji Yakusho) to kill Naritsugu.
One problem: Naritsugu is constantly surrounded by highly skilled warriors who will happily die in his defense. No lone swordsman can assassinate him. It will require Shinzaemon and, oh, let’s say, 12 others.
This is a remake of a 1963 film by Eiichi Kudo, which itself probably owes more than a little to Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai.” You can see it in the structure: Shinzaemon recruits warriors to help him in his mission; one of these is a slightly crazy non-samurai; the final battle takes place in a small village where the heroes are outnumbered by the villains. Unlike its predecessors, “13 Assassins” ramps up the ick factor with details of Naritsugu’s heinous crimes, which include killing entire families for sport and amputating the limbs of his rape victims. As usual with Miike, it’s not clear whether we should be horrified or entertained by all this, and the imbalance is both exhilarating and unsettling.
The first 75 minutes are basically a long setup for a gonzo 45-minute finale in which the assassins take on Naritsugu’s army. Since we know we’re headed for a showdown, we get a little restless when the film takes forever to get there; the characterization and exposition are merely serviceable, and not good enough to justify the amount of screen time they get.
But when it does arrive, that epic battle is a thrilling, nightmarish — and, yes, awesome — bloodbath involving hand-to-hand combat, clever strategies, flaming livestock, and flat-out insanity. The number of participants and the amount of blood borders on the absurd, but all that means is that Miike is delivering what he promised. Naritsugu is bored by peace and loves war, the nastier the better. He’s obviously a psychopath. We probably shouldn’t dwell too much, then, on the fact that Miike seems to hold the same view.
B- (2 hrs., 6 min.; Japanese with subtitles; )