Takashi Miike is but seconds into his chanbara epic 13 ASSASSINS when he springs on his audience the daunting sight of a samurai assuming the seiza position and laying out in front of him all the accoutrement necessary for committing harakiri. This is a messy errand regardless of who's directing, but in the hands of the man responsible for AUDITION and ICHI THE KILLER (you've either seen them or slept peacefully the last decade), the carnage could be unprecedented. That the man about to go a-diggin' in his midsection plans to do so without the assistance of a second only elevates the tension; if he's less than precise in his technique, there will be no one there to administer a merciful decapitation.
Finally, after careful preparation, the samurai plunges in the blade - and here's where Miike does something positively un-Miike-like: he holds on the man's determined visage as he manipulates the steel in the prescribed manner. Though the textured sound design holds nothing back (leaving plenty to the imagination), Miike's primary concern is the man's emotional anguish. There's a fury in his actions. He's sending a message. And once he completes the ritual, Miike cuts to an overhead angle as that message floods from his suddenly lifeless body. This motherfucker died for something.
Based on the 1963 Eiichi Kudo film of the same title, Miike's 13 ASSASSINS is, in tone and sheer physical scale, a stunning departure for the prolific director. It's a invigoratingly straightforward narrative about revenge, honor and the preservation of peace through "total massacre". Of course, there are perverse, Miike-esque flourishes sprinkled throughout the movie, but he's mostly paying tribute to the classical samurai cinema of Kudo, Masaki Kobayashi, Kenji Misumi and, unavoidably, Akira Kurosawa - and, no hyperbole, meeting them on their vaunted level. This is Miike returning to the precise formal control of AUDITION (some of which was on display in the undervalued IMPRINT), and it's an inspiring reminder that when he's not indulging every lunatic creative whim, he's one of our most talented filmmakers working today.
Following that striking opening sequence, Miike gracefully goes about setting up the the dire political situation of the day: Lord Naritsugu Matsudaira (Goro Inagaki), the psychotic brother of the reigning shogun, is merrily killing off innocent civilians while the samurai under his command helplessly (yet dutifully) do nothing. Naritsugu is a nasty, conscienceless piece of work, prone to torturing and murdering whole families for sport. Sometimes, he spares his victims; this is the case with a defiant young woman, who - despite having her arms, legs and tongue severed - clamps down on a paintbrush and issues the blood-curdling edict for vengeance which drives the film to its calamitous conclusion.
The responsibility for masterminding the assassination falls to Shinzaemon Shimada (Koji Yakusho), an aging samurai who owes no loyalty to Naritsugu. With his nephew Shinrouko (Takayuki Yamada), Shinzaemon gradually recruits the team of expert killers who will hopefully keep Japan from being sadistically plunged into war for war's sake. There's a pleasing familiarity to the first two acts of 13 ASSASSINS: everyone - from Miike to screenwriter Daisuke Tengan to the talented group of actors - seems aware that this is their chance to spin a classic "men on a mission" yarn, and they throw themselves into the production with infectious gusto. This film has been done dozens of times since SEVEN SAMURAI, but not with Miike's grand guignol sense of humor nor his gleeful critique of vigilantism (which consistently - if mildly - undercuts one's enjoyment of the bloodletting).
And it's been a long goddamn time since anyone's had the audacity or, most importantly, the craft to stage a forty-minute (guesstimated) siege like Miike pulls off in the final act of 13 ASSASSINS. Dear god, is this a doozy of a set piece! It's 200 of Naritsugu's men against the lethal thirteen - and, as in all great "men on a mission" movies, we've become so attached to the latter that we can't conceive of losing a single one to enemy steel. But this will happen. Seemingly invincible warriors will be cut down in the name of vanquishing a vile tyrant. And the sting of this is twofold in that (spoiler!) they're never close to taking him out, and Naritsugu's getting off on the mayhem he's occasioned.
Some have observed that Miike's film works as a wholesale subversion of the samurai picture, but while there's certainly a satiric sensibility at play in the lengthy climactic battle, the central conflict is still, at its core, basically good versus evil. 13 ASSASSINS is a largely conventional movie in which morally questionable men refuse to stand by while an absolute evil (born of unchecked privilege) preys on the weak. Nothing terribly novel here. But it's all carried off with such extraordinarily rare aplomb that it would be foolish to ding it for reveling in its own excess. Does Miike personally buy into any of this? Fuck if I care. All that matters is what's up on the screen - and 13 ASSASSINS is a stone-cold, limb-severin', bull-burnin' masterpiece.