In nineteenth century Japan, a psychotic lord, a brother of the shogun, threatens the shogunate with his excesses. Above the law, he rapes, kills and dismembers. A brave samurai, Shinzaemon, (Koji Yakusho) reluctantly sets about recruiting 13 assassins to bring the lord down and restore stability.
A film of two halves – or one and two thirds – 13 Assassins slowly plots the criminality of the villain and the political implications of his unchecked behaviour. Unflinching and nasty, it’s an unsubtle set-up. So too is the uneven recruitment of the baker’s dozen. But the artfully shot and carefully composed visuals keep you hooked. That’s the first two thirds.
Then comes the blistering battle. Almost an hours’ worth of intricately plotted fights, tricks, defences and explosions. Running to its own rhythm, it’s a seat-gripping experience that plunges you into the maelstrom. You almost feel the heat and sweat of it. Stupendous sets, imaginative camera angles and with thirteen protagonists’ fates to follow, it avoids bewilderment or fatigue.
Finding room for some humour, 13 Assassins gambles everything on the film’s final third and it works like a dream, albeit a bad dream. As samurai films go, it doesn’t add much. No Twilight Samurai, it says nothing new about the samurai code. But as a variant on Kurasawa’s fluid, flag-fluttering battle sequences, or Ed Zwick’s smoothly-shot Last Samurai, 13 Assassins raises the game.
A remake of Eiichi Kudo’s 1963 black and white of the same name, Takashi Miike has expended most of his originality on the kinetic action, certainly not on the plotting or characterisation. That said, Koji Yakusho is gripping as Shinzaemon, a commanding presence and thoroughly believable as the sword-master samurai.
Toned down by Miike’s standards, 13 Assassins still has squeamish moments. Mostly, and ironically, they occur way before the battle. And for once, it’s good to see battle scenes that are not infused with Spielberg’s post-Private Ryan bleached and bewildering visuals.