Takeshi Miike's 13 Assassins strikes a balance between measured character development and violent brutality
Prolific to the point of insanity, unpredictable and blatantly controversial, Takeshi Miike is not your average Japanese filmmaker. His notorious body of work which includes loads of straight to video fare, the Dead or Alive trilogy, Ichi the Killer and his commercial breakthrough film Audition, has had a profound influence on among others American filmmaker admirers Quentin Tarantino and Eli Roth (Hostel).
With 13 Assassins, the second of two films Takeshi completed in one year, the former enfant terrible manages to surprise us again. The film is essentially a remake of Eichi Kudo’s classic 1963 samurai period action-drama and comes from the same mythology that informed Seven Samurai, The Magnificent Seven and The Dirty Dozen. Set in mid-19th Century Japan 13 Assassins follows noble samurai Shinzaemon Shimada (Kôji Yakusho) and his band of hand picked warriors on a suicide mission to kill evil Lord Naritsugu (Gorô Inagaki).
Reversing his usual trend of visually pummeling the viewer from the off, and gradually losing focus towards the end, Takeshi builds this familiar tale up with the caution and skill of a pro. He takes time to establish the characters, so we care if they live or die, he allows the conspiracy to take hold in whispered meetings in shuttered rooms while Naritsugu’s horrendous domestic cruelties are outlined in queasy detail. And then our heroes are on the road, Takeshi even allows a little woodland fairytale to creep in, in the shape of a lovestruck boar hunter who joins on their quest.
And then the film goes mental. Taking up the final third of the film (about 50 minutes) the showdown between Naritsugu’s large army and Shinzaemon’s small but inventive one is as a giddy and gratuitous a ride into swordplay abandon as you will see this or any year. There can be no doubt that Takeshi is one of the great film choreographer stylists working today, 13 Assassins is brilliantly violent and violently brilliant.
Cameo, Edinburgh from Fri 6 May; GFT, Glasgow from Fri 13–Sun 22 May; Filmhouse, Edinburgh from Fri 20–Thu 26 May.