For the man notorious in the West for subversively shocking work like Ichi The Killer, Audition and Happiness of the Katakuris, the first hour of Takashi Miike’s Thirteen Assassins, a remake of Eiichi Kudo’s identically-named 1963 jidaigeki and based on a true historical event, may well contain his biggest shock to date.
Far from needling eyeballs, framing shots from inside ears or making a murderous family musical, Miike plays this one almost entirely straight. It’s not completely shorn of the directors’ bloody fingerprints – a young female victim of a sadistic Lord’s brutality is shown with all four limbs amputated – but attempts to subvert the genre or throw surrealist curveballs into the mix are noticeably absent this time around.
The plot and structure is identical to Kudo’s original: the brother of the reigning Shogun, Lord Naritsugo, is above the law and uses his privileged position to indulge his fetish for torture and violent sex. When a respected nobleman commits seppuku as a consequence of Naritsugo raping and killing his daughter, the experienced swordsman Shinzaemon is quietly hired to assemble a band of loyal samurai to ambush and assassinate him as he travels with his guard to Edo.
The first half of the film comprises of character work and scene setting. Both are passably diverting, but nothing outside what fans of the genre will have seen many times before. The stretch as Shinzaemon recruits his men feels especially long, with the eponymous assassins drawn verbatim from the genre stock: the old pro, the young ingenue mentored by the badass, the comic relief country bumpkin with unusual and unexpected combat skills… the wait for Miike to make good on his reputation and put a twist on this stereotypical set unfortunately never pays off. Of the thirteen, no more than three or four are developed enough to be believable as anything but katana fodder.
Having the film set at the end of the feudal period of Japanese history when the Shogunate was in decline does provide Miike with enough freedom to weave in his trademark critique of regimented Japanese society and how blind obedience to old ways inevitably leads to the rotting of the ideals they were founded upon. It’s a recurring theme throughout the film but doesn’t sit entirely comfortably in what is a largely conventional piece of genre cinema. Western fans of Miike’s more outré work would be justified in wondering whether the director has sold out by directing such a staunchly commercial project. In Japan he’s known for knocking out at least two films a year, many of them not particularly well received, but only a selection of those films reach foreign shores. Given the presence of Jeremy Thomas on the list of producers, who has long specialised in selecting works of world cinema to offer English-speaking markets, this one has almost certainly been made with wider aspirations than the Japanese box office.
Regardless of the film’s commercial intentions, it’s not short of artistic merit. Whether recording secretive conversations inside dojos or treks through mountainous woodland, Miike helms with an assured hand that reflects mood in its colour schemes, with the slow build of the opening scenes shot in dark tones and shadows as the listless Shogunate, instincts dulled by years of peace, find Naritsugo’s actions poisoning the social structure they had grown fat on and potentially bringing it down with him. As Shinzaemon rallies his troops and prepares for the ambush, high on the thrill of battle so long denied him, Miike bursts the screen with colour and moves the story out of the confined spaces of dusty houses and out into vast expanses of countryside and a small village transformed into an elaborate blood-stained deathtrap.
Those familiar with the 1963 film will know that the final act is what’s really worth looking forward to. Miike takes Kudo’s thirty-minute battle scene, makes it longer and adds ever more elaborate death traps and bigger explosions, arriving at a climax packed to the hilt with increasingly high stakes action. Given that the odds against Shinzaemon’s men are roughly two hundred to thirteeen, we know that there is going to be a significant percentage of casualties on both sides, but Miike pulls a few surprises in who lasts the distance. He knows how to direct action as well as anyone and though there’s still not much that hasn’t been done in this type of film before, he manages to keep pace and excitement levels up for a full forty-five minutes before topping it off with an intense two-man duel.
As his men are being carved up around him, Naritsugo takes it in with an almost sexual level of delight and purposefully walks into danger (“The foolish path is more fun!”), announcing to his horrified lieutenant that should he survive and succeed his brother as Shogun, his first act would be to reignite the bloody wars of the olden days. When sensing an impending duel, he regales the beauty of the intimate contest. His impulsive lust for violence turns him into an uncomfortable surrogate for the audience and their rabid hunger for gore that has earned Miike his success. After plodding through the film’s opening hour, perhaps even he ruefully acknowledges that it took the heat of battle to rediscover his voice.