The year is 1844 and a tyrant is ruling this region of Japan: Lord Naritsugu (Gorô Inagaki), committing dreadful acts of cruelty to exploit the people he oversees in the belief that whatever he does to them is justified thanks to them being far lower down the social scale than he is. Finally a conspiracy is implemented by samurai who know they are on the way out, but do not wish to see Japan left in the hands of such a terrible ruler, and Sir Doi (Mikijiro Hira) is the senior warrior bringing this about. All he needs is a band of soldiers and he's set...
Takashi Miike was the director bringing this homage to Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai to the screen, although it was as much a tribute to the whole genre of the movie that was considered to be the finest example as it was to that specific work. Nevertheless, there may not have been a village to defend, but there was a country, and in similar fashion the crusaders are assembled over the course of the first half of the movie: twelve samurai and one rogue chap they meet in the forest, Koyata (Yûsuke Iseya) who acts as a kind of trickster figure, not all powerful exactly but there are hints he has some supernatural presence.
There was a long and slow build-up to the final battle which took the best part of the second half, almost an hour of cast members hacking and slaying their way through each other with swords and occasionally sticks and rocks. If his fans had thought Miike had gone off the boil somewhat in the years before 13 Assassins, they would find their thirst for violence slaked by what he had summoned up for them here, and if there was little transgressive about what was on offer as in the movies which made his name, there was a lust for life, ironically given all the death on show, which marked this out as not your usual samurai knock-off; if anything it resembled the Westerns where an end of an era is being sounded.
Before that it might have been easy to get lost in the many scenes of negotiating as we were introduced to the assassins of the title, some with more distinctive characteristics than others, and forget who was who. If you could follow it, then you realise this was a lot more straightforward than it appeared on the surface of that opening hour, as the plot was essentially, get the good guys together and then set them on their journey to intercept the insane with power Naritsugu as he travels to a destination which will see him gain more influence than ever. Seeing as how the nation has just emerged from a long period of war, it is vital that does not happen again.
The leader of the good guys is Shinzaemon (Kôji Yakusho), and while it's more his cause that's inspiring than his personality, until his moment of glory at the finale at any rate, he does manage to gather some expert fighters around him, and he has an ingenious way to deal with the fact that his thirteen are way outnumbered by Naritsugu's two-hundred. When those troops are escorting their leader through a quiet village on the way, Shinzaemon has arranged an ambush for them, and against insurmountable odds, or so they appear, once they have them hemmed in the samurai begin their strategy to exterminate them all so they can get to the villain. Exactly how they do that is more down to sheer force of will as much as it is clever tactics, but if you were feeling restless with the sombre pace of what went before, you would be rewarded with some pulse-pounding action sequences, and a message for those that wanted it: just because you're the top dog doesn't mean you should treat everyone else as vermin. Music by Kôji Endô.
[Optimum's Blu-ray has as extras deleted scenes (basically what was cut from the Japanese version for the international market), a trailer and an interview with Miike - but don't watch that first, because spoilers abound.]
Japan’s most controversial director, notorious for his dauntingly prolific output and willingness to push the boundaries of taste. Miike started working as an assistant director in the late 80s, before moving into making straight-to-video thrillers in 1991. He made his feature debut in 1995 with the violent cop thriller Shinjuku Triad Society, and since then has averaged around seven films year.