No mercy! There is no samurai code or fair play in battle. No sword? Use a stick. No stick? Use a rock. No rock? Use your fists and feet. Lose your life. But make the enemy pay.
Miike is a real provocateur of Japanese cinema and his explosive debut into the American consciousness was the shocking Audition, a punishing, unsettling film about sexual abuse & torture, just to name a couple of things. But this film has Miike working in a more traditional setting. It’s a remake of a classic Japanese film from the 1960s and it’s mainly an adventure in the classical style. There are a couple of scenes that feel like Miike’s personal stamp, such as a harrowing sequence involving a woman who has been brutally mutilated by the villain. The plot is simple. An honorable samurai is called upon to go on a secret mission to assassinate an evil ruler; he gathers about him a group of fellow samurai and they go on a lengthy journey to do so. The film has a lot of great performances. Koji Yakusho is good in the lead role; he wears his righteous indignation well and his performance in the scene with the mutilated woman is very powerful. The film’s villains, though, are the most interesting characters. Goro Inagaki is wonderful as the callow ruler Naritsugu. He’s the kind of guy who fires arrows at tied up children for fun, but he’ll take his tea delicately, if you know what I mean. But Inagaki finds more than a cartoon; he’s a genuinely evil man, but not laughably so. Masachika Ichimura is equally wonderful as Heinbei, Naritsugu’s samurai bodyguard. He’s an old friend of the main character and he wants to be an honorable man, but he’s found himself together with this increasingly violent and amoral ruler and the tug of war between the loyalty to his ruler that’s central to his morality and his increasing horror at the evil his ruler is doing is rendered very well and it doesn’t have quite the resolution you would expect. The biggest problem with the movie is right in the title; the group of good guys numbers thirteen and that’s way too many characters for an audience to keep up with. A lot of them are rendered very thinly and broadly which isn’t a huge problem, as action movies go, except Miike wants us to care deeply when they die and you just can’t when, for instance, all you know about this one guy is that he, you know, tripped on a root in the forest that one time. But the film all builds to the real show-stopper which is the climactic battle. Our thirteen assassins take over a small town that Naritsugu will be passing through and they turn it into a deathtrap with explosives, hidden traps, tricks and, of course, their own formidable skill on their side. The ending battle is over forty-five minutes of non-stop, super-intense carnage. This sequence appears to have little in the way of special effects, just real stuntmen doing real crazy stunts and really demolishing this wonderful little town, which, by the way, is one of the great movie sets of all time, I think. The film is pretty slow for a while, but the catharsis of this final battle is immense. The film isn’t a masterpiece; it suffers from a few less than good performances and a lot of really poorly written characters, but the central characters are well done, the villains are phenomenal and the climax is a straight-up jaw dropper. 3 ½ stars.
tl;dr – classically styled samurai picture has some screenplay issues for sure, but the performances are solid & the fifty minute climactic battle is filmmaking at its most intense & jaw-dropping. 3 ½ stars.