If you would’ve told fans of Takashi Miike five years ago that their favorite enfant terrible would some day direct a big budget period piece that would go on to receive a good deal of critical acclaim — including a “Best Film” nomination at Japan’s Academy Awards, they’d have probably laughed in your face. But such is Miike’s curious career arc.
Miike first exploded onto the cult cinema scene with a barrage of ultra-violent yakuza and thriller films (e.g., Dead Or Alive, Fudoh: The New Generation, Audition). His films became notorious for their over-the-top violence, copious amounts of all manner of bodily fluids, and an often dark, absurd sense of humor. But then something began to change. The man whose films were once marketed with barf bags revealed a few more layers, releasing atmospheric arthouse films (The Bird People in China), surreal comedies (The Happiness of the Katakuris), superhero movies (Zebraman), and even kid-friendly epics (The Great Yokai War, i.e., Japan’s answer to the Harry Potter franchise). Which brings us to 13 Assassins, and one can’t help but feel as if the film reveals the various sides of the Miike’s muse at war with each other.
It is the year 1844 and Japan has known peace for many years: so much peace, in fact, that the samurai have become mere shadows of their former selves. This long-standing peace is threatened, however, by the Shogun’s brother, a sadistic man named Naritsugu. Above the law, Naritsugu rapes and murders as he pleases, and even esteemed allies and their families aren’t immune to his savagery. The Shogun and his staff can’t do anything to stop him, not officially anyways. Soon, secret plans are made to bring together a group of samurai to do the unthinkable and the impossible: assassinate the Shogun’s brother.
The leader of this group is Shinzaemon (Kōji Yakusho), a highly regarded samurai whose blade and wits are still as sharp as ever. As he and his friends assemble their group and make their plans, his old friend Hanbei — who just so happens to be the leader of Naritsugu’s guard — begins to suspect that Shinzaemon may be up to something. The former friends and sparring partners engage in a game of cat and mouse as Naritsugu travels through the Japanese countryside, and Shinzaemon and his assassins make plans for one last stand to destroy the evil Naritsugu.
There’s no doubt that 13 Assassins is a big budget blockbuster of the highest order. From the cast to the grandiose production values to the big set-pieces, Miike holds absolutely nothing back. And therein lies the problem, because the film feels constantly in flux, unsure of what it wants to be or what it wants to say.
Throughout much of the film, you get the sense that Miike wants to create a samurai film for the ages, one that will be mentioned in the same breath as films by Akira Kurosawa, Masaki Kobayashi, and Hiroshi Inagaki. A film that is replete with a celebration of the bridge side of bushido, the samurai code of honor and chivalry. And indeed, what story could be nobler than that of thirteen men from various walks of life coming together to rid the land of wicked ruler? Here, you see the kinder, more thoughtful Miike at work, with philosophical scenes and conversations regarding honor, sacrifice, and the fleetingness of life.
However, Miike also seems dedicated to sending up the very genre he celebrates, deconstructing the samurai mythos as thoroughly as he builds it up. The best example of this occurs when Shinzaemon is first approached with the mission and sees the depths of Naritsugu’s wickedness for himself. Confronted with a poor woman who had her arms and legs cut off, her tongue removed, and had been used by Naritsugu as a sex slave, he recoils in horror. But when he finally agrees to carry out the mission, he is shaking, not from righteous anger or a sense of justice, but out of happiness to finally have a mission with which to test his mettle as a samurai. Shinzaemon and his samurai may talk about honor, but they are just as apt to talk about the joy of finally have a mission to execute (npi), about finally having a chance to use their swords in such a peaceful time.
You’d think that this would be a wonderful opportunity to introduce some moral ambiguity into the film, to ask some pointed questions about what truly constitutes honor, nobility, courage, sacrifice — what constitutes bushido itself (think Masaki Kobayashi’s masterful Harakiri). But Miike curiously never goes that route, at least not in a satisfactory way. Rather, he’s much more interested in getting the viewer to the film’s final act, a nearly hour-long battle in a village that Shinzaemon et al. have converted into a deathtrap for the Naritsugu and his men.
It’s an ambitious set-piece, to be sure. But as it grinds on — as the assassins cut down faceless samurai like so many red shirts, as Naritsugu gets off on the violence and bloodshed occurring around him — the action grows increasingly tedious, tiresome, and even boring. Indeed, it’s fairly shocking that Takashi Miike (of all people!) could make a blood-soaked battle involving over a hundred samurai so, well, banal. But that’s what it is. No drama, no excitement, just tedium. And the tedium, which could be used to drive home some point about the awful reality of violence (think Oldboy‘s hallway sequence) serves no such higher purpose. Put simply, Miike’s excessive side — the one that he’s arguably most famous for — takes over, and thanks to the schizophrenic approach to the samurai themes, as well as the surprising dearth of well-drawn characters (save for Shinzaemon), the film collapses in on itself nearly 45 minutes before the end credits.
What makes this most frustrating for me is that I really loved the idea of a Takashi Miike chanbara film, and even moreso the idea of a big budget epic chanbara film. The thought of Miike, who once soaked movies in blood, semen, and breast milk, making a critically acclaimed historical epic filled me with joy (just as did the thought of Peter Jackson making the Lord of the Rings movies). The notion seems almost perverse on paper, which makes the end result so much more enjoyable… provided the result is good. But 13 Assassins isn’t that good. It’s not terrible, but that’s faint praise for a film that tries so hard to be so much.