A tribute to the Samurai genre and especially Kurosawa's Seven Samurai by another great filmmaker, Takashi Miike's rendition contains a lot of grisly violent references and an abundance of blood splatter. Albeit featuring a formulaic main plot theme that might be predictable, 13 Assassins excels technically in certain lighting and camera work, action choreography, and an awakening dose of brutality.
Cult director Takeshi Miike (Ichi the Killer, Audition) delivers a bravado period action film set at the end of Japan's feudal era in which a group of unemployed samurai are enlisted to bring down a sadistic lord and prevent him from ascending to the throne and plunging the country into a war-torn future.
Prior entry to this film, I imagined this to be another contemporary reboot of the classic Japanese Samurai genre as well as the 1963 original. The keel of cult director Takashi Miike's 13 Assassins is indeed going with the tried-and-tested elements that aren't new and original, but I was taken aback by the blood-boiling cruelty and the amount of ruby that greets us blatantly respectively (then again, it's Miike of all people. Why should I?).
There is an extremely high disregard of human anatomy and lives in this film, which might jar some of the audience especially in today's context where violence is not tolerated and nothing is more valuable than our survival and welfare. The film is set in the 1840s, during the Shogun era and thus much of the "culture shock" is in line with the aged traditions of the way of the Samurai. This is literally mentioned by the vile antagonist Lord Naritsugu (Gorô Inagaki of Japanese pop group SMAP) of how Samurais must never fail their masters and how it is considered dutiful for a wife to die for her husband.
Speaking of Naritsugu, he's one of the most extreme villain roles I've ever encountered. Much in the line of the psychotic killers in some of the thrillers, he performs inhuman acts with such calmness and expressions of boredom that it really gets to the guts of the audience and leads to downright hatred for him. This is much in credit to Inagaki's great performance that deserves recognition.
Of course, this goes together with lots of cringing moments of violence and hara-kiri (self-mutilation/disembowelment as an act of saving grace due to humility) that were effective with good editing, camera work, and plausible acting.
Lighting was another distinctive technical excellence that I noticed in this film. Dim flickering brightness filled the screen when it depicts an indoor candlelit scene during nightfall, together with the dark alley encounters with lots of shadows and appropriate light sources make the sets looking really credible.
With 13 candidates who will ultimately fulfill their destinies and attempt to triumph against a discouraging odd of over 200 enemy strength, the first third of the film is dedicated to character development so that we get well-acquainted with each of them before the ultimate battle of glory (this isn't really a spoiler as we all know that it has to come to that end).
***Advisory: Potential spoilers ahead***
Another third is what interests me the most - the piecing together of the plan to defeat the enemy and also to claim Lord Naritsugu's life to serve justice upon him on behalf of the people. Possibly confusing as they really go about naming places and the reasons to why certain places are avoided and selected, such added details are debatable and may not be welcomed by every audience member.
There is also the rigging of booby traps in the town Ochiai where the final battle explodes into a bloodshed galore. Although some of the traps may not seem possible to prepare within a short window of time, I think it's best left at the back of your mind and not think about that for a film that thrives on honorary codes.
***End of potential spoilers***
That and the final 40 minutes battle royale allowed Miike to devise choreography that is worthy of an epic. Technically, some of the camera work during the battle helps to retain clarity of what's happening during the battle. This is aided by having the fight take place within a confined region of a small town settlement where the Samurais are often seen running along tight alleys and turning sharp corners instead of having them on an open battlefield. The final battle development enables Miike to divide it into character driven sequences, which is very much desired.
Nevertheless, I still find that the extended battle chapter as well as some portions of the introductory chapter to be somewhat lengthy although it helps in allowing the film to feel epic. Perhaps the bloodbath is massive for a reason, say to strongly instill the sense of how we will never welcome war and violence that always ends up in tragedy and suffering.
13 Assassins is not just about all the violence and fighting that is difficult to miss out, there are certain question of values to make mental notes on. Traditional values vs modern values with changing times, how some will defend old ways against new ones and if their rationale is justifiable.
What really, is the right cause to defend and die for?
Also, there is this element of realism where the Samurais have not been engaged in real battles (it was a peaceful era in Japan) and most of them are killing for the first time. This helps many peacetime nations to put themselves into similar perspectives and imagine having to go to war for the first time and how easily powers can lose control of peacetime with foolish key decision-making top politicians in play.
The top is always supported by the bottom, everybody has a role to play and a voice to say.
This is what 13 Assassins is all about.