When I first heard about Takashi Miike making a samurai movie, I was jubilant just because a) Takashi Miike's next movie is a cause for joy at least at first (whether it's great, good, or meh in his very large catalog of work is something else), and b) he's just the guy to take it on, with his experience leading up to such a thing as making a stylish but professionally mounted (and large-scale Oscar winning Jeremy Thomas) production. I didn't know going in to it that it was a remake, but no bother: hearing the advance buzz was enough, that it had a classical style owing back to the samurai films of the 1960's and 1970's, and a 40-minute(!) battle sequence.
Was I disappointed?
Quite simply: Hell no!
13 Assassins is a masterful example of what a director is capable of at action. This is not to decry the film's story or characters, of which this has some richly drawn ones and one in particular that is quite evil, and has a great grasp of the Samurai code and ethics from the 19th century. But what Takashi Miike pulls off here is something special in our modern super-hyper-kinetic-frenzied action movie world: it's surprisingly straightforward if one steps back to look at its technical side, but in the thick of it you get lost in the violent mayhem (which, compared to some of Miike's more notorious works this could be considered tame, but not by much).
The plot is right out of a Seven Samurai or even Dirty Dozen scenario: men on a mission. In this case the mission is Lord Naritsugu (eerily calm performance from Goro Inagaki), a brother of a Shogun in 19th century feudal Japan who is a nasty bugger, a man who spends his time raping and killing those who shouldn't be touched, or with a cold detachment cutting off limbs of women and shooting arrows at children just because it's, to him, the "Samurai way" or something. Another Lord (or in this case a 'Sir' Doi) makes a clandestine request of another samurai, Shinzaemon (Koji Yakusho), to gather up a bunch of Samurai to take out Lord Naritsugu before he gets to another clan that would protect him completely. In other words: he's on the move, take the bastard out.
We get to know some of the Samurai a little at first, if only in small doses (one of whom brings some humor by requesting 200 ryo in currency mostly for practical things, and something else not to mention here), and along their trip to intercept the Lord they run into a kind of forest Bum-Hunter (I forget the name of the actor right now, sorry, you're awesome) who acts as the comic relief in the same way Toshiro Mifune did in Seven Samurai. But the characterization is just fine in these generalizations; we know who the players are, what their moral code is - that is, the Lord has zero, Shinzaemon and the rest have plenty, or understand at least something essential to humanity in the Samurai/Servant code that the Lord does not - and with this Miike sets the stage for the interception of the Lord with his group of soldiers in a small village... all 200 of them against twelve samurai and a crazy hunter-bum from the woods.
Throughout the film Miike and his cinematographer Nobuyasu Kita create a Samurai world that's patient and assured in how it's composed (that is, for the first 2/3rd of the film), where shots actually will linger for a little longer than one might see in a common action movie from Hollywood. It's more a credit to Miike taking influence, aside from the 1963 original film source, from classic black and white Samurai and sword-play pictures from the 1960's and 70's from the likes of Masaki Kobayashi. You can feel the tension brimming with the characters around the Lord, and the horror when one of the dismembered girls is shown before one of the Samurai who writes with her mouth (no tongue either) that her family was in a "Total Massacre".
This is also not to say that Miike, one of the world's few true wildmen when it comes to going from the gut and craziness, doesn't put some of his own touches. Lord Naritsugu fits in with the director's penchant for totally messed-up antagonists who have a strange relationship with pain and torment (when this one finally feels it, his response is "Pain! ... It hurts!") And in the big climactic battle at one point for seemingly no reason except to have them there (but why not) bulls who are on *fire* go running through the town attacking the swordsmen guards. Things like that make one smile with recognition, or laugh more at the levels of absurdity that's reached than anything intentionally funny.
Speaking of the battle scene: holy Moses! This is the reason, I think, Miike really made this film, but why carp? For an action movie lover who likes good, long, stunt-coordination and swift and graceful and (with real) bloody fighting and intensity, this is the pick of the month, maybe the year. It's breathtaking at first, and it doesn't let up for forty or so minutes. Whether it's longer in the uncut version I can't say, the US release is trimmed by fifteen minutes from the original Japanese cut. But even so, it doesn't feel compromised. It's fight-scene filmmaking that cherishes shots where you can see all of the violence played out long enough to take it in, cut so that it's visceral but not so fast as to lose the spacial relationships with everyone, and (a rare treat in 21st century Japanese splatter) real stuntmen and real blood. That there are plenty of surprises with what the samurai set up for their targets to close everyone into town and shock them to hell raises the ante up.
13 Assassins has integrity as a film, as storytelling, character relationships, which are simple but wonderfully conventional (that is embracing things like honor and loyalty that these pictures had in the past but without corniness), and it even hints near the end at something spiritual in the air. As a genre fan one wants to rush out to folks dying in the sewage of the multiplex and hand them the DVD or movie ticket and go "HERE!" Within its dimensions, it sets out and achieves what it wants to do.