I don’t know Samurai movies very well at all. I’m not naturally attracted to the idea of surreal carnage and obedience in the face of death. But I found the very first scene of 13 Assassins captivating as some Japanese guy (that’s my name for about 8 of the 15 assassins) commits hara-kiri in brutal, but off-screen, fashion. This is the basic feeling of the first half of the movie as a bunch of Japanese guys contemplate suicide or murder. But it’s also extremely effective as it introduces the main villain of the piece (Evil Japanese Guy) and his crimes. In one particularly emotional sequence a woman who has had her arms and legs amputated by the Evil Japanese Guy and issue a truly blood curdling scream.
The second half of the movie is muddy mayhem as lead character Shinza (played by Koji Yakusho from Babel and Memoirs of a Geisha) desperately seeks to kill Evil Japanese Girl and, in a slightly perverse form of reasoning, die an honorable death. The band of assassins (12 of them and some random comic relief they picked up on the way) rig the town as a giant death trap so that when Evil Japanese Guy and his entourage of 200 soldiers (who strangely don’t have a single gun on them) arrive they get sucked into a bloodbath against 13 ruthless and incredibly highly trained Samurai.
If you’re not interested in seeing lots of Japanese guys stabbing one another whilst rolling around in the mud and contemplating hara-kiri then this probably isn’t the film for you. But Takashi Miike has crafted an extraordinary fight scene that perfectly compliments the films opening mediation on life, death and evil. Some of it is too samurai for me with obedience and loyalty being stretched to international breaking point and some of the comic relief (Stone Flinger Guy and Slightly Fatter Japanese Guy) seems unnecessary in such a fine film. But the rest of it is visceral, exhilarating and satisfyingly destructive.
Full of Japanese Guys killing one another and all the better for it. Clever and delirious filmmaking.