Japanese filmmaker Takashi Miike is one of the most prolific directors in the history of cinema: He has made more than 70 films in 20 years (including 15 movies in one particularly productive span of 12 months), and he has tackled every genre conceivable, often mashing them together to create something new, although not always effective.
But despite the sheer volume of his canon, Miike is best known in the United States outside of cult film circles for only two things: Audition, his sneakily quiet horror film that is never forgotten once seen, and his infamous episode of Showtime’sMasters of Horror, titled Imprint, which was so gruesome the network declined to air it (the episode is available on DVD; I double dare you to watch it; no, I triple-dare you). Since he works at such a rapid pace, Miike’s movies tend to run the gamut — many of them feel like they were shot in a week, which they probably were — but he definitely took his time with his latest,13 Assassins, a blood-soaked ode to The Seven Samurai by way of The Wild Bunch.
The first half of the movie (which is actually a remake of a 1963 film by Eichi Kudo) is all talky set-up: In 1844 Japan, the indescribably cruel and twisted Lord Naritsugu Matsudaira (deliciously played by Goro Inagaki) routinely commits atrocities for the fun of it. But he takes things too far after raping a woman and cutting off her limbs and tongue, and one of his officials hires a samurai (Koji Yakusho) to put together a band of warriors to stop the madman’s rule.
The gathering of the eponymous heroes, who are diverse in age, experience and attitude, allows you to get to know the warriors, so you can tell them apart when the mayhem (with a capital M) begins. The last 45 minutes of 13 Assassins, in which the hired guns ride in with swords swinging to battle an army of hundreds, is one gigantic, relentless bloodbath. More heads roll than in the French Revolution, and more slicing and dicing occurs than at your local butcher shop. Miike, always the prankster, injects some humor into the insanity (“Your samurai brawls are crazy fun!” exclaims one of the assassins), but he treats the battle seriously: When some of the good guys die, you feel a pang of sadness, and Miike is willing to kill off anyone at any moment, which makes the fighting so exciting.
The swordplay is expertly choreographed, so you’re always aware of who’s doing what to whom, and aside from a couple of unnecessary CGI effects, much of the gore is of the old-fashioned sort, done with prosthetics and blood squibs. 13 Assassins isn’t really representative of Miike’s style — he’s too diverse of a filmmaker to be represented by a single movie — but the picture gives you a taste of his many facets and interests, and that climactic battle is crazy enough to make even Quentin Tarantino bow down with envy, thinking “I knew I should have gone longer with the swordfight in Kill Bill!” 13 Assassins is a savage, insane movie — in the best way possible.
Cast: Koji Yakusho, Takayuki Yamada, Yusuke Iseya, Goro Inagaki, Masachika Ichimura, Mikijiro Hira, Hiroki Matsukata.
Director: Takashi Miike.
Screenwriter: Daisuke Tengen.
Producers: Michihiko Umezawa, Minami Ichikawa, Toichiro Shiraishi.
A Magnet Releasing release. Running time: 125 minutes. In Japanese with English subtitles. Contains some of the most outrageous samurai violence you’ve ever seen in a movie. Opens Friday May 20 in Miami-Dade only: Tower.