Review by Kristen Heine

Takashi Miike is a name that elicits one of two reactions: “Who?” or, if you’re familiar with the Japanese director, you feel a little crawling in your skin and a slight chill down your spine. The prolific filmmaker—who’s directed 86 movies to date—is most well- known for his intensely terrifyingAudition. Widely acknowledged by critics as one of the best horror films ever made, the last 15 minutes of the film earned the director a place in horror cinema history.

13 Assasins is a genre film of a different sort, though stylistically identifiable as Miike’s work. A remake of the 1963 film of the same name, 13 Assassins opens in late feudal Japan, a glimpse at the last breath of the samurai warrior class. In a series of gruesome flashbacks—all nods to his work in the horror genre— Miike tells the tale of Lord Naritsugu Matsudaira (Gorô Inagaki), a relative of the Shogun, whose privilege and status have allowed him to leave a bloody, ruined trail across Japan.

In hopes of putting an end to Naritsugu’s barbarism, Sir Doi (Mikijiro Hira) petitions Samurai Shinzaemon Shimada (Kôji Yakusho) to do what honor and position prohibit him from doing: Naritsugu must be killed if Japan is to know true peace.

As the title implies, Shinzaemon and 12 others take up this suicide mission at the behest of Doi, and they set about devising a plan that might allow them a chance of killing Naritsugu.

Miike may know the value of shockingly brutal violence in creating visceral, emotional responses from the audience, but he’s also a careful filmmaker and not prone to overindulgence. He relies on no gimmicks, focusing instead on well-honed, subtle performances from his actors, and an attention to detail.

Visually beautiful—in a wash of pale colors, even the shot of a samurai who has just committed hara-kiri is stunning—the rich story feels like an organic extension of the lush landscape. Miike also keeps the action tightly framed. Alternating between homes in small villages and the tangle of jungle, there are no sprawling shots of the great Japanese kingdom or Naritsugu’s army. The audience is always kept close to the characters.

Also of particular note is the way that 13 Assassins sounds. The film is audibly different from many others. There’s a quiet that overtakes much of the exposition in the first half of the film, one that matches the stoic faces of the samurai. The second half of the film is where nearly all of the fighting occurs, and each samurai’s movements has unique sounds. The high-pitched whine of the younger, less experienced samurai yields to the thick, thunderous, and fast-slicing of the more practiced warriors.

While the David vs. Goliath battle may suggest that this is an action film, it’s really a drama at heart—a tale of honor and nobility, in the way that the classic samurai films Harakiri and The Sword of Doom are. With his deft filmmaking in 13 Assassins, Miike may have earned himself yet another mention in those history books.

© Kristen Heine, 2011