13 Assassins (Japan, 2010), a kind of outlaw The Seven Samurai by way of The Dirty Dozen set at the sunset of the Shogunate and the samurai era, is something different from Japan’s maverick auteur Miike Takashi: a remake of a 1963 classic and a startlingly traditional samurai action piece that shows that he can indeed color between the lines.
Which is not to say it isn’t violent. The final third of the film, which pits the baker’s dozen of loyal soldiers and samurai fighters hungry for honorable battle against the overwhelming forces of a depraved Lord, is a fluid and flashy piece of furious samurai action. Miike constructs a terrific set of tricks and traps, barbed walls that shoot out of buildings to divide and confuse and create mazes for these warriors, and weapons cached everywhere for the 13 heroes to take on an army of 200. It’s just that it is, at least by Miike’s standards, somewhat restrained, if only in attitude.
Yakusho Koji is all loyal purpose as the leader of this secret surgical strike, launched behind the Shogun’s back to protect the empire, and Iseya Yusuke provides the comic relief as a peasant forest hunter and guide, the ringer who makes up the thirteenth member and jumps into the fray with stones, sticks, slings and fists. But there’s no satire under the spectacle. Miike takes the codes of honor, the contradictions of the code and the idea that life is defined by the mode of one’s death at face value and delivers a film that mourns the men and the end of the era with obligatory regret, acknowledging the ironies without pushing them to the extremes that one expects.
Which gives us a superbly executed but straightforward men on a mission film where the increasingly outmoded ideals of duty and honor and meaning through sacrifice are at the heart of the matter. Fans of Miike may be surprised by his restraint. Fans of the genre will be delighted that restraint for Miike is action madness by anyone else’s measure.
Rated R, in Japanese with English subtitles,