Takashi Miike is known for horror films. But that is not all of his filmography. Within the last couple of years he has done traditional Westerns, musicals, family friendly pictures and samurai epics. No matter what genre he works in however, Miike brings his fascination with the grotesque with him. Thirteen Assassins is no exception.
An older samurai is commissioned by a governmental official to kill the evil nephew of the Shogun. This man is evil because he kills indiscriminately, rapes women and doesn’t care anything about his subjects. His reign of terror will become even more pronounced once he joins the congress. However this is a time of peace and therefore unemployment for samurai. At one point in the movie someone comments that the pawn shop is filled to the brim with samurai swords. Nobody has seen battle for quite sometime, so it is hard for the old samurai to find any samurai with enough battle skills and honor to join his crew. He finally gathers thirteen samurai through the course of the first half of the film and set a place to trap the evil nephew and his private army of two hundred men. The last act of the film is this epic battle that is full of blood, sword skills and grand speeches. But the battle is unlike other films that involve large amounts of samurai fighting. The battle stings with realism. There seems to be no wire work, no gratuitous blood (just realistic blood. I don’t think I saw any insane sprays of blood that anime and more action films are filled with these days.) and overly fancy sword work. It is just twelve highly trained samurai and one woodsman trying to fight their way through a massive army of very expendable soldiers in order to get to evil nephew.
Not only does Miike make a satisfying samurai film, he also asks questions about the nature of a samurai. In each film that you see about samurai, you hear the word loyalty being thrown about like it is a hot potato. A samurai is supposed to do his master’s bidding without questioning his wishes or his commands. As one character points out samurai are born so that they can die for their master. And if they are disloyal to their master or bring shame upon themselves, they must hara-kiri which is ceremonial suicide. This leads to the samurai that are loyal to the evil nephew to commit horrendous acts just to please the master. But samurai are people with a sense of moral code and feelings. So many of the samurai in the film wrestle with the two opposing ideals in their lives. One samurai that is in the employ of the evil nephew betrays him purely because he knows his master is sadistic. In contrast another samurai that is loyal to the evil nephew gives his life fighting his friend and the evil nephew kicks his head once it has been severed. Thus his loyalty to his master means nothing to the master himself.
If you have never watched any of Miike’s output, I would suggest starting here. This film is pretty tame in both subject matter and gore. But you get the sense of how his fascination with the grotesque always leads to more meaningful examinations of the meaning of life. If you can stomach the light mutilation and buckets of blood then you should experiment with Miike’s more outrageous pictures. However if you can’t stomach this type of violence, I would suggest for you to run not walk away from any other picture that bares his name. It only gets more overt from here on out.