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Takashi Miike’s 13 Assassins is an action-packed samurai epic, complete with charismatic characters and a shrewdly-defined structure. The assassins are a broad mix of archetypes; their samurai honor notwithstanding, many would be at home in an American heist movie.  And because this is Miike, a prolific director who’s known for brutal violence, there are moments of unflinching barbarism that almost caused me to look away. That is not to say that Miike’s depiction of gore is needlessly abusive. It’s necessary for the growth of his villain, whose sadism is so cruel it’s almost funny.

Lord Naritsugu (Gorô Inagaki) uses his title as justification for monstrous barbarism. His latest transgression, the rape and killing of an innocent woman, gets the attention of the honorable samurai Shinzaemon (Kôji Yakusho). He cannot let Naritsugu’s continue his campaign of murder, so he assembles of a team of samurai/ronin and plans the lord’s death.  Memorable members of the band are Sahara (Arata Furuta), a grizzled spear-for-hire, and Hirayama (Tsuyoshi Ihara), Shinzaemon’s cold efficient apprentice. Once the team finds an ideal spot for their siege, they set up traps and caches of weapons. The stage is set, and while assassins may easily vanquish waves of henchmen, the lord’s top protector (Masachika Ichimura) is a shrewd strategist.  Soon Shinzaemon’s canny leadership is the last hope for victory.

Until the battle begins, 13 Assassins focuses on its characters and moral compass in a dependably involving way.  Shinzaemon is the anchor, and Yakusho brings resolve and introspection to the role. Early reviews compare Yakusho to Mifune, and I can see what they mean; like the star of Kurosawa’s samurai epics, Yakusho is quietly compelling. In his preparations, Shinzaemon auditions and lists each new team member, and these scenes serve as a crucial guide for the later battle. Faces get obscure as the camera work gets snappier, and the first act makes it easy to recognize an assassin by his face or fighting style. This is hardly a novel approach, yet the richness of the supporting characters overshadows the familiar middle section.

Meanwhile, Naritsugu outdoes himself with senseless torture; in one harsh scene, he slaughters a family before a young boy’s eyes and then kills him in cold blood. Most actors would be tempted portray the villainy as over-the-top – something like Ledger’s Joker with added bloodlust – yet Inagaki goes the opposite route. He feels justified and bored with the tortureof his servants. When the assassins descend, Naritsugu reveals a detached sense of excitement. Tired with peace, the energy of war moves him to joy, and Inagaki is believable every step of the way.

The centerpiece of the movie isn’t the lord’s crimes or the samurai’s valor, it’s the climax where swords are drawn and blood is spilled. Miike does not overlook any detail – the sequence is a staggering forty-five minutes long – and there is room for all manner of stylized action. There are large-scale skirmishes in which dozens of warriors clash swords. Explosions shatter pagodas and leave buckets of blood behind. Miike handles the battle with energy careful planning; the scourge never devolves into chaos, and we’re able to discern the good guys from the bad. Still, the climax reaches its high point when it becomes the most intimate.  In a perfectly staged duel, Shinzaemon and Henbei, the lord’s protector, trade blows like two seasoned warriors. Both men are fatigued from the day’s battle, and each swing of the blade has a dire physical toll. It is thrilling action, rooted in character, with a satisfyingly sudden payoff.

Not content with a simple battle between the good and evil, Miike also leaves room for commentary on the samurai code and the honor of suicide. The movie begins with a man performing hari-kari (don’t worry, Miike cuts away from the gore), and Shinzaemon cannot wait for an honorable, glorious death.  Koyota (Yûsuke Iseya) is counterpoint the samurai way. A wild man who is the last assassin to join the group, he constantly mocks samurai code while besting them with unconventional weaponry. Like King Lear’s fool, Koyota’s comic persona stands outside the mores of feudal Japan. Still, his modern commentary only mildly undermines the life of death skirmish between the assassins and the lord’s henchmen. In a movie already brimming with exhilarating action, the character development in 13 Assassins adds a bracing layer of breathless suspense.