A brief foray into cult director Takashi Miike’s oeuvre can leave the uninitiated feeling slightly dumbfounded. I first came across Miike after embarking on the first of many Japanese movie binges, in which I encountered the unrelenting, sado-masochistic madness of Ichi the Killer, the story of a perverted social outcast who is conditioned to chop […]

A brief foray into cult director Takashi Miike’s oeuvre can leave the uninitiated feeling slightly dumbfounded. I first came across Miike after embarking on the first of many Japanese movie binges, in which I encountered the unrelenting, sado-masochistic madness of Ichi the Killer, the story of a perverted social outcast who is conditioned to chop up people on command using razor blades implanted in his heels. I came away from the experience jaded by the swaggering gratuitousness of it all, but it is the unpredictable, taboo-defying bravado that has since caused me to track down countless Miike’s films, all as weird and brutal as the next.

His latest, 13 Assassins, shows a departure from the director’s surreal Yakuza-obsessed past for which he is renowned, instead channelling the spirit of Kurosawa into a historical samurai epic which seems to show Miike at a mature, refined peak. The story is all too familiar to those who have grown up with Japanese chanbara cinema such as the Lone Wolf & Cub and Zatoichi series and, of course, the mighty Seven Samurai. So nothing new – a district plagued by a tyrannical Lord summons a group of samurais to dispose of their murderous despot – but it’s Miike’s masterful approach that helps this film stand out from other crowd-pleasing samurai blockbusters. The tone is one of existential crisis. In a time of peace samurais are no longer required by their masters. Most feel lost and inconsequential, so when given the opportunity to die an honourable samurai’s death all leap at the chance with valour.

Miike is renowned for his innovative pacing, in particular the nonsensical whims he will happily thrust into a conventional storyline to create something otherworldly and surreal. The obvious example is the haunting Audition, which masquerades itself as a romantic-comedy only to transform into some sort of nightmarish-torture tale in the final 20 minutes. With 13 Assassins, Miike takes a more traditional approach, subverting much of the expectations that surround him as a director. If he wants to make one thing clear, it’s that he has no problem with the proven template of samurai epics. They work for a reason and that’s because they all build up to an overblown, climactic fight scene.

And with this latest instalment, the film delivers. The final 45 minutes are utter carnage, leaving the quiet town in which the conflict ensues awash with blood. But this film is by no means of the Kill Bill type. The fighting is gritty but never over the top, unless you take into account some tactics used: rabid flaming pigs, gratuitous pyrotechnics and giant mechanical fences fashioned from twigs – all flourishes of Miike’s past. The samurais themselves are endearing and the sense of moral camaraderie as they pursue the perfect warrior’s death is unapologetically archaic. Some of the most enjoyable scenes consist of the assassins on the way to battle, discussing their mortality and the resignation one must exercise in the wake of fate. Almost an acknowledgement of the inevitable ending that comes with chanbara films of this ilk, the audience receives reassurance from the characters that we’ll get the bloody crescendo we’ve come to expect.

Review by Alex Keegan.