Dir. Takashi Miike
(2011, R, 126 min)

I remember being shown the better part of the Japanese horror film Audition during a class in college several years ago. It wasn’t a film class, and looking back I struggle to remember a credible reason for watching that film in any other kind of class. I found it vile and degrading, but luckily I remember my feelings about the film more than I remember the film itself – a blessing of selective memory. The director of that film was Takashi Miike, who is now responsible for 13 Assassins, and though my use of the word “responsible” suggests the perpetration of a crime I would go as far as to call it not vile or degrading. It’s an effective samurai film, a straightforward actioner light on character detail but visually satisfying, and it builds to a strong climax.

Its primary selling point is its lengthy final battle, which consumes nearly the entire second half of the film, and though it is impressive it may be more notable for its duration than its quality. What Miike does admirably well is give us a clear visual sense of strategy and physical space as the baker’s dozen of brave warriors battle an army nearly twenty times their size. The combat is relentless, but not chaotic, edited with a sense of purpose unlike many action-and-effects driven films these days, where the standard for action is to streak indistinct lights and colors across the screen, chop them into half-second fragments, and accompany them with sound effects. However, the battle, though well staged, lacks a grace that would make it compelling over the long haul. It does not become tiresome, per se, but after twenty minutes or so, you’ve seen about as much as there is to see, and all that remains is to wait for who will be cut down next and how. The swordplay is intended to be mostly realistic, I think, but I found myself wishing, given the film’s embrace of fantasy in other aspects of the story, that its action would fire up my imagination the way Kill Bill or Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon did.

The film’s greatest shortcoming is its limited character development. Of the thirteen title men, introduced to us throughout the first half, only a few of them are even distinguishable from the others. The leader, Shinzaemon (Koji Yakusho), is enlisted by an adviser of the Shogun to kill the Shogun’s sadistic younger brother, Naritsugu (Goro Inagaki), who will wreak havoc upon Japan if he continues to ascend to political power. Shinzaemon recruits Shinrouko (Takayuki Yamada), his ne-‘er-do-well nephew; Shoujiro (Masataka Kubota), a young man so inexperienced Shinzaemon hesitates to risk his life in battle; and a strange hunter they meet along the way, Koyata (Yusuke Iseya), who is not a samurai and doesn’t understand what all the fuss is about. The nine other assassins I can scarcely name, let alone describe; I think the action of the second half might be more consistently involving – less like anonymous mechanisms of swords and limbs – if we felt a greater connection to the combatants as individuals. We respond to them more as a collective unit upholding justice, and when considered as such their quest, though still a bit impersonal, carries emotional weight. All that is to say it works for me to a degree, but not completely. Miike has made a successful samurai epic, one of excellent craft and construction, but which doesn’t dig much deeper. What you see is what you get.