Takeshi Miike is one of the most prolific filmmakers in the world, chalking up more than 80 films in the past 10 years. Most are made quickly, but in "13 Assassins," a classic samurai genre film, it is clear that time and care were taken to achieve those high production values.
The director's scream-and-scream-again horror films, like the unforgettable "Audition," and his goofy superhero send-ups (Venice is also hosting two of his "Zebraman" titles) would suggest he would go to work gleefully deconstructing the samurai canon. But once again, Miike surprises his audience.
Strangely enough, he opts to follow the genre's social code and dramaturgy almost slavishly, and the result is a beautifully filmed but rather unremarkable Japanese period piece. Its main market will be drawn from the male demographic of its native land, where the cast is all-star. Apart from viewers with a special interest in swords clashing in tedious, interminable battle, this looks like a hard sell. The Japanese release on September 25 will contain about 20 additional minutes of a scene set in a brothel, just before the climactic fight.
The time is 1844, and peace reigns in feudal Japan. But it is threatened by a young Lord's bloody rise to power and his sadistic raping and killing. The story pits samurai who are loyal to the Shogun's evil brother, Naritsugu (played by rocker Goro Inagaki with dandyish cruelty), as their code demands, against those who feel he's a menace to society and has to be taken out. The man is a monster, and to show this Miike unleashes his dark imagination in two early set pieces.
The shocker is the scene in which a naked girl who is brought before the great samurai Shinzaemon (renowned actor Koji Yakusho); Naritsugu has had her arms and legs cut off because her father was "a peasant leader." Later, miffed at another nobleman who has contemptuously committed hara-kiri, he has his wife and children tied up and shoots arrows into them.
His righteous anger roused, Shinzaemon assembles a band of loyal samurai who pledge to assassinate the evil lord during his annual trip home. Everyone knows it's a suicide mission because Naritsugu is heavily guarded and protected by the clever and brave Hanbei (Masachika Ichimura). Nevertheless, they make a plan to attack his convoy and set off for the mountains, where an intrepid local lad (played for laughs by the winning Yusuke Iseya) is allowed to join their number as the 13th fighter.
They prepare a small town in the mountains with elaborate mechanical booby traps and wait for Lord Naritsugu's 200-strong entourage to pass by. These traps are sprung during the battle that takes up the last half of the film. Even when wooden buildings explode and flaming oxen run through the streets, however, the effects are underwhelming.
Though it takes some time to sort out the large cast, the leads, all fine actors, eventually come into focus. As the good and bad samurai, Yakusho and Ichimura have the gravitas to take their roles seriously and perform a decisive one-on-one sword fight straight. The same goes for two brooding younger avengers, Shinzaemon's apprentice (Tsuyoshi Ihara) and nephew (Takayuki Yamada). Iseya, playing the mountain boy who thinks samurai are boring, adds the sole note of humor and wit.