Japanese director Takashi Miike is known of course for gruesome violence and psychosexuality. He also likes to have a bit of fun. We've avoided his more intense films, and watched some of the goofier ones, like The Bird People in China and Sukiyaki Western Django. Now, we've watched 13 Assassins, which isn't goofy, but not as gruesome as expected. I'd say it's mainstream Miike.
The nephew of a daimyo in late feudal Japan is acting badly, raping and killing with impunity because of his rank. Worse, when he goes to the capital, he will be given a position of authority. One lord has been given to understand that the daimyo would prefer it if he did not live to visit the capital. And so this lord calls his best samurai, and with 10 others, they set out to kill a rogue noble protected by at least 200 warriors.
The first few acts of the movie set up the premise and then show the assassins training and planning. Their method will be surprise - surprise and fear... I'll start again. They plan to buy out a village on the evil lord's route and set up a killing field. The last 20-30 minutes are devoted to a long battle in that village.
The earlier parts of the movie are very much what you expect from a samurai movie: gorgeous costumes, elegant architecture, low camera angles as men discuss points of honor and warfare. The little touches, like the angle of a samurai's fingertips on the floor when he kneels before his lord. There are some Miike touches as well - a seppuku (hara-kiri) and one of the evil lord's victims: a woman with 4 limbs and her tongue cut off.
Then the final act is a long action sequence, also what you expect from a samurai movie. You definitely feel the influences of Seven Samurai, 47 Ronin, etc. The 13th assassin is a lot like Mifune's 7th samurai: a rogue and wanderer without nobility, but with strength and honor.
Well, no wonder it looks like a classic samurai film - it's a remake of the 1963 Thirteen Assassins, which I don't remember seeing. Now, back in the early 80s, Ms. Spenser and I used to watch 2 or 3 samurai double-bills a week at the Coolidge Corner theater in Brookline. So we've seen a lot of samurai movies (or chambura, as the Japanese say). And this movie is definitely one of them.
A lot is made of the duty of a samurai - Is it total loyalty to his lord, even if the lord is corrupt, insane or evil? Or should a samurai be devoted to a higher cause, justice or honor? Or is the whole concept of the ideal samurai misguided? All of that is fine, but it really comes down to strength and skill with a sword, because the best fighter gets to enforce his ideals.
To extend the metaphor, Miike's strength with the sword - his skill at sweeping yet clear fight scenes - lets him set the agenda and pronounce the moral. A nice trick he used often was a single warrior, fighting against impossible odds, almost ready to fall - then an ally comes from out of the frame to his aid and the fight goes on.
All in all, we liked this a lot for the nostalgic quality. But I don't think Miike has as much to say about this style of film as, for example, Hideo Gosha. Or what the heck, go watch something by Kurosawa.