Best known for pushing people's buttons with the likes of 'Audition' and 'Ichi the Killer', director Takashi Miike travels back to 19th century feudal Japan for this remake of an acclaimed 1963 movie.
It's 1844, and the samurai's power is on the wane. As the warriors face up to the fact that they will soon be yesterday's men, they are presented with the appalling prospect that their final boss could be Lord Naritsugu (Inagaki), the current shogun's unhinged half-brother, who has no regard for human life.
Convinced Naritsugu will plunge the country into complete chaos, a plot is hatched for retired samurai Shinzaemon (Yakusho) and a hand-picked team to kill him while he's en route from one province to another. It's a suicide mission: Naritsugu will have 70 men, while the hit squad will number only 12. Further complicating matters is the fact that Naritsugu's soldiers have found out the plan.
So begins a series of mind games with Shinzaemon and his men looking for the perfect place to make a stand, picking up a non-samurai along the way and trying to stockpile the surprises for the big fight. The one awaiting them is that Naritsugu has more than 70 who are willing to die for him...
Art house audiences and lovers of straight-ahead action will both find plenty to admire in '13 Assassins', yet another film that makes you wonder how much great stuff from Japan we never get the chance to see. The first hour is slow, the amount of characters is a little confusing and the suspicion that the translation hasn't helped the subtleties is a strong one, but don't give up on the plot or the protagonists because the second hour is a tour-de-force from Miike.
Once Shinzaemon and his chosen 12 start work on their "town of death", the director moves the story along with a speed and ferocity that is breathtaking. This is a showdown that lasts over 40 minutes and where the production design is just as brilliant as the sword work. By the time the final credits roll, a great movie has joined the samurai genre, and tracking down the original has found a place on the 'To-See' list.
It's both ironic and sad that one of the best set-pieces in years will unfortunately be experienced by one of the smallest audiences. Make sure you're one of the lucky ones.