13 Assassins sticks to bloody honor code
When Japanese bad-boy director Takeshi Miike takes up the singing sword of the samurai genre in "13 Assassins," you can be sure that heads will roll.
I mean they literally roll.
All over the place.
Like somebody dropped a bag of bowling balls on a downgrade.
At least that's what happens in some of the less violent scenes.
Elsewhere the movie is more grisly - as when establishing the credentials of central villain Naritsugu (rock star Goro Inagaki), a rogue 19th-century lord.
Naritsugu roams feudal Japan inflicting crimes that are unspeakable, but not unfilmable. Naritsugu rapes a woman, kills the husband, and uses the bound children for bow-and-arrow target practice.
Honorable men in the shogunate agree - this nutcase has got to go. Yet these same men are constrained by a strict honor code that has no provision for dealing with loose cannons like Naritsugu, who has the inviolable sanction of the doddering shogun.
"13 Assassins" opens with one of these men committing ritual suicide to protest the shogun's indifference and error in judgment, thus establishing the template for what is to follow.
A group of samurai volunteer for what is essentially a suicide mission. They will attack Naritsugu's army and assassinate him, even if they die in the process, because to survive would be dishonorable.
The samurai genre and the American western have often cross-pollinated, and there are many storied similarities. Western/Samurai fans will recognize the familiar types in his band - the fastest sword in the East, the drunk, the eager teen, the gambling mercenary, the talented slacker . . .
There are differences, too. One is the happy enthusiasm the samurai have for an "honorable death."
It accounts for the smile that creeps across the face of the lead samurai assassin (Koji Yakusho) when he grasps the deadly symmetry of his mission. It explains why he has such an easy time recruiting other samurai for the dead-end job - and why they feel such a strange affinity for samurai who are honorably pledged to defend Naritsugu.
Everybody wants to die, and nearly everybody does as the two sides meet in a rural village. Miike's climactic samurai swordapalooza is a doozy, a 30-minute bloodbath that honors the formalities of the genre dating to Kurasawa while allowing room for the mayhem of the modern actioner. (American audiences, however, will not be seeing the 20 minutes of footage detailing Naritsugu's visit to a brothel.)
And underneath the mayhem? Miike's surprisingly thoughtful critique of the samurai culture and the honor code that gave a society structure and meaning, but not justice, or a way forward.