Takashi Miike’s sociopathic tendencies and acid wit are toned down somewhat for 13 Assassins: a beautifully sad homage to Kurosawa and a giant leap in theme for one of Japan’s most in demand film-makers. The Director of Audition instils his killer instinct to a classic samurai story, but expertly creates a melancholy tone to counter the high body count. With Lord Naritsugu on the rampage it’s up to 13 brothers in arms to stabilise their society with swordpower. Much of the film’s power lies in the numbers – 13 take on nearly 7 times that as a virtual army is destroyed in a jaw dropping battle scene that carries an hour of film with finesse, verve and even humour, leaving most action films trailing in its wake.

13 Assassins’ real power though lies in its first hour – a peaceful and well-paced masterclass in storytelling that sets a sense of pace with a subtlety rare in modern day filmmaking. The opening scene slow burns the audience with Lord Naritsugu’s sadistic, oppressive ruling and slowly but surely enough we are introduced to the 13 chosen to end his vicious campaign. Miike’s penchant for violence is on show here, but whilst the majority of blood splattered scenes lie in the epic closing battle, it’s the harrowing images from the first third that remain – a peasant undone of limbs and a child killed with a cold blooded arrow cause more of a flutter than the many dismembered heads.

Koji Yakusho plays it straight as our hero. A samurai built to serve the people, his solid, level headed Shinzaemon provides the film with a moral compass; every actor using Yakusho as base camp, every performance weaving around his central character with delicate skill. For his simple pitch and personality only Takeshi Kitano’s Zatoichi has come close in recent years to skillfully combining the old with the new. A highly accomplished movie that brings together our frantic modern world with the still beauty of Samurai.

By Ian Roebuck

Originally published in issue 28 (vol 3) of Loud And Quiet. June 2011