CONTAINS A FEW SPOILERS AND MENTION OF THAT MOMENT WHEN YOU START TO RE-EVALUATE A DIRECTOR YOU'D PREVIOUSLY WRITTEN OFF AS A GIBBERING LUNATIC
I am not a fan of Takashi Miike, or Miike Takashi as he's apparently sometimes known. While he's done some undeniably good films and at least one very good one (Audition), he's done a lot of censor-baiting twaddle that's not just borderline offensive but tedious as well. Some years ago at FrightFest they screened Gozu, the highlights of which were a man inserting a spoon up his bum (all the better to achieve sexual pleasure, from what I remember) and a dog being slammed repeatedly against a plate glass window. Oh, the hilarity. But I eventually deleted most of TM's titles from my rental queue after sitting through through the absolute garbage that was Visitor Q: a dull plod through the Daily Mail Checklist of Horrible in which incest, rape, necrophilia, prostitution and, erm, lactation are cheerfully ticked off in under 90 minutes. And Ichi The Killer, from which the BBFC felt compelled to chop more than three minutes of sexual violence and mutilation before it was deemed suitable for adults.
But when he wants to, or probably more accurately when he's told to, he reins it in and we get something like Audition, in which the horrors aren't interrupted by surrealism or stupidity. Or his original version of One Missed Call which is a perfectly decent J-Horror. And now here, his first UK theatrical release for some years (most of his stuff goes straight to DVD) and it's one of his restrained ones. 13 Assassins is a 19th century tale of feudal Japan under the Shogun system, where samurai would give their own lives for their lords without a second or even a first thought. When the sadistic, murderous and all-round insane Lord Naritsugu is named as his Shogun brother's political advisor, a disparate group of samurai conspire to assassinate him on his journey home, as they foresee the chaos and carnage he would unleash. But Naritsugu has his own army: it's our thirteen against more than two hundred.
The first half of the film sets up the heroes and villains, the second half details the ambush, which basically consists of taking an entire village and turning it into one gigantic arena of death where the two hundred can be slaughtered, leaving the vile Naritsugu undefended. It's this breathless extended combat sequence where the film scores on a visceral level, with lots of bloody death and violence (not enough for an 18 certificate, though), but the real pleasures are in the first section, with its depiction of the ancient samurai traditions and code of honour, and the political and personal machinations. And the widescreen photography, though drained of colour in many places, is beautiful. For Takashi Miike, it's the best thing I've seen of his (disclaimer: as noted above, I have deliberately missed quite a few): the historical setting means he can't fill it with graphic sex and random nonsense and has to just tell the story. Which he does very well. Recommended.