"13 Assassins" is easily one of the best movies to come out of Japan in a while and the best action flick to come out so far this year. Unlike the anodyne action sequences of such recent sword fighting fare as "Sucker Punch," this movie wasn't created in a computer; the violence in this film feels real and raw. Unlike the spastic battle scenes in "Battle: Los Angeles," this film doesn't feel like the cameraman was being chased by a bear. Instead "13 Assassins" has the sweep and grandeur of an old-school Akira Kurosawa samurai movie -- only with more blood. A lot more blood.
"We set out to make a movie the way they were made in the past," director Takashi Miike told me recently via Skype. "It was a challenge to ourselves to see if we could do it."
Miike is something of a legend among cult film aficionados. The insanely prolific director--he released eight, count 'em eight, feature films in 2002--has made movies of just about every genre under the sun, from thriller, to horror, to family comedy, to musical. And in the case of his 2002 movie "Happiness of the Katakuris," he managed to roll all of the above genres into one delirious work.
Yet Miike's reputation abroad rests primarily on two supremely disturbing movies. "Audition" and "Ichi the Killer," in different ways, are unhinged, surreal, and spectacularly violent. For the Toronto Film Festival premiere of "Ichi," publicists handed out barf bags. And, as someone who was in the audience, they were used.
For the first half of "13 Assassins," with is a remake of Eiichi Kudo's 1963 classic, Miike's direction is remarkably quiet and restrained. Then a brutalized, limbless peasant girl gets thrust in front of the camera about 20 minutes in; you know you're in Miike-land. The unfortunate woman was presented to the movie's hero, Shimada (played by Koji Yakusho of "Memoirs of a Geisha" fame), as the handiwork of a certain sociopathic lord who looks poised to take a senior role in the shogunate. Vowing to stop him at all costs, Shimada assembles a dozen top-drawer samurai to face off against this upper-class twit along with his army of 200 men.
The second half of the movie is one, long brilliantly sustained battle, replete with clashing katana, spurting blood, and manly declarations from the doomed. If you're the sort of person who complained that "Kill Bill" didn't have enough swordplay, this movie is for you.
Many of Miike's movies were direct-to-video flicks shot on the cheap. This movie was made for about $20 million. In spite of the blockbuster budget, there were still plenty of challenges with making a traditional samurai movie.
"You can count the number of stunt horses in Japan on your hand," he lamented. "The challenge was getting horses and getting people who could wrangle them, and then of course, training the actors to ride them."
During the 1950s and '60s, the heyday of the samurai movie, studios had stables of actors trained in the skills of a warrior. Not so now. "Our actors had very little training in how to use a sword. In fact, over half of our cast was learning how to use the sword and how to fight for the first time in their careers as actors."
In spite of that, Miike found the experience of making the movie rewarding. "There were a lot of challenges, but, for us, it was quite fun to make."
Miike clearly did enjoy making the movie as his next film -- "Ichimei" (Harakiri: Death of Samurai) -- is premiering next month in Cannes. And it's in 3D.
In the meantime, "13 Assassins" hits the theaters on April 29, or you can watch it right now from the comfort of your own couch through Video on Demand.