The Magnificent Wild Dirty 13
After the flop of Takashi Miike’s previous U.S. release, the jokey take-off Sukiyaki Western Django, this unpredictable non-schooled Japanese filmmaker flies even further from his usual corrupt present-day setting with 13 Assassins/Jûsan-nin no shikaku, which goes back to the mid-nineteenth century end of the Tokugawa Edo period.
Calling up Kurosawa and Masaki Kobayashi and their cowboy-genre disciples Leone, Sturges, Pekenpagh and Aldrich, Miike’s new theatrical release is writer Daisuke Tengan’s reworking of a Kaneo Ikegami script for Eiichi Kudo’s 1963 same original title rendered in English as Samurai Assassins (not to be confused with Samurai Assassin, the 1965 Kihachi Okamoto vehicle for Toshiro Mifune).
Even though the opening is blood and the final forty minutes are continuous sword-arrow-sling with two heads rolling mayhem, there is little of the director’s trademark graphic bizarre. And this is a male film, totally absent attractive females as bodies for undressing, abusing, slashing, thrashing, mashing, skewering, even to a bride-turned-avenging-sadist. The opening grotesque whose limbs have been sliced off and who uses her tongueless mouth to scribble “Total Massacre,” is the one early shock, offered as mere seconds to picture the wickedness of Lord Naritsugu Matsudaira (Gorô Inagaki), younger brother of the Shogun and thus in line to become military ruler at Edo (Tokyo).
On the other side is mature Shinzaemon Shimada (Kôji Yakusho), accepting with philosophy the Age of Peace and obsolescence of samurai like himself. His opposite number is jealous former classmate and rival Habei Kitou (Masachika Ichimura), concerned less with other aspects of traditional honor than with bushido serving the Shogunate and protecting his nasty rather effete overlord.
Confessing himself a gambler, and recognizing the odds as formidable, Shinzaemon enlists available tried-and-true unemployed ronin to ambush Naritsugu’s procession from the capital. The mixed bag he assembles are not well differentiated, though it makes little difference, and includes his dissolute nephew Shinrouko (Takayuki Yamada), who leaves wife Tsuya with “I’ll return soon or be at the Festival of the Dead.”
The short middle section covers the group’s fruitless attempts to make a tactical stand against the villain and his two hundred foot soldiers and cavalry. Lost and huffing and puffing uphill, the out-of-shape twelve become thirteen when joined by bandit Koyata (Yûsuke Iseya), mooning for his ex-boss’ woman Upashi and providing weak Shakespearean clown humor.
What will sell the film or not involves the final two-thirds of an hour, when the two bands clash in Ochlai village. The outnumbered heroes spring wooden gates to separate the Lord’s troops in the alleys, unleash flaming bulls and shoot arrows from rooftops before dropping down for swordplay. Individually surrounded by dozens of adversaries, they are helped by the cinema convention that the baddies are dim enough to approach singly instead of all at once.
Koyata does not find the fighting impressive, non-combatant Naritsugu does, and tradition requires that the leaders clash climactically mano a mano. With sounds of steel on steel and skillfully composed non-CGI photography (DP Nobuyasu Kita), this long chambara should attract action fans. Most others, however, will find the straightforward plot unexceptional and the lack of impish outré a letdown from Miike’s signature work. They will agree with horror director Christopher Smith’s “sword fights can be really boring in films.”
(Released by Magnet Releasing and rated "R" for sequences of bloody violence, some disturbing images and brief nudity.)