For no worthwhile reason, Houston's (currently only) indie/art house theater was showing Takashi Miike's 13 Assassins once a day, at 11:59 PM. Why? No earthly idea. I understand this sort of time slot for cult films or midnight premieres, but for regular showtimes? Thankfully, all was not lost, as I learned from a friend that the film was currently available OnDemand (I sing your praises, Lords of Comcast), and I was able to see Miike's film at a reasonable hour, which is good, because I would have hated to have fallen asleep during such an entertaining film.
Set in Shogun-era Japan, the film opens just as the country is entering an era of peace. Almost. The problem is that one of the high-ranking shoguns has been succeeded by the sadistic Lord Naritsugu. And as far as major villains go, Miike has fashioned a truly despicable one. I won't reveal details, but to say that Lord N is cruel and de-sensitized regarding violence is a tremendous understatement. Deciding that this cannot continue, a group of older samurai gradually build up a team of samurai from nearby towns, and begin their plan to attack Naritsugu's traveling forces.
This is not a complicated tale, nor a terribly long one (2 hrs) when compared to classics like Seven Samurai (which is, itself, not terribly complicated). It is, however, a well-executed and exciting story, propelled by Miike's swift direction. Of the 13 (one of whom is not a samurai), most aren't really given much in terms of development. The majority of the film is the gathering of the men, and then the move to get ahead of Naritsugu before staging their assault. Yes, one older samurai has a scene where he sits before his family's grave and promises to see them in heaven soon, but it's not exactly hard-hitting stuff. If anything, we get to know Naritsugu better than the heroes, and at best he's something of a one-note psychopath.
This is rather remarkable, though, because of how Miike manages to generate some semblance of emotion during the film's stunning climax, a battle of 13 vs. 200 that lasts at least 30 minutes. As we see the 13 gradually worn down, it's hard not to feel a sense of sadness and exhaustion equal to that of the men. We may not know much about them, but with the line between good and evil so bluntly drawn, and with the villain as despicable as he is, the sadness comes from the broader view: we're watching evil win, despite valiant efforts by the forces of good against overwhelming odds. It may not equate to brilliant writing, but its low-key effectiveness in this regard is a testament to Miike's ability to generate emotion out of thin characters without obnoxious and manipulative techniques.
The director also deserves credit for his ability to create such exciting action without crossing the uncomfortable line to where violence and death are trivialized. Nor does he overdo attempts at "realism" by making the film as gory as possible. Like the film's simple costumes and sets, the violence rings true. It's engaging, but not choreographed or stylized to death (that said, the way Miike turns a small village into a total death trap is devilishly clever). That he shoots action scenes with a general sense of clarity amid the chaos (as in, actually pulling the camera back far enough so we can see what the hell is happening) is yet another plus. This is not a film of great depth, or of stoic philosophical musings in the age of the samurai. It is an action movie, one worth watching for the elegant simplicity of the film making, the understanding of violence and its consequences, and its ability to generate a reaction despite a script that doesn't place character development anywhere near its list of top priorities. And while 13 Assassins may not rank among the samurai classics of decades past, it certainly blows most modern Hollywood explosion-fiestas out of the water.