Prior to this packed Orpheum screening, film fest director Meg Hamel spoke about how charmed she felt to have found a worthy opening night movie with "13" in the title on the occasion of the 13th annual film festival. 13 Assassins' qualifications for gala status of course go beyond common numerals -- it's a ripsnorting tale from an acclaimed international filmmaker that qualifies as a crowdpleaser (though I've heard reports of walkouts). And that's fine and good. But I have to confess, something deeper nagged at me, watching this action movie that hinged on the moral difference between citizenship and fealty to power, of a bloody but unbowed citizenry asserting itself against an overweening sovereign ... I suppose it might speak to Tea Partiers as much as to the #wiunion crowd, but it nevertheless felt like kismet to this member of a partisan-wracked populace.
Of course, no amount of political hyperbole can elevate any elected official to the level of Lord Naritsugu (Gorô Inagaki), shy only a waxed mustache from pure central-casting villainy. A despot whose penny-ante nihilism lets him terrorize the people to remind them that they're servants, Naritsugu is about to be nepotistically appointed to the Shogunate, a move that would magnify his malign influence. A rogue shogun faction seeks out a samurai to lead a covert operation to kill Naritsugu, and the honor falls to Shinzaemon (Kôji Yakusho, an actor I fell in love with during WFF2004's Cure). These 19th century samurai have only known peacetime, and Shinzaemon begins assembling his motley crew of samurai willing to serve a public master in the hopes of a noble death. Shinzaemon comes up with a plan; the one-step execution of the plan is the whole second half of the movie.
Unreasonably prolific Japanese filmmaker Takashi Miike is maybe the director to whom the parable of the blind men and the elephant most fully applies. You know, where each blind man touches a different part of the elephant, totally misapprehends what it is, and fails to conjure the bigger picture? Miike has made so many films, and so many different films -- I know him from Audition and Fireworks, you know him from Ichi the Killer and The Happiness of the Katakuris -- that it can be hard to grasp just what a strange, cryptozoological creature he is. (I doubt there is more than one or two American critics that have seen even a quarter of his filmography.)
Here, his style is classical, with painstakingly superb sound design and bravura action sequences, with a particular specialty for those moments when one beleaguered samurai is outnumbered in battle, only to be saved by the sudden intervention of another samurai that the camera now follows. Action and geography are largely coherent, and the story chugs along; if Shinzaemon were to quip "I love it when a plan comes together," he'd be echoing the thoughts of the gleeful audience. The movie has some classic Takashi fingerprints, like the peasant daughter with no fingerprints, but this has more popular appeal than anything he's done that I'm aware of. It doesn't have the crossover appeal of, say, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but I wouldn't be surprised if this turned out to be a significant arthouse hit.