The Americans have Westerns. The Japanese have Samurai Cinema. Although its not very familiar to American audiences (outside of film buffs and fanboys who are into Japanese culture), Samurai Cinema, or Chanbara, is a very popular and integral part of Japanese cinema. The genre dates back to the silent and pre-World War II days of cinema, but the filmmaker most associated with developing Samurai Cinema is Akira Kurosawa. Like John Ford, who is widely credited with developing the American Western genre, Kurosawa elevated Samurai Cinema into the form that it is today. The popularity of his films (SEVEN SAMURAI, YOJIMBO, & RASHOMON) also caused Western audiences to finally take notice of this genre. Ever since Kurosawa, samurai films have become more action-oriented and darker. The protagonists are antiheroes; they frequently are ronin (masterless samurai), but who maintain a high sense of honor.

Today, samurai films don’t enjoy the same level of immense popularity that they once did. In the past ten years, they have enjoyed a slight resurrection thanks to filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino (KILL BILL 1 & 2), Yoji Yamada (TWILIGHT SAMURAI, THE HIDDEN BLADE), Edward Zwick (THE LAST SAMURAI) and most recently, Takashi Miike (the currently reviewed 13 ASSASSINS and the upcoming ICHIMEI). Rather than reinvent the genre, the latest crop of samurai films pay homage to the films that invented the genre.

13 ASSASSINS was released in the U.S. last year (2011) and it’s a classic samurai tale. The film is a remake of Eiichi Kudo’s 1963 film of the same name. It is loosely based on actual historical events, but in watching the film you wonder just how much liberty was taken by the filmmakers because I would guess it was a lot. Not that it matters. Most who plan to see this film are unlikely to watch it to get a history lesson. More than anything, you’re looking to see bad-assery on the screen with samurai warriors clashing around with their swords. 13 ASSASSINS give you plenty of that (in fact the entire 2nd half of the film is nothing but pure action mayhem), but it offers more than just an action spectacle. The film is a meticulously plotted narrative that carefully sets up what ultimately results in a balls-out battle. This is an intelligently crafted tale whose appeal will/should extend even to non-genre fans.

Takashi Miike’s samurai epic is set in the 1840s during a time of peace. The era of the samurai is at an end, but a new threat creates a need for the samurai to rise once again. That threat is Lord Matsudaira Naritsugu, a real bastard of a villain who rapes and kills anyone he pleases for the simple sake of giving him pleasure. Unfortunately, Lord Naritsugu cannot be touched because he is the former shogun’s son and the brother of the current shogun. Thus, he is above the law and can get away with anything. However, Sir Doi Toshitsura, a senior government official, sees the increasing danger of doing nothing about Lord Naritsugu. If he remains untouched, Lord Naritsugu will eventually attain a higher government position and will thus become even more powerful. Consequently, Sir Doi seeks out an old friend, Shinzaemon, a samurai who once served under the former shogun. Sir Doi secretly hires Shinzaemon to kill Lord Naritsugu. Shinzaemon sets out to hire 11 more samurai to carry out his mission and together the 13 samurai plot their assassination. However, Lord Naritsugu’s right hand man, Hanbei, gets wind of the assassination plot and he begins his own preparations to meet the assassins. The story ultimately ends up in a showdown in a small town where the 13 assassins go up against Lord Naritsugu, Hanbei and his warriors.

13 ASSASSINS has a simple plot that is finely and expertly executed. Moreover, Takashi Miike does a wonderful job introducing all of his characters, establishing them, and giving them dimensionality. In a 2-hour film, that is a difficult task to pull off and more films than I care to mention usually fail at fully developing a large cast of characters. Here, the key attributes and motivations of all the assassins are quickly set up and they are done in such a way that you almost never feel like all the characters are becoming indistinguishable from one another (which is a very easy thing to do considering everyone wears the same type of traditional Japanese garb and they all sport the same style of haircut). However, to fully invest the audience into the plot and the protagonists’ mission, Miike creates such an evil, heartless villain in Lord Naritsugu that even if you don’t care for the protagonists, you certainly will after you see how horrible Naritsugu is. Just to offer a glimpse of Naritsugu’s evil, in one memorable scene, we are introduced to a woman whose tongue and all of her limbs have been hacked off by Naritsugu and whose family members were all massacred by the lord. It’s a gruesome scene and the rage in the poor woman’s face and her inability to express that rage makes you wish the absolute most horrible death on Naritsugu.

Some people I know who saw 13 ASSASSINS felt that the first half of the film was too slow and boring to watch and did not justify the payoff in the second half. I completely disagree. I think films that cover the small details of a plot and explore various angles of the story and its characters deliver a bigger payoff at the end. The audience becomes better acquainted with the characters, better appreciates their motivations, and generally becomes more emotionally invested in the story. As a result, when the story pushes forward toward the climax, the audience cares more about the outcome due to a sense that they’ve undertaken a long journey. When that climax is a satisfactory one, such as the one in 13 ASSASSINS, it’s a great feeling you have.

In this film, you sense that you are seeing every single step the samurais are taking to plot out their assassination. You watch them second-guess their actions and consider various options to take down a very powerful antagonist. At times I mixed the characters and their names up because there are so many, but overall, I was able to follow the sequence of events. To add to the tension, Miike does a good job conveying the uphill task the samurais have to take down Lord Naritsugu. Not only is Naritsugu himself ruthless and cunning, but the head of his security is one of Japan’s best samurais. You get the sense that what the samurais are embarking on practically amounts to a suicide mission.

By the time we reach the (literally) action-packed climax that takes place in a town that’s emptied out of its citizens and then set up as a trap for Lord Naritsugu and his army, the tension in the film runs at its highest. Based on the genre, you know Lord Naritsugu is going to get his due in the end, but what you don’t know is how many of the 13 assassins are going to survive this battle. The scenes are staged very well and if you were bored by the first half of the film, any boredom is quickly dispelled by the relentless action that takes place here. The climax is an explosive action spectacle that will keep you riveted to your seat.

I am not a huge fan of Takashi Miike, mostly because he jumps from one genre to another and seems to make a film out of every idea he conceives to uneven results. But there is no doubt that Miike remains a fascinating director who is always someone to watch out for because when he does manage to hit one out of the park, he really it out of the park. Miike infuses 13 ASSASSINS with a level of maturity and drama not seen in other recent samurai films. This is a thoughtful film that takes care of its characters and without taking anything over-the-top. What’s more, 13 ASSASSINS has beautiful art direction and costumes and stunning cinematography. As you can see, there is much to love about 13 ASSASSINS and so far, I consider this film to be Miike’s best film.