13 Assassins is, on its own terms, a pretty impressive samurai movie. Set in the last years of the Shogun era of Japan (mid-19th Century), it patiently and clearly sets up its battleground: on one side the capricious and cruel half-brother of the Shogun who casually uses the children of his enemies as target practice and has an appetite for wreaking carnage on a grander scale, and on the other a motley group of warriors who have been charged covertly by a government official to take him out. There are a lot of characters here, and care has been taken to differentiate them and give at least the most prominent players credible motivation, and the plot moves forward steadily and logically culminating in an extended ambush/battle sequence in a rural settlement that’s properly thrilling, one or two slightly dodgy bits of computer generated imagery aside. The action is inventive and well choreographed, and director Takashi Miike gets extra points from me for refraining from using music on the soundtrack. This is a two hour film that’s involving all the way through.
Trouble is, we’ve kind of seen this film before, most notably in the form of Akira Kurosawa’s immortal Seven Samurai, and once you’ve got that comparison in your head it’s impossible not to wish you were watching the earlier film instead. Seven Samurai beats 13 Assassins in every important department: characterisation, composition, cinematography just to stay within the ‘c’s, and it’s also better paced, despite being nearly twice the length. Even the individual samurai in the new film seem directly lifted from Kurosawa, from the wise old leader to the maverick outsider. 13 Assassins is far from a disgrace, but you’d be better off spending your time with the original.