It takes special skills to make fun of something even as you pay tribute to it. Sure, anyone can make a sandwich. Let's see you make one that mocks the entire notion of putting meat between sliced bread.
Making a good samurai movie is tough enough. Make one that simultaneous undercuts much of samurai culture, and you've got 2011's 13 Assassins.
In 1844 Japan, the age of the samurai is almost over. But the monstrous acts of the Shogun's half-brother Goro Inagaki threatens to undermine the peace. Tasked with his assassination, samurai Koji Yakusho gathers a small team of warriors for an impossible mission that will surely cost their lives.
13 Assassins is directed by Takashi Miike, the creator of gross, ultra-violent work like Ichi the Killer. I'm not sure there's an American analog for this guy. Maybe Rob Zombie? Maybe some guy who collects roadkill, takes it to his basement, films it dancing around on strings and then explodes it with his stockpile of M-80s? If that guy exists, he's the closest America's got to Miike.
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So I wasn't exactly expecting 13 Assassins to be a "real" movie so much as a feature-length examination of arm-stumps and the katanas that make them. To my surprise, it's a fairly straightforward tale of a small group of dudes preparing to kill a much larger group of dudes. After some politicking, Yakusho gathers his team of middle-aged ronin and untested youngsters and heads out to make his stand.
Two things stand out, however. First, the movie's still pretty grotesque. It opens with a man committing harakiri in protest of Inagaki's heinous acts. Shortly thereafter, Inagaki makes the questionable decision, at least from a PR standpoint, of using the dead man's family for archery practice. As if that's not enough to convince us he's bad, we're then treated to some highly unpleasant nudity he's also responsible for. (Stop underlining that, word processor. Yes, "unpleasant nudity" is a real thing.)
Second is the climactic battle. To even the odds, the righteous assassins fortify a village against a force of 200 men. And then, like a gonzo Seven Samurai, the team proceeds to shoot, explode and chop up every last one. There's more cutting than a Paul Greengrass-directed Ginsu commercial. It's not all that glorious, either. Not unless you consider mud a patriotic color.
As it turns out, 13 Assassins is kind of a best-case scenario: a crackling, style-heavy samurai epic that will regularly make you happy to frown. Like swordfighting an evil nobleman, that's not an experience you get every day.