13 Assassins, his remake of a 1963 film that, I am sorry to confess, I have not seen. Perhaps Miike's film bears such a strong resemblance to the original that it has virtually no personality of its very own, though I strong doubt it, from the evidence. Miike's 13 Assassins is not merely a remake of one single film, but a moderately satiric commentary on the whole body of '50s and '60s jidaigeki (costume dramas set during the more than 250-year Edo period, to us Westerners), dismantling the aesthetic tools of those films and replacing them with something far more acerbically modern.
The plot has received its fair number of comparisons to Kurosawa Akira's legendary Seven Samurai, which I think tells us more about American film critics' relationship with Japanese cinema than it does about 13 Assassins, though I take it as read that Miike was not exempting Kurosawa from his catch-as-catch-can approach. What we have here is fictionalised historical figure Lord Matsudaira Naritsugu (Inagaki Gorô), a young man who enjoys doing evil things almost solely because he can: the younger son of the last Shogun, and brother of the present Shogun, he is one of the most powerful men in the country. He takes this as a license to murder in particularly brutal ways, until eventually, one of the survivors of Matsudaira's savagery commits seppuku as a form of very public protest - it is with this beautifully-shot scene of violence that the film opens, in fact.
Recognising an untenable situation when it slices open its own belly, the high-ranking Lord Doi (Hia Mikijiro) decides to execute a dangerous plot: he hires the wise old samurai Shimada Shinzaemon (Yakusho Kôji) to assassinate the decadent prince, by whatever means necessary. Shinzaemon gathers 11 other samurai to serve as his assassination squad; while traveling to the city where they plan to ambush Matsudaira and his guard, the 12 assassins come across a weird little fellow named Kiga Koyota (Iseya Yûsuke), and thus fulfill the title.
In the international cut running just over two hours - and how damned irritating it is, too, that 20 minutes were snipped out of the Japanese release for what I imagine was no particular reason - this part of the film, the "gather assassins and make a plan" part, runs for about 75 minutes. The rest is the execution of the plot, with "execution" being a pun on the fact that they are not just performing tasks, but killing Lord Matsudaira, or "executing" him. Anyway, the much-ballyhooed 40-minute ending action sequence turns out to thus be slightly longer than 40 minutes, which means in fact that we are getting more than we bargained for. Better yet, the 42-ish-minute ending action sequence is every bit as incredibly well-choreographed and designed as you have probably heard, if you keep your ear out for good Asian action-adventure movies (which is a good thing to do - they are better than ours). It's a little bit like a violent caper movie set in a really muddy rural Japanese village: watch the assassins design traps, and then continue to watch as they trick a much, much larger army of bodyguards into wandering right into those same traps. It is the most Miikevian (Miikeish?) part of the movie, the most rousing, the most enthusiastically bloodthirsty, and the most fun, which are all reasons why it's the part that gets talked about the most.
And that's all well and good, but let's be fair to the rest of the movie: for without the foundation that the first hour and change builds, that action sequence would not be terribly interesting simply because we'd have no investment, and without the outstanding ending, which I will not spoil except to say that it is the culmination of several threads throughout the movie in which violence and authoritarianism are deplored as inherent evils, the action sequence would be so much empty sizzle and the movie itself a shallow exercise in flashy fighting. Not something Miike is inherently opposed to, but I'm rather glad he didn't indulge here.
What the film really is, isn't a delivery system for a hell of a good action setpiece; it's a deconstruction of the medieval Japanese focus on honor and discipline, in reference to similar films that either treated that subject with relatively straightforward appreciation, or similarly satirised and attacked that idea. Visually and narratively, 13 Assassins reflects back to films at least as far apart in time and disparate in tone and theme as Mizoguchi Kenji's 1941 The 47 Ronin and Kobayashi Masaki's 1962 Harakiri (which Miike remade immediately following this film - redundantly, given how much Kobayashi influence there would appear to be in every inch of 13 Assassins). It is a film about how jidaigeki function as much as it is, itself, a jidaigeki, and this extra layer of distance from the subject matter allows Miike to consider the plot critically as much as any of those films ever did - and this is not, I hasten to say, an act of counter-mythology like an American making a neo-Western that deliberately subverts the militarism and racism of classic films. The directors Miike is referencing are mocking or subverting the traditions of Edo period Japan as often as they are upholding and praising them. But none of them do it in such a smirking, playful way as Miike does, nor with the smart use of violence to underline the brutality of this period (not that they could, of course; I might also point out that Miike is not here half as violent as we otherwise know he can be). The point is the same: being driven by honor and only honor is a fool's game. But getting there, here, is a much fresher experience than would seem likely for such a well-trod genre.
And so, for all that the first hour does seem a little bit pokey and exposition-heavy - tightly-constructed and outstandingly well-acted exposition, beyond a doubt, with all of the characters making an impression no matter how little screentime they get: with the titular 13 assassins, one villain, one chief henchman, and one nobleman in charge of the assassins all qualifying as "main" characters, screentime is at a premium - it's hardly the case that 13 Assassins is just a waiting game for an outstanding setpiece, as I've seen it described; the opening hour, with all of its narrative intrigue and visual references, is every bit as important as the setpiece, the "classical" portion of the film where the action is the "Miike" portion. Taken hand in hand, the two halves of 13 Assassins do in fact add up to one very great whole, as engaging and fun as you could ever want an epic tale of corruption-fighting samurai to be.