Rating: ★★★★★

(Rob’s glowing review of 13 Assassins from the Venice Film Festival re-posted as the film begins limited U.K. theatrical run from today)

Takeshi Miike’s 13 Assassins, the second Japanese film shown in competition for this year’s Golden Lion (the other being the underwhelming Norwegian Wood), is a samurai epic in the mould of Akira Kurosawa. In fact, it borrows much from Seven Samurai. The recruiting of the men; the Toshiro Mifune-style comic rouge of lower class stock; the lashing rainfall; and the epic final encounter in a village. But the director of Dead or Alive (not that one) and Ichi the Killer is not a traditionalist or a respecter of the old guard, so it will come as no surprise to fans that there is an undercurrent of subversion and satire, especially during the film’s astounding finale.

The film departs from Seven Samurai thematically in two notable ways. The first is that Miike is typically less inclined to flinch from visceral, bloody violence. Kurosawa (probably as much due to the restrictions of the era as to personal taste) usually refrained from showing the bloody aspect of samurai massacre – the end of Sanjuro being a notable exception. Miike, on the other hand, shows the full horror of the slicing and dicing done in battle, the samurai swords struggling to slice through sinews and bone, except in the most skilled of hands. Unlike Takeshi Kitano’s modern samurai classic, Zatoichi, the blood effects are done in a realist way rather than a stylised one.

Secondly, Miike is less enamoured with the ancient traditions and the bushido warrior code than Kurosawa was. It is true that Seven Samurai does express – through Mifune’s peasant – a critical view of the samurai class, comparing them to bandits (something this film also does in its own way). But the tone and resolution of 13 Assassins, make it quite clear where Miike’s sensibilities lie. At one point, the most typically formally beautiful character – the bad guy and a Lord – comments on the great “elegance in fighting one on one” during a climactic duel. Miike then cuts to the warriors feet, shuffling through the mud. He continually employs touches like this to undermine Japanese traditions of formal beauty and a culture that finds nobility in violent death.

In fact, the story itself takes this theme head on, with our heroes, the titular assassins, prepared to break rules and conventions in order to win, and survive. They will smash enemies with rocks, employ explosives and kick mud in the faces of opponents: “there is no bushido in battle”, says one of the leaders. By contrast their enemies are loyal to their Lord, even though they know he is murderous and cruel. Subservience and respect of tradition itself, is under attack here.

But whilst he is critical of traditions, Miike constructs his film so that they are observed accurately. For example, the suicide ritual of hari-kari is depicted right down to detail of the specially composed “death poem” the samurai would compose, which we see placed near the dead’s body. Likewise the class attitudes, so often featured in Kurosawa’s work, are present here too. It is a detailed and authentic historical film (for the most part), though one not afraid to get its hands dirty.

All of the above is a bonus, and makes 13 Assassins stand out as a well-made piece, worthy of its “in competition” status here at the festival. But the most important thing about the movie is that it is ridiculously exciting, thrilling fun. As soon as the credits rolled, I wanted to see it again. It is easily my second favourite film of the festival (the first still being Black Swan, by a slender hair). The end battle is a dizzying, fast-paced, high-octane, thrill-ride, which made me jump around in my seat like a hyperactive child (no mean feat at 8am). I was constantly surprised by each new turn in the battle, with loads of set-pieces the like of which I have never seen – and none of which I’ll spoil here.

I feel as though this film is almost as good as the greatest of them all: Seven Samurai. And as a huge Kurosawa fan, I really don’t say that lightly. It’s probably a more entertaining than Kurosawa’s Rashomon – perhaps the most famous Golden Lion winner of them all. 13 Assassins is a film I am excited to see again and again. By far the best competition film of a lacklustre second week.

13 Assassins is released in the U.K. from tomorrow.

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This article was first posted on May 5, 2011