Lord Naritsugu (Gorô Inagaki) is a royal terror, and the court fears Caligula-like horrors should he come into his royal succession. Samurai Shinzaemon Shimada (Koji Yakusho) is secretly recruited to preclude this possibility with his sword, leading the title's dirty baker's dozen on a hit-job quest. Set in 1844, in the closing days of the Shogunate, the expository chapters show a world where the great battles have already been fought—so bored Naritsugu whiles the hours away with unblinking sadism. (Otherwise closely adapting a 1963 film, Takashi Miike's 13 Assassins shows a much more graphic interest in Naritsugu's perversions.) As samurai live to die in battle, so the first two-thirds of Assassins exists to set up the final butchery, when Naritsugu and his entourage army are lured into a booby-trapped boarding town to face Shimada's outnumbered men, making their last stand. The fleetly shot climax is a true carnival of destruction, but an alienating spectacle, as Miike doesn't find a fresh way to engage with the material when laying out the characters and their personal codes. Perhaps something important was spirited away with the 20 minutes of footage shorn for this U.S. release, but the combatants are scarcely distinguishable here even before disappearing under layers of mud and guts.
Even samurai need a vacation sometimes.
Opens at Varsity, Fri., May 20. Rated R. 126 minutes.