In some ways it shows kinship to the incredible 2007 western film 3:10 TO YUMA. Like YUMA, 13 Assassins is an entirely modern movie-going experience, yet everything about it continues the basic principles that define the typical examples of its genre. Every genre is defined by its common elements in combination, and both of these movies continue their respective traditions in a way that die-hard followers will recognise and accept. There was nothing in 13 Assassins that I thought was inconguous or jarringly out of place (unlike the 2003 Takeshi Kitano ZATOICHI, which, though good, had more nonsense in it than I like to see).
It's the 1840's, during the pre-Meiji period in Japan, still under the reign of the Tokugawa Shogunate. The key villain of the story is Lord Matsudaira Naritsugu, the son of the former Shogun, and the brother of the current Shogun; he is a psychopath of the harshest kind, and with the power of his position, he is free to pursue any of his sickest desires without impediment...and pursue he does. The things that he does are really fairly unprecedented in film; he has amputated one woman's arms and legs, has cut out her tongue, leaving her completely helpless...in another case he has an entire family bound and placed on their knees in a courtyard, pin-cushioning them one-by-one with arrows. I'm impressed by the imagination used in crafting this level of creative brutality; I hated him from the moment he appeared on screen, and I spent much of the movie longing for the moment that he would die...the delicious taste of justice.
A government official, Sir Doi Toshitsura, knows that if Lord Naritsugu ever attains a higher level of power, his pathological evil will pour across the country, destroying the era of peace that Japan enjoyed at that time. Sir Doi goes to a highly-skilled samurai of the previous Shogun, Shinzaemon, tells him of the situation, and hires him to assassinate Lord Naritsugu en route from Edo. Shinzaemon goes about the task of collecting quality samurai, which he does, and the plan is set...Lord Naritsugu will be herded through a small village, and there the assassination will take place...
Stunning. 13 Assassins is, in all the best ways, a very typical Chambara movie. Its structure is reminiscent of THE SEVEN SAMURAI (down to the rougish/impish Mifune figure), and it has elements of the CHUSHINGURA (not to mention a bit of the Spaghetti Western KEOMA during the final mega-battle). It also reminded me of the brash over-the-topness some of the great 70's samurai epics. It's totally exciting from beginning to end, and the plot is just complex enough to get the brain cells cooking.
If I were to be forced to have a criticism, it would be that it spent too much time in conspicuously characterising the shogunate as corrupt, foreshadowing it's demise and the rise of the non-feudalistic Meiji period. While this may be the case historically, I don't need it beaten into me in every newer jidai geki movie. The western film comparison touches bases here again; many movies of a certain period made a point of letting the cowboy characters know that their "days are numbered". I don't care for that sort of thing. Tell me a story...I'll do my own thinking, thank you. The fact that the unassailability of Lord Naritsugu's position kept good people from stopping him made the point well enough; to hear it expressed in dialogue seemed silly.
Otherwise, THE 13 ASSASSINS is a flawless jidai geki masterpiece!