The film has a heavy-handed, melodramatic story typical to this sort of film: the half-brother of the Shogun, Lord Naritsugu (Goro Inagaki, channeling a privileged menace) is destroying the area's long-held peace with his horrific nature. To give an example, after one samurai commits hara-kiri (read: suicide) in protest, Naritsugu tortures and kills his family. At the core of his misdeeds is his perverted notion of what it means to be a samurai and also a misunderstanding of what it's like to be anyone else other than him. He actually admits that he wants to "bring back the age of war," which would be catastrophic.
Something must be done, posits Sir Doi (Mikijiro Hira), the advisor to the Shogun (who's never shown). He sends for Shinzaemon Shimada (Koji Yakusho), who's enjoying a retirement fishing. Sir Doi wants him to kill Naritsugu, because if Doi himself did it the system of honor would be disrupted. Thus, Shinzaemon (renowned for being determined) recruits a few extremely capable fighters, including his trainee (who brings a long his trainees), his gambler nephew, and towards the end, a guy who lives in the forest (who uses a rock in a sling rather than a sword). He needs all the help he can get, since Naritsugu's army (comprised of roughly 200 guys) brings strength in numbers, and they're led by Shinzaemon's rival Hanbei (Masachika Ichimura). But, as you will come to see, the assassins, though outnumbered, have some tricks up their sleeves.
"13 Assassins," (supposedly) like Miike's "Audition," is a film that practices restraint and then unleashes all of its pent-up energy. Although dreadful things happen towards the beginning, they are isolated and only slowly do they build up the film's momentum. This limitation of action makes the moments that come later on much more stimulating. However, once we get to final part, when things happen in quick succession, the combat becomes a bit duller. I've heard the climax of the film, which depicts the long battle between the assassins and the lord's clan for 45 minutes, both praised and criticized for its technique. It's pretty standard stuff, and it can be (as I noted above) a bit monotonous at times, as it shows many henchmen killed in exactly the same way. But, since we relate somewhat to the main characters, and since they have personality, it manages to be entertaining nonetheless. Speaking of the camera, there are some remarkable images captured by Nobuyasu Kita, who manages (successfully) to make the cinematography both salient and secondary to the action.
Making Naritsugu a bratty pushover may have emphasized his strength only derived from power, but it also makes the film look like it went through too much for such a simple objective (that's actually kind of overcomplicated at the start). All the same, "13 Assassins" is an absorbing diversion, one that offers a bit of variety for people looking for something interesting and exciting to see in theaters. Plus, it has the pedigree of being nominated for the Golden Lion at last year's Venice Film Festival, if that means anything to you. B