13 Assassins feels more like Kurosawa, or any one of countless samurai pictures that ennobles defeat as only high-minded Japanese action pictures can.
After an almost leisurely set-up—leisurely for Miike, who along the way still provides some queasy dips and rough jolts to establish the depths of his evil protagonist, an honor-less tyrant who tortures and oppresses the innocent—the movie becomes a monumental, meticulously staged battle sequence—no, more a bloody ballet of strategy and stratagem, as his 13 assassins plow through a horde of henchmen through the streets of a village transformed into one big trap by the wily assassins—all of whom, Seven Samurai/Magnificent Seven-style, are introduced and established—but this time it's thirteen, each a separate personality, each tuned like a Stradivarius meant only for bashing over the heads of evildoers.
And while Roger Ebert's advance word on The Raid: Redemption signals that new-school action is sheer spectacle, 13 Assassins is devoted to more than nonstop mayhem. Don't get me wrong, though: the final third of the film is indeed an extended action set-piece, as the thirteen assassins do all they can to destroy the tyrant's men. But by the time the battle begins, we understand the players, the stakes, and the rules; and so the game itself—as bloody as it certainly gets—has weight and depth. Miike often plays with genre to uncork his splashy moral sensibility; this time, he too plays by the rules, and directs a precise, plotted melee of exceptional grace and satisfying melancholy. After all, it wouldn't be a classic Japanese action picture if, like Lao-tzu's Master (yes, I know he's Chinese, but bear with me), the hero does not "enter a battle gravely, / with sorrow and with great compassion, / as if he were attending a funeral." And while Miike's assassins infrequently show compassion as they flood the village with a crimson tide, they certainly find no "delight in the slaughter of men"—well, not too much.