I don’t know how you can watch 13 Samurai without trying to banish Seven Samurai into a far corner of the mind. When conscience-stricken shogun Mikijiro Hira (Sir Doi) decides to eliminate a young upstart named Lord Naritsugu (Gorô Inagaki) whose unimaginable lust for violence leaves women raped and armless, he woos an old samurai (Kôji Yakusho) out of retirement to lead a rebellion against Naritsugu.
Takashi Miike’s film has one advantage over Kurosawa’s — it’s more than an hour shorter — that is also its biggest weaknesses. The Kurosawa film patiently (maddeningly if like me you often aren’t in the mood for it) brought each shouting daguerrotype of a character to life, while Miike abjures these for an emphasis on sadism, for which he has a flair. Indeed, after an exposition-heavy first third and blood-soaked last, he loses interest in his samurai in the second, when the Kurosawa steal — sorry, homage — asserts itself and saves the picture with the foregrounding of a young hooligan who is the only member of the brigands, like Toshiro Mifune in Seven Samurai, contemptuous of the samurai code of masochistic self-sacrifice (we know he’s a rebel because he juts his film at the camera and eagerly chows down on an cricket during a low moment in the forest).
Why Miike avoids a final duel between and Lord Naritsugu for the sake of an Obi Wan-Darth Vader type between Naritsugu and the old samurai defies logic; he lost the chance to underscore how the elitism of pre-Meiji Restoration Japan yielded to the smallest hints of populist fury. Luckily Miike understands the deliciousness of a good villain, and Gorô Inagaki, face immobile as a death mask, is ideal casting. This is one of the few movies in which the Satan figure gets excited by the accumulating body count — until death holds up a mirror.