In the final years of imperial power, the current Shogun's younger brother, the sadistic Lord Naritsugu (Inagaki) treats the land as his own personal playground, taking what he wants and killing anyone who gets in his way. With no legal means to stop him, senior government official Sir Doi decides to take matter into his own hands, and hires Shinzaemon (Yakusho), a grizzled old samurai, who knows his kind are on the edge of extinction, to put together a team to assassinate Naritsugu. As he does so, Hanbei (Ichimura), an old friend still loyal to Naritsugu, gets wind of the plan, and warns Shinzaemon that, friendship or not, he'll do everything in his power to protect his master. The assassins set up camp in a village, through which they hope to funnel their target - though they're in for some surprises of their own, not least that Naritsugu's escort is considerably larger than expected.
I was surprised to learn this takes place in 1840, because it feels about two centuries before that, due to its old-school attitude - there's a lot of prominence given to honour, both in speech and action (two characters commit ritual suicide, both unable to live with the results of Naritsugu's atrocities). At 125 minutes, the pacing is pretty languid, at least in the first half as the team is put together: with an undeniable similarity of hair-cuts and costumes, it's often kinda difficult to tell the assassins apart [if their kimonos had numbers on the back, it would have been helpful]. Still, it's not without merit, and you are keen to see Naritsugu get his just deserts, since Miike establishes early on, that his villain is a complete bastard, who deserves a nasty come-uppance.
Obviously, you're expecting a big battle when the ambush is carried out. But, I somehow doubt you are expecting such a big battle as is delivered here. Miike throws everything ave the kitchen-sink (but including flaming cows - I'll repeat that: flaming cows...) into the mix, with Shinzaemon's men using traps and their knowledge of the terrain to level the playing-field. As well as their undeniably superior swordsmanship, naturally - while Naritsugu has numbers heavily on his side, skill is a great force multiplier. Again, here, it'd be nice to have had some kind of scoreboard, since all the participants become increasingly mud- and blood-spattered, before most of them die, heroically or otherwise. If there's not much in the way of surprises - well, except the fiery bovines - that's not really needed given this is both a remake, and inspired by actual events [presumably, both known to the Japanese audience]. The execution is more than energetic enough to make up for it, and by the end, you'll be sorry to see the roughly 85% attrition rate.