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In Feudal Japan, Rounding Up an Ocean's 13

MOVIE REVIEW
13 Assassins (2010)

13-assassins-koji-yakusho-jûsan-nin-no-shikaku
Magnet Releasing

Takashi Miike has more than cemented his reputation as the sickest filmmaker known to man. Fans gush (and hurl) endlessly over each and every Miike defilement of all that is sacred, but rare is the mention of his fairly conventional and humble beginnings as Shohei Imamura’s assistant director. We actually got a sneak peek of his classical sensibility in “Audition” of all things, up to the point when the movie finally breached the boundaries of decency and earned cinematic infamy. His new film “13 Assassins,” though, is that true classical jidaigeki feudal epic that those who have seen “Audition” know he has in him. And Mr. Miike executes (pardon the pun) it so beautifully that it’s breathtaking.

It helps that he has Japan’s ichiban leading man, Koji Yakusho, to star as samurai Shinzaemon Shimada. Mr. Yakusho’s poise and resolve naturally lend the film a gravitas previously unseen in Mr. Miike’s work. In fact, the only stock Miike-esque element is the sociopathic Lord Naritsugu Matsudaira (Goro Inagaki), who rapes and kills his civilians for sport — something else our director depicts expertly, natch. Naritsugu is unchallenged because of his family ties with the shogun until Shimada emerges from semiretirement and assembles a ragtag team of 13 samurais to take Naritsugu on.

Yes, this coming-out-of-retirement-for-one-last-whatever thing is tired, but Mr. Miike has done such a remarkable job with the overall saga and the characters that one can’t help but become emotionally invested. Most movies with this theme show little more about each individual member of the assembled team than the unique skill he or she possesses that’s crucial to the mission, but the screenplay by Daisuke Tengan (based on Eiichi Kudo’s 1963 film) resists such run-of-the-mill easy characterizations. There are swordfights galore, and many of them exhilarating. But if you are looking for Mr. Miike’s usual fare, there is only one scene — involving a woman whose limbs Naritsugu amputated — that’s particularly cringe-worthy. Now, it’s time for all naysayers who have dismissed Mr. Miike as a shockmeister to start taking him seriously — or there might be consequences.

13 ASSASSINS

Opens on April in New York and Los Angeles and on May 6 in Britain.

Directed by Takashi Miike; written by Daisuke Tengan, based on a story by Shoichirou Ikemiya; director of photography, Nobuyasu Kita; edited by Kenji Yamashita; music by Koji Endo; art director, Yuji Hayashida; costumes by Kazuhiro Sawataishi; produced by Michihiko Umezawa, Minami Ichikawa, Toichiro Shiraishi, Takahiro Ohno, Hirotsugu Yoshida and Shigeji Maeda; released by Magnet Releasing (United States) and Artificial Eye (Britain). In Japanese, with English subtitles. Running time: 2 hours 6 minutes. This film is rated R by M.P.A.A. and 15 by B.B.F.C.

WITH: Koji Yakusho (Shinzaemon Shimada), Takayuki Yamada (Shinrokuro), Yusuke Iseya (Koyata), Goro Inagaki (Lord Naritsugu Matsudaira), Masachika Ichimura (Hanbei Kitou), Mikijiro Hira (Sir Doi), Hiroki Matsukata (Kuranaga) and Ikki Sawamura (Mitsuhashi).

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