Movie Review: “13 Assassins”

Film buffs tend to forget, with the half century or more of hoopla surrounding “Seven Samurai” and “Yojimbo,” that samurai pictures were and remain the equivalent of Westerns in Japan — formula films with time-honored motifs, action beats and archetypes.

Takashi Miike (“One Missed Call”) remembers that. He’s done a lot of thrillers and horror movies. And his “13 Assassins” sums up much of his style in a blood-spattered “Seven Samurai” tribute, a remake of a 1963 genre film of the same title.

It’s a tale of noblemen who assemble an elite team to take out a barbaric and ruthless relative to the shogun — a beast of a man (Gorô Inagaki ) given to rape, dismemberment, butchering whole families in a kind of bored lust for blood and excitement. Lord Lord Naritsugu Matsudaira is a Japanese Caligula, so vile that those who must serve under him are moved to commit seppuko (hara kiri) in protest.

Shimada (Kôji Yakusho) is charged with the task of ridding the country of this menace. It’s a time (1840s) of relative peace, when the way of the samurai is fading. He soon finds men willing to risk their lives for the chance to blood their swords, and they concoct a plan.

In the “Seven Samurai/Magnificent Seven” tradition, a team is assembled — this fellow specializing in this combat, that fellow worrying that he’s never spilled blood and may chicken out when the battle is joined.  There is history between some of the lord’s guards and some of those conspiring to assassinate him.

And there is swordplay — bloody, drawn-out, expert and oh-so-intimate.

“13 Assassins” is entirely too long and too talky. But the cat-and-mouse game of strategy, figuring out when and where to ambush the evil overlord’s entourage, is fascinating. As in Kurosawa’s classic “Seven Samurai” and the various Westerns inspired by it, Miike breaks the epic struggle into compact corners of the battlefield (a crowded village rigged with booby-traps and all manner of barricades), places where each character can make an impression as each seeks “a noble death.”

The actual battle royale finale plays around with credulity and reality. But the classic character “types” — the coward, the pauper, etc. — will entertain anybody who’s ever gotten pleasure from stories from the Old West of the Far East.

MPAA rating: R, for sequences of bloody violence, some disturbing images and brief nudity.

Cast: Kôji Yakusho, Mikijiro Hira, Goro Inagaki, Hiroki Matsukata

   
   

Credits: Directed by Takashi Miike, written by Daikuke Tengan, based on a screenplay by Kaneo Ikegami.  Produced by Minami Ichikawa, Tôichirô Shiraishi and A Magnet Releasing film. Running time: 2:21.

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