Movie Review

13 Assassins

A satisfyingly bloody fight to the finish

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By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / May 6, 2011

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From its title to its battles to its moral stakes, it’s obvious what “13 Assassins’’ is aspiring to: the towering stature of Akira Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai’’ (1954). That was true of Eiichi Kudo’s 1963 original and it’s doubly true of this masterful remake from the great Japanese eccentric Takashi Miike (“Audition,’’ “Ichi the Killer’’). Epic in scope, ambition, and execution, it’s a classic swords-and-samurai film with postmodern blood and guts, and it’s completely satisfying.

The first hour is a complex run-up of political maneuvering and barbarism that effectively sets the stage. Lord Naritsugu (Gorô Inagaki) is a sadistic young decadent who thinks nothing of raping and butchering lesser mortals, and because he’s the Shogun’s younger brother, he can get away with it. Foreseeing the chaos to come when the Lord rises to real power, a cabal of politicians hires the retired samurai Shinzaemon (Kôji Yakusho) for a carefully planned assassination. Lord Naritsugu has hundreds of soldiers. Shinzaemon has 12. In this kind of movie, that’s an even match.

Especially for Western audiences, it takes a while to sort through the identical topknots and work out who’s who. Key figures among the 13 include the studly young fighting genius, Hirayama (Tsuyoshi Ihara); the explosives experts Horii (Kôen Kondô) and Higuchi (Yûma Ishigaki); Shinzaemon’s jaded playboy nephew, Shinrouko (Takayuki Yamada); and Koyata (Yûsuke Iseya), a rascally forest hunter the assassins pick up along the way. In outcast status and Yamada’s roistering performance, Koyata is a direct link to Toshiro Mifune’s Kikuchiyo in “Seven Samurai.’’

But where Kurosawa created an intensely affecting social canvas on which to paint his battle scenes, Miike sticks to the narrow but rich world of samurai, nobles, and politicians. It’s a man’s world — the few women we see don’t fare well at all — and a cruel one. “13 Assassins’’ opens with an act of hari-kiri and closes with a long, astonishingly choreographed bloodbath in a roadside village the assassins have turned into a death maze. When Miike tries the rare special effect, he falls on his face, and he’s wise to hew mostly to the classic equation of men and swords, whether in mass formation or in solo combat.

The film takes place in 1844, at the end of the Edo period and not long before Japan began modernizing, and there’s a very clear understanding — among the characters and the audience both — that we’re witnessing the twilight of the samurai and the way of life that goes with it. Lord Naritsugu must be stopped (and Inagaki’s perfectly hateful performance makes you burn to stop him), but soon enough there will be no place for him, or for any of the characters who battle so ferociously. “13 Assassins’’ captures the bloody, elegiac futility of a fight to the finish.

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Directed by: Takashi Miike

Written by: Daisuke Tengan, based on a screenplay by Kaneo Ikegami

Starring: Kôji Yakusho, Takayuki Yamada, Gorô Inagaki

At: Kendall Square

Running time: 126 minutes

Rated: R (sequences of bloody violence, some disturbing images and brief nudity)

In Japanese, with subtitles

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