Few filmmakers juxtapose cruelty and beauty as audaciously as Japan’s Takashi Miike. A master director with great style and panache, Miike’s latest, “13 Assassins,” is a classic samurai movie, right up there among the finest in the genre. A remake of a black-and-white 1963 picture of the same name, “13 Assassins” is a heartfelt homage to the form at a time when Japanese feudal period films are an increasing rarity.
The time is 1844, just 23 years before the shogunate — the military dictatorship that ruled Japan for centuries — would crumble and the imperial throne would be restored to power. The current shogun has legitimized his half-brother, Lord Naritsugu Matsudaira (Goro Inagaki), a sadist so crazed he can no longer be ignored by the shogun’s minister of justice, who is also a great samurai, Shinzaemon Shimada (veteran star Koji Yakusho).
Shinzaemon decides that his only course of action is to round up a dozen samurai and ambush Naritsugu as he travels to Edo with his vast retinue.
Tension and suspense build, climaxing in a bravura 45-minute battle sequence. Along the way Miike works in some comic relief as he contemplates the ironies of the code of the samurai, which demands bravery and self-sacrifice but also utter fealty to one’s master. But in challenging the blind allegiance of a madman’s warriors, Shinzaemon and his men defy their code for the good of the people.
— Kevin Thomas
“13 Assassins.” No MPAA rating. In Japanese with English subtitles. Running time: 2 hours, 6 minutes. At the Nuart, West Los Angeles, and the South Coast Village 3, Santa Ana.