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Wednesday, June 22, 2011

13 Assassins

Takashi Miike laces Japanese drama with humor, horror

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The samurai is stoic as he steels himself for his own ritual disembowelment. The opening of 13 Assassins looks down from a high angle as he prepares for suicide, cutting to the stony face of the samurai as he thrusts the dagger inward. The bird's-eye view in the next frame shows a spreading crimson stain on the ground beneath his lifeless body.

It's a relatively chaste opening for a film where blood will flow and heads will roll. Japanese filmmaker Takashi Miike has been diverse as well as prolific, directing gangster, horror, samurai, lighthearted children's movies, road pictures and even a musical comedy. He is not squeamish about lurid violence and professes to use murder and mayhem for philosophical ends. In 13 Assassins, protagonists regret their bloodshed while shedding a river.

Set in 1844, shortly before a flotilla of U.S. warships pried the Japanese Empire from medieval isolation into the modern world, 13 Assassins depicts the dissolute endgame of feudal Japan with a tinge of regret for an epoch already almost passed. "It's hard to find skilled samurai in this day and age," someone says. Of those who mastered the arts of their dojo, some will stand with the corrupt shogunate, the regency for an imperial family no one has glimpsed for generations, while others weigh their customary loyalty against the higher, knightly code of their class.

Like the aristocratic German conspirators against Hitler in the waning months of World War II, the samurai of 13 Assassins emerged from their crisis of conscience determined to kill a ruler who made a mockery of their values. Lord Naritsugu, the younger brother of the shogun, is a cruel, jaded tyrant who enjoys killing and maiming in the exercise of power. The ritual suicide opening the story was an act of protest alerting samurai of good will that Naritsugu will be appointed to the shogun's supreme council upon reaching the capital. The rebel samurai are determined to die if necessary to prevent Naritsugu from completing his journey and assuming greater control over Japan.

A carefully choreographed costume drama laced with humor and horror, 13 Assassins provides the comfort of a familiar genre with an original story. The epic, climactic battle between the samurai and the army escorting Naritsugu is inventive, but the candlelit meetings where the conspiracy is planned with chess-master strategy endow 13 Assassins with a reflective dimension.

11 p.m. June 24-25, Times Cinema.