Movies: 13 Assassins ****
(16, limited release)
As postwar pioneers like Akira Kurosawa proved, the samurai genre has the same virtually limitless visual potential and scope for heroic symbolism as the western.
Takashi Miike's 13 Assassins forms part of this rich tradition and makes constant reference to classic samurai movies. But it also incorporates the grisly sensibilities of Miike's sometimes controversial horror films, and overall the combination works admirably.
A remake of a 1963 film by Eiichi Kudo, 13 Assassins is set in the 1840s, as the power of the Shogun warlords was beginning to decline. In an effective but surprisingly restrained and ungory opening scene, a samurai kneels down in front of his home and commits suicide. He has done so to escape the dishonour of serving his master Lord Naritsugu (Goro Inagaki), the shogun's half-brother and a depraved and vicious maniac.
Naritsugu is a grade-A sociopath who rapes and/or kills anything that takes his fancy, and looks set to become ever more monstrous as his power grows. To stop him, a powerful elder asks a seasoned samurai called Shinzaemon (Kôji Yakusho) to gather a small force of assassins and kill Naritsugu. In a time of peace the samurai tradition of honour has been corrupted, and Shinzaemon seizes this chance for what he describes as "an honourable death".
After a slow but tense and absorbing start, 13 Assassins springs to life once the samurai band takes to the road. The film builds to an ambush climax that's reminiscent of Kurosawa's Seven Samurai. The battle-weary, leathered samurai wouldn't be out of place in Kurosawa's classic either, and there's even a comic outcast who echoes the works of Toshirô Mifune. But when it comes to the violence 13 Assassins has a bravura style all its own, and a sharp lesson about the vital importance of empathy.
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