Takashi Miike’s rise is complete: This one-time director of cheapo shock pics — which he churned out like sausages and were beloved by foreign Asian Extreme fans — is now a proven hit-maker and recognized auteur, with his new samurai swashbuckler “Jusannin no Shikaku (13 Assassins)” screening in this year’s Venice Film Festival competition.

The Miike of old, who trashed formula, while indulging the wilder, naughtier side of his imagination, is still alive and well in this reworking of Eiichi Kudo’s eponymous 1963 film. But there is also a more mature, legacy-conscious Miike present in “Jusannin no Shikaku.” No longer satisfied with just being the coolest kid in the class, he is matching himself against the Golden Age greats of the samurai genre — not only Kudo, but the greatest of all, Akira Kurosawa; especially his 1954 epic “Shichinin no Samurai (Seven Samurai).”

This oversize ambition, present in every frame, does not result in a bloated, self-indulgent genre parody like “Sukiyaki Western Django,” Miike’s 2007 Eastern-Western. Instead, he has taken his virtuous-few-against-evil-many story line — a genre perennial — to the outer limits of his formidable talent and energy.

Jusannin no Shikaku (13 Assassins)
Director Takashi Miike
Run Time 126 minutes
Language Japanese
Opens Opens Sept. 26, 2010

There is plenty of high-charged splatter action, with black comic touches, in the familiar Miike style. But in the 50-minute climactic battle, the heroes change from cocky, near-superhuman fighters, wasting opponents with everything from massive explosions to sticks and stones, to wounded, desperate men fighting for their lives against overwhelming numbers, filmed in dark, grainy shades that foreshadow doom. There is a pathos in their struggle that is new to Miike’s work — but often present in the great samurai epics he is trying to equal.

“Jusannin no Shikaku” doesn’t strike the deeper chords of “Shichinin no Samurai,” with its poignancy about lost lives, its clarity about the tragic limits of heroism. But Miike also shows a new way forward for an old genre still struggling to reinvent itself. Rather than try to dazzle with CG wonders like so many of his contemporaries (see the disastrous Kazuaki Kiriya period actioner “Goemon” for an example), Miike uses his pixels, together with old-fashioned sweat and smarts, to deliver full-bore, real-deal action. More than the genre’s graying core fans, his target is a younger generation for whom the classic samurai fight scenes, beautifully shot as they are, often look like dance numbers.

The story follows the outlines of the original film, which is in turn loosely based on a real incident. The capriciously cruel Lord Naritsugu (Goro Inagaki) is sowing death and destruction among his hapless subjects when his chief retainer cuts open his own stomach in protest. Lord Doi (Mikijiro Hira), a member of the shogun’s Council of Elders, decides that Naritsugu must be stopped before his expected ascension to the council — and possibly even to the shogunate itself.

Doi charges Shimada Shinzaemon (Koji Yakusho), a brave and capable metsuke (a sort of feudal-era intelligence officer) with the task of killing Naritsugu. After seeing one victim of his target’s sadism — a woman whose legs, arms and tongue have been removed — Shinzaemon needs little persuading.

He gathers a band of 11 like-minded assassins, including the bluff senior metsuke Kuranaga (Hiroki Matsukata), the saturnine ronin (masterless samurai) Hirayama (Tsuyoshi Ihara) and his own dissolute but fearless nephew Shinrouko (Takayuki Yamada). Together they plot to surprise Naritsugu and his minions at a village during his annual journey from Edo (old Tokyo) to his domain.

Enlisting the help of the locals — including the wild-eyed mountain man Koyata (Yusuke Iseya), who proves his worth as a guide and fighter — they carefully lay their trap. But then they learn that, instead of the smaller force they expected, Naritsugu and his canny lieutenant Hanbei (Masachika Ichimura) have 300 men with them. Knowing that near-certain death awaits them, the 13 assassins (counting Koyata) decide to fight anyway out of pride — and because it’s the most fun they know.

Despite the lengthy cast list, the film’s stars stand out from the crowd. Playing Shinzaemon, Yakusho brings not only his trademark nice-guy-ness, but a dark sense of humor and a hard edge of rage. That is, he makes himself over into the ideal Miike hero. Iseya is also excellent as the primal Koyata, fighting only with guts, instinct and laughing scorn for samurai pretensions.

The surprise is Inagaki as the bad-to-the-bone Naritsugu. A member of pop mega-group SMAP, Inagaki gives the character not just the usual slithers and sneers but a cold, twisted charisma and force. All those years in show business have evidently taught him well about the many faces of evil.

Could the 50 minutes of bloodshed have been trimmed to 40 or even 30? Yes and yes, but then “Jusannin no Shikaku” wouldn’t be a Miike movie — that is, an entertaining riot of excess. Think Japanese action films have gone cute and flabby? That they can’t hold a candle to the masterpieces of the glorious past? Miike may not make you change your mind — but it won’t be for lack of trying.

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