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“13 Assassins,” Reviewed

“13 Assassins,” Reviewed (photo)

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A samurai doesn’t fear death; he welcomes it. What the samurai does fear is obsolescence, and that is precisely the peril that faces the heroes of “13 Assassins.” They live in the mid-1800s, a few decades before the end of Japan’s Edo period and their way of life. When the leader of the assassins, a samurai named Shinzaemon, is presented with his suicidal assignment, a sort of black op hit for feudal swordsmen, he is pleased. “As a samurai in this era of peace,” he tells the governor who orders him to kill, “I’ve been wishing for a noble death.” Like Western gunslingers, particularly the ones from the films of director Sam Peckinpah, are out of place and out of time.

Shinzaemon’s mission, based on a historical battle and previously told in the 1966 film of the same name by Kudo Eiichi, is to assassinate the powerful and despicable Lord Naritsugu (Goro Inagaki). As the brother of the Shogun, Naritsugu is untouchable through official channels. But his behavior — raping, murdering, torturing, and not necessarily in that order — threatens a delicate peace. So Sir Do (Mikijiro Hira) secretly tasks Shinzaemon (Koji Yakusho) with Naritsugu’s murder. The plan calls for Shinzaemon and his samurai to ambush Naritsugu during his next trip home from the capital city. Success is a longshot at best: Shinzaemon eventually recruits a dozen samurai to his cause; Naritsugu has hundreds of swordsmen in his employ. The odds against him don’t faze Shinzaemon. As he tells his men, “he who values his life dies a dog’s death.”

“13 Assassins” was directed by Takashi Miike, the incredibly prolific Japanese director who has made almost 50 films in 18 years. Though he’s directed everything from westerns to childrens’ fantasy, he’s best known in the United States for ultra-violent horror and gangster pictures like “Audition” and “Ichii the Killer.” Fans looking for a violent Miike film won’t be disappointed by “13 Assassins,” which culminates with a 40-minute sequence of blood and blades. The scene is a triumph of escalating tension and a bravura fusion of complex action choreography and stylish camerawork, but its orgiastic celebration of death also seems to glorify the same values the assassins are working so hard to destroy.

Contradictions like that one linger as much as “13 Assassins”‘ unforgettable visuals (flaming cattle stampede, anyone?). The critic in me wants to analyze the film’s depiction of women (victims, one and all) and its attitude toward violence (a total massacre for a total massacre, as it were) while the dudely action fan in me must acknowledge the scene where a samurai swats arrows out of the air with his sword because it’s just so freaking cool (on the Scale Of Ultimate Movie Coolness, deflecting arrows with a sword ranks just between fedora hats and James Dean). “13 Assassins” is cool all right, maybe too cool. After an intensely emotionally charged opening, it devolves into pure spectacle, bloody and bloodless all at once.

Miike himself doesn’t seem entirely sure whether, as in the words of the one assassin, “samurai brawls are crazy fun!” or whether, in the words of another, “being a samurai is truly a burden.” “13 Assassins” raises such provocative questions about duty and honor and violence that it challenges the morality of its own undeniably outstanding action sequences. The massive battle is exhilarating but the images of its aftermath throw Shinzaemon’s philosophy into relief: these men died honorably, but it’s hard to see the honor in a hacked up corpse covered in blood and mud. True, they died for ideals. But those ideals may already be obsolete.

“13 Assassins” is now available On Demand. It opens in limited release on April 29.

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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