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VENICE (Reuters) - Prolific Japanese filmmaker Takashi Miike's "13 Assassins" is a surprisingly conventional remake of a 1963 samurai movie, but he injects enough horror and humour to win over viewers at the Venice film festival.
The film, one of 24 in the festival's main competition lineup, is based on Eiichi Kudo's black-and-white picture of the same name, and it could appeal to Venice jury president Quentin Tarantino, a martial arts enthusiast.
Set in 1844, the film follows a band of 12 samurai and one hilarious hanger-on as they seek to bring down the cruel Lord Naritsugu, who rapes and kills at will in the knowledge that his status as the Shogun's brother will protect him.
Led by the noble Shinzaemon Shimada (Koji Yakusho), the rebels know they are on a suicide mission against vastly superior numbers, but that does not deter them as they prepare for battle using elaborate traps and expert swordsmanship.
In one early scene, an eerie-looking and emaciated girl who has had her arms and lower legs severed by Naritsugu is brought before Shinzaemon.
She cannot tell him what happened to her family because her tongue has been cut out, but when she writes the words "total massacre," the hero keeps them close to his heart as he sets out on his path for revenge.
Most of the laughs come from Koyata (Yusuke Iseya), a wild mountain man who fights alongside the more formal samurai using stones and a sling and who criticizes them for their arrogance.
Miike said his main aim in making 13 Assassins was to educate young Japanese people about their recent past.
"This is not taking place in the remote past, but rather in the quite recent past, when our great-grandparents lived," he told reporters in Venice on Thursday.
"It is our story, the story of our everyday lives. It is not total imagination, although certainly it is a fictional story.
"Young Japanese today should not forget what the reality was that our families were experiencing," he added, speaking through an interpreter.
"I hope that young Japanese looking at this movie might reflect on the recent past, 50, 100 years ago, and think how Japan was different from what it is today."
Critics were surprised mostly by the lack of surprises in 13 Assassins, a well-produced, carefully made picture from one of the world's fastest filmmakers.
Since starting out in motion pictures in the early 1990s, Miike has made over 80 films, including 1999 horror "Audition" and 2004 superhero movie "Zebraman." A sequel, "Zebraman 2: Attack on Zebra City," premieres in Venice out of competition.
The competition also features Hong Kong director Tsui Hark's "Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame," an effects-laden epic set in China in 690 AD as China's first female emperor, Wu Zetian, is about ascend the throne.
Andy Lau plays the lead.
Editing by Paul Casciato