13 Assassins (2010)
By: Stuart Giesel on April 2, 2012  | 
DVD
Icon (Australia) | Region B | 2.35:1, 1080p | Japanese DTS HD Master Audio 5.1 | 125 minutes (Full Specs)
The Movie
Cover Art
Credits
Director: Takashi Miike
Starring: Koji Yakusho, Takayuki Yamada, Yusuke Iseya, Gorô Inagaki
Screenplay: Daisuke Tengan
Country: Japan
External Links
IMDB Purchase YouTube
Japanese director Takashi Miike is probably most well known in the West for controversial, envelope-pushing stuff like Audition, Ichi The Killer and Visitor Q, but the man is more prolific than a dozen Samuel L Jacksons and in his career he's made all sorts of films, from westerns to superhero pics to kids films (one of his latest is the game-to-film adaptation of the Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney games). So what's surprising about his foray into the samurai genre is how long it's taken him (I don't recall him directing another straightforward samurai film before this, but given he's directed more movies than I've had hot dinners he might have done so somewhere along the line). But it's been worth the wait.

Long story short: it's Feudal Japan, 1844 (really doesn't sound like that long ago!) and dickface Lord Naritsugu (Goro Inagaki) is a sadistic, war-hungry monster who will soon become a member of the Shogunate, which will most likely mean an end to the current peacetime. An official, Sir Doi, is all too familiar with Naritsugu's handiwork, and hires a group of assassins led by samurai Shinzaemon (Koji Yakusho) to kill Naritsugu as he departs Edo to his home at the Shogunate. The main problem the band of assassins has is that they are 13 versus 200, and the man chiefly responsible for dickface's protection is Hanbei (Masachika Ichimura), as superb a swordsman as Shinzaemon and familiar with Shinzaemon's tactics.

13 Assassins is a film of two distinct halves, the first being the political dealings leading to the assassination plan, the recruiting of the assassins and the plotting of the actual assassination attempt itself, and the second being an extravagant 50-minute battle. Miike admits in the interview on the disc that the battle ended up being 50 minutes purely as a result of the editing process, not from any specific intention or plan, but it's hard to think of 13 Assassins in any other way. The final battle is thrilling in its grand scenes of carnage and eye-popping explosions, and yet when Miike wants to stab us in the gut metaphorically whilst characters are being stabbed in the gut physically that's when 13 Assassins truly clicks. There is a pleasing amount of tension to be had between the two main rivals Shinzaemon and Hanbei; once childhood friends, they were equally skilled growing up and are now forced to fight each other in support of their code. As good as Koji Yakusho is, Masachika Ichimura truly excels as Hanbei - you can really see the conflict he has with protecting the life of such a wretched piece of shit as Lord Naritsugu, knowing that if it wasn't for his code as a samurai he'd have made a sake cup out of Naritsugu's skull long ago.

Whilst there are hints of the splashy violence and brutality that Takashi Miike is known for in some of his more extreme work, this is no Lone Wolf and Cub - there are no fountains of blood or limbs flying through the air. The bloodshed for the most part is surprisingly restrained and realistic, meaning the violence really hits home where it matters. The initial scenes of 13 Assassins are actually quite shocking in their display of brutality enacted by the evil Lord Naritsugu. The film moves along at a fairly leisurely pace to begin with, so some viewers more accustomed to instant gratification will naturally be put off by this (so piss off and watch Transformers, then). But Miike takes the time for the audience to get to know the thirteen assassins, even though we really only become really familiar with a few of them.

Comparisons to Akira Kurosawa's landmark film Seven Samurai, the greatest of all samurai films and one of the best films of all time, are unavoidable. This is most apparent with the introduction of Koyata the hunter, whose appearance and mannerisms recall that of Toshiro Mifune's Kikuchiyo. The leader, Shinzaemon, wonderfully portrayed by Koji Yakusho, is also reminiscent of Takashi Shimura's Kanbe Shimada, in that his character is stoic and honourable, yet is also the heart of the film.

Criticisms? The first twenty minutes introduce characters and names that might confound viewers before it settles into its "good-guys-are-planning-to-assassinate-the-bad-guy" arc. The bad guy, Lord Naritsugu, is so evil, so morally repugnant, that you feel he's only been made that way so that we, the audience, experience that ultimate emotional "eat that, shithead!" payback that's due to him like in most revenge films. We don't get to know many of the assassins, so we're less emotionally invested in them by the time the final battle rolls around. And whilst most of the staging and camerawork in the final battle is sublime, there are a few moments that try to evoke Saving Private Ryan which don't really work (even though it's to show a character's emotional and physical state). And the less said about the CGI bulls the better (they're hard to miss). But, really, when the rest of the movie is so expertly crafted, I'm just nitpicking. It's great to see that in an era where CGI blood has replaced on-camera effects, either the makers didn't go down that route for 13 Assassins or it was so brilliantly done that I couldn't tell.

13 Assassins
is everything you'd want from a samurai film: lots of guff about honour and the warrior's code, seppuku, top-knots, a really really nasty bad guy you can't wait to get chopped into little pieces, and enough swordplay and blood to make Kurosawa rise from the dead and cheer.
Video
13 Assassins looks terrific on Blu-Ray with a very clean and sharp transfer. However it's a very brown film for the most part, and the colours seem to be muted in most scenes, so don't go expecting something that looks like Hero or House of Flying Daggers. The action is fast and the clarity is excellent.
Audio
Audio is superb, with every slice, stab and parry edited for maximum effect (just check out those gut-churning sounds that accompany the opening scene of seppuku). Music is sparse, and virtually non-existent in the final battle, so it's up to the sound effects to carry the burden. Get set for a lot of thwacks and screams and gruesome slicing sounds permeating every corner of your home cinema.
Extra Features
Firstly I have to note that the English subtitles are very well done. Of course, I can't tell how accurate they are compared to the original dialogue, but they're a lot better than I've seen on most other Japanese-to-English translations. Also, Australian audiences have been given the shorter international cut of 13 Assassins, and although the scenes are available as a feature, it would have been nice to have both versions available.

Speaking of deleted scenes, the Deleted Scenes feature shows us that what's been cut is mostly extensions of existing scenes, although there is one extremely odd and ill-advised scene that was thankfully excised from the final (international) cut involving the hunter Koyata which is in extremely bad taste and doesn't fit with the rest of the film.

The Interview with Director Takashi Miike provides some interesting tidbits, particularly Miike's requirement that each sound effect was not to be repeated (and in a film with this many sword-related sounds, pity the poor sound designers). Spoilers abound here, so for God's sake don't watch this before seeing the film.

There's a pretty useless Photo Gallery, the trailer for 13 Assassins and trailers for various films that make up the "Wu Xing" collection which is, apparently "cinema that resonates with the dynamic energy of the East". Uh-huh.
The Verdict
Movie Score
Disc Score
Overall Score
13 Assassins has all the hallmarks of a great samurai film which, whilst not in the league of Kurosawa's peerless Seven Samurai, certainly can stand proud with its extended scenes of carnage, great performances and terrific set pieces. Miike forgoes the extreme gore and bizarreness of his more well-known films and produces an exciting period drama (with plenty of action) that is probably more thoughtful than you would expect.

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