13 Assassins (2011 UK Blu-ray release, Takashi Miike)
Set in Japan at the beginning of the nineteenth century, Lord Naritsugu (Goro Inagaki) who is next in line to be Shogun (a military dictator) rapes and murders the innocent, showing no humanity or honour towards his fellow man. His actions cause a division within the samurai establishment, with many fearing for their lives and the future of Japan. Thus a band of 12 samurai, and a forest dweller, led by Lord Shinzaemon (Koji Yakusho) are tasked with assassinating Naritsugu.
Takashi Miike moves away from his previously controversial style of filmmaking (Ichi the Killler, Audition) and pays homage to the Jidaigeki/ Chanbara genres of Japanese samurai features. While not on the same cinematic wavelength as Akira Kurosawa, 13 Assassins is a simple but engrossing film. It clearly takes inspiration from Seven Samurai: the pacing, story and characters, but there’s originality to Miike’s most ‘mainstream’ work. His unique sense and style of pace, violence, and ardent energy merge well with the mature and classic narrative of the samurai genre. A restrained and moody first act lends itself perfectly to a 45-minute action-packed finale complete with explosions, blood and decapitation. Speaking of which, it’s staggering to see Miike direct a genuine action sequence and manage to retain its visceral, fast-paced and gripping nature on such a grand scale. This isn’t to suggest that the film skips out on the construction of characters and narrative for a straight-up action fest; it brutally fabricates our antagonist in various disturbing scenes, while great performances – especially from Koji Yakusho and Masachika Ichimura – inject strong and dramatic personalities on screen. Meanwhile, the cinematography, art direction and sound design create a film dense with character, visual/audio richness and atmosphere. 13 Assassins is a thoroughly entertaining and well-constructed film that’s certainly Takashi Miike’s best recent work.
It’s easy for ‘film critics’ to forget that films are supposed to entertain. While 13 Assassins might not hold the complexities or unique narratives of Citizen Kane or the cinematography of a Kurosawa feature, 13 Assassins is a compelling film with similar traits to proper blockbusters. From a very critical standpoint the first half is a little slow while the 45-minute battle scene is slightly over-the-top. There is also some rushed character development, but nothing that hinders the appreciation and enjoyment of the film. This isn’t going to win any prestigious awards over here or in Hollywood, but it is certainly one of the most entertaining films of this year.
There’s definitely a difference between this and the DVD version – crisper images and better sound provide a more striking film watching experience. Inky blacks, a moody yet effective colour palette and a majestic use of shadows, produce a very clean and highly defined picture. Audio-wise, the 5.1 high-resolution audio mix is fantastic. Dialogue is crystal clear while the surround sound blends effectively to create a truly atmospheric and immersive film. The finale especially, is an orgy of bass, explosive tones and a well-matched soundtrack.
As with many foreign films, 13 Assassins is light on the ‘extras’ front. Trailers, Deleted Scenes and an informative interview with the director are fine, but overall there’s an underwhelming amount of content. However the main disappointment with the UK release is the noticeable omission of the film’s extended version. While the ‘Deleted Scenes’ add more back-story, it’s unfortunate to see a 141-minute uncut version of the film being released exclusively in Japan.