HK and Cult Film News's Fan Box

Saturday, July 2, 2011

13 ASSASSINS -- DVD review by porfle

For the better part of an hour, director Takeshi Miike (ICHI THE KILLER, AUDITION) practices the art of the slow build-up in 13 ASSASSINS (2010), laying the dramatic groundwork for what will eventually erupt into almost fifty straight minutes of intense, grueling battle action. 

It's mid-1800s feudal Japan, and the Shogun's sadistic half-brother Lord Naritsugu (Gorô Inagaki) awaits his turn in power.  Fearing that this will end the current period of peace in Japan, the shogun council secretly enlists legendary samurai Shinzaemon Shimada (Kôji Yakusho) to assemble a force of assassins to take him out during an upcoming cross-country journey.  Shinzaemon's former friend Hanbei, who is now Naritsugu's chief advisor, vows to fulfill his duty as a samurai by protecting his master at all cost.

We need only see Lord Naritsugu in action for a few minutes to know that this heartless, arrogant bastard needs to die real good.  His dire deeds are portrayed in a brutally offhand way that gives them an insidious resonance, lending the film some moments of creeping horror.  Flashbacks of his heinous treatment of a servant woman and her husband are truly shocking, but nothing compared to the fate of a young girl who has suffered such extreme cruelty at his hands that her plight briefly pushes the film into true nightmare territory.

A slow first half establishes the film's dark, somber mood and introduces us to the main characters.  Shinzaemon is shown to be a great fighter and a man of honor who regrets never having the chance to die well for a just cause.  As in SEVEN SAMURAI, we watch him gather the best warriors available including the venerable Kuranaga, who contributes an additional five of his own men, and master swordsman Hirayama.  Shinzaemon's nephew Shinrokuro, an aimless gambler and rogue, decides to wager his own life for the chance to serve a higher purpose. 

There are other similarities to SEVEN SAMURAI along the way, chief among them being the fact that the final member of the group is a seriocomic peasant named Koyata (Yûsuke Iseya) whom the assassins run across during a shortcut through the woods.  Koyata is the group's highstrung, emotional, yet cunning loose cannon who resents the samurai while wanting to be one.  He throws in with the others just in time to participate in the film's first action scene, a down and dirty street brawl with a motley gang of hired henchmen.  

The final battle takes place in a small village which our heroes fortify in a number of outlandishly ingenious ways, only this time they're fighting not just for a few farmers but for the good of the entire country.  With the crafty Hanbei managing to increase Naritsugu's guard from 70 to 200 during his journey, their arrival in the village sets off a blazingly spectacular marathon melee of bloody swordplay, bone-crushing bludgeoning, and--thanks to Shinzaemon's two explosives experts--some awesome pyrotechnics as well.  As with the rest of the film, the direction and production values are superb.

Free of the usual balletics and acrobatic choreography, the fights are grueling and realistic death duels in which the good guys each cut a wide swath through the enemy forces before superior numbers inevitably begin to wear them down.  As anyone who has seen Kurosawa's film or the Western remake THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN knows, we'll see several of the main characters die heroically. 

Since Miike doesn't fully develop them all, only a few have real emotional impact, but these moments are enough to make the sequence more than just an action free-for-all.  It all leads up to a couple of one-on-one battles that determine the true victors in this momentous conflict over the future of Japan.

The DVD from Magnolia's Magnet label is in 2.40:1 widescreen with Japanese and English 5.1 Dolby Digital sound and English and Spanish subtitles.  Extras consist of deleted scenes, an 18-minute interview with Takashi Miike, a theatrical trailer, and other trailers from Magnolia.  Instructions for obtaining a digital copy of the film online are inside the DVD box.

"This was never meant to be an action film, to showcase action scenes, but a drama," Takashi Miike states during his interview, and indeed his film succeeds in this regard.  But after about an hour's worth of that drama the fightin' commences, and 13 ASSASSINS suddenly becomes one of the most thrilling action epics ever made. 

Buy it at

No comments: