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Feature


Based on a true incident, 13 Assassins is the story of a group of warriors banding together for a suicide mission to take out Lord Naritsugu (Gorô Inagaki); a sadistic lord who wants to bring about war and has no compassion for the lives around him. Upon hearing of Nartisugu’s heinous crimes, a noble samurai named Shinzaemon (Kôji Yakusho of Babel and Shall We Dance?), who hasn’t seen battle for a long time, takes up the task of hiring the group of fighters. Shaking with the excitement at the possibility of an honorable samurai death, he gathers a group of thirteen dedicated assassins. Together they devise a plan to take on Naritsugu’s personal army of seventy men, led by Shinzaemon’s fiercely dedicated rival, Hanbei (Masachika Ichimura).

 13 Assassins
There are few living directors as prolific as Takashi Miike. With over eighty films under his belt, his resume varies from perfectly innocent children’s flicks (like The Great Yokai War), to the shockingly depraved ( Ichi the Kiler, Audition and Gozu). 13 Assassins lands somewhere in-between. It may be a somewhat extreme movie to the uninitiated, but fans of the director will find it more grounded and traditional than his usual fair. I found the change of pace very refreshing. Miike has always been a very talented director whose work is overlooked by many due its ludicrous nature and unpleasant subject matter. This samurai story is one of his more approachable films, and I’d love to see it serve as a gateway to his body of work for more casual fans. His bizarre stamp is still scattered about the movie, but for the most part he keeps himself grounded and builds an engrossing conflict with admirable restraint.

The first half of the film is slow, but it’s a necessary and effective build-up. Miike takes the time to emphasize Naritsugu’s cruelty and make sure that we, as the viewer, really want to see this guy suffer. The scenes he uses to do this are harrowing, and one involves a goose bump-inducing cry that I won’t soon forget. What’s most important is that the build-up pays off. Once the showdown begins in the fortified town of Ochiai, the film never slows down again, rewarding viewers with approximately fifty minutes of uninterrupted action. The restraints come off, and what remains is a thrilling bloodbath of visceral excitement. Miike pays tribute to classic films like Seven Samurai, but adds his own excessive twist to it. For example, in one scene a ronin takes out a large number of enemies using multiple swords that are planted into the ground. I immediately recalled Toshirô Mifune using a similar technique in Kurosawa’s classic, but in 13 Assassins Miike seems bent on pushing the idea to its limits, with extraordinarily fun results.

 13 Assassins
The assassin’s themselves are all very likeable. As you can imagine, thirteen characters would be difficult to flesh out entirely in a two hour film, but a choice few are nicely developed and the others have distinguishable characteristics. The leader, Shinzaemon, is played masterfully by veteran Japanese actor Kôji Yakusho. Being a fan of his other acting work may have contributed to this, but he immediately filled the role with engaging stoicism that made me want to be on his side. His nephew, played by Takayuki Yamada (who I just now realized was the lead actor in Train Man), is the most relatable character. He is an unhappy samurai who passes the time by gambling compulsively, and is unsure of what he wants out of life. My favourite character had to be Koyata (played by Yûsuke Iseya, the lead in Casshern). He’s a goofy, unkempt hunter who the assassins stumble upon in the woods. Aside from being a reasonably developed character, he serves as the main source of comic relief, and his reckless attitude towards the conflict is contagious and hilarious. His non-traditional weapon choices include large sticks and a sling he uses to swing around giant rocks.

I have to commend Takashi Miike for his action sequences in this film. In this age of hyper-stylized action, it is a breath of fresh air to find a film that approaches the action scenes with restraint. There are no distracting CGI effects (aside from a brief scene involving bulls and some blood), and none of the sword fighting devolves into fetishized slow-motion or obnoxious rapid editing. The camera largely stays in one place, at a distance, and lets the action unfold on screen without drawing too much attention to itself. The plot of 13 Assassins won’t surprise anybody. It’s the traditional tale of samurai honour and good versus evil, and Miike never strays far from that formula. But as any long-time fan of the genre can testify, it’s a tried and true plot that when done right, is extremely potent. I’m happy to report that Miike has gotten it right. It is an exciting and competently made action film that is, most importantly, lots of fun to watch.

 13 Assassins

Video


Magnolia has given 13 Assassins a reasonably good 1080p (h.264/AVC) transfer. The film has a very mundane colour palette, with natural looking skin tones and lush forest greens that never appear to be artificially boosted or oversaturated. None of the colours really pop, but that seems intentional on the filmmaker’s part. Black levels are strong during night-time scenes. Grain is inconsistent, appearing mostly during dark interior scenes, but rarely showing up in outdoor segments. Edges are a little soft and detail is not as strong as I anticipated, but it still looks pretty good. The image feels a little flat overall, but there are no major compression artefacts present. This isn’t a transfer to write home about, but given the film’s modest style and realistic colour scheme, it serves its purpose well enough.

Audio


This DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 Japanese track from Magnolia doesn’t leave much room for error. Aside from some curiously distorted dialogue in one tent scene, I can’t find anything to complain about. Dialogue is kept mostly to the front channels and is easy to hear. The woman’s cry that I mentioned in the feature review echoes throughout various channels to chilling effect. The sounds of hooves hitting the ground as Naritsugu’s army approaches are appropriately raucous and heart-pounding. Action scenes are incredibly dynamic, with the sounds of explosions, clashing swords, and sailing arrows filling the room. These sounds are not shy, and populate the rear speaker channels often, with enormously immersive results. The whooshing sword noises are loud and satisfying. The sounds of explosions or a giant wooden structure being moved will give your subwoofer a tremendous work out. If you’ve got a new sound system you’re looking to show off, 13 Assassins is your best friend. There is an English dub option that I did not listen to, but for those interested it is a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track as well.

 13 Assassins

Extras


This is a relatively bare special features section. Aside from the theatrical trailer, we only have some deleted scenes and a brief interview with director Takashi Miike. Special features include English subtitles.

Interview with Director Takashi Miike (18:43, HD): This is a quiet exchange between an interviewer and Takashi Miike that fans of the director should find worthy of their time. Miike seems very proud of his work on the film without ever coming across as arrogant. The lady interviewing him doesn’t pose the most interesting questions, but he has a way of turning them into something more engaging to talk about. He is very honest about how much of the films content was planned, and seems very appreciative of the fact that different people can watch the film and take away separate messages from it.

Deleted Scenes (18:14, HD): 13 Assassins was originally around 140 minutes long, but this release is the international cut of the film that clocks in at just over two hours. This deleted footage is from the international version. A good number of deleted scenes are all placed together in one special feature. I enjoyed these deleted scenes a lot more than I do on most releases. There is some good stuff here that showcases Miike’s bizarre brand of humour, but I understand why it was cut to help the runtime. Most of this material is already implied in the film. The earlier deleted scenes are mostly extensions from exchanges of dialogue. There is some outrageous hilarious footage that revolves around Koyata and his sexual proclivities. There are also some bits of action, though nothing particularly exciting and memorable compared to what was left in the film. It would’ve been nice if they were included with the feature film as an original uncut viewing option.

 13 Assassins

Overall


I’m kicking myself for not watching this one in a movie theatre. Takashi Miike has delivered an exciting film that should satisfy both fans of the director and action devotees alike. If Magnolia’s video transfer doesn’t blow you away, the DTS-HD Master Audio track sure will. The only lacking part of this release is the special features, which are high in quality but few in number.

* Note: The below images are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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