Is Judge Dan Mancini a bandit or a raccoon goblin? No one knows for sure.
Our review of 13 Assassins (Blu-ray), published July 11th, 2011, is also available.
Before I gush shamelessly over 13 Assassins—easily one of the finest action-dramas I've seen in a long while—I want to go on record as saying that I've never been a fan of its director, Takashi Miike. I despise his controversial but celebrated Ichi the Killer as a shallow and garish bit of cinema trash, and panned Sukiyaki Western Django for being irritatingly self-conscious and too cute by half. So when I praise 13 Assassins effusively (as I am about to), you can trust that these aren't the ravings of a Miike fanboy.
Facts of the Case
In the Spring of 1844, a politically influential samurai commits seppuku as an act of protest against the vulgar sadism of the Shogun's younger brother, Lord Naritsugu. When Doi, the Shogun's head of security, is ordered to give Naritsugu nothing more than a slap on the wrist for his crimes, he recognizes that Japan's national peace is threatened by the Shogun's tolerance of his brother's senseless and repellant violence. While publicly acquiescing to the Shogun's command, Doi secretly hires samurai Shinzaemon Shimada (Koji Yakusho, The Eel) to assassinate Naritsugu.
Shinzaemon assembles a team of 11 other samurai, including his nephew Shinrokuro (Takayuki Yamada, Train Man), experienced warrior Kuranaga (Hiroki Matukata, Battles Without Honor and Humanity), and fierce swordsman Hirayama (Tsuyoshi Ihara, Letters from Iwo Jima). Eventually, the 12 samurai are joined by a half-mad itinerant hunter named Koyata (Yosuke Iseya, Blindness) who fights with rocks and sticks. The 13 assassins plan to waylay and kill Naritsugu on his journey to the capital in Edo. The problem is that the lord's retinue of bodyguards is led by Hanbei, an old rival of Shinzaemon's who finds Noritsugu's behavior deplorable but is duty-bound to protect him. Hanbei deduces Shinzaemon's involvement in a plot against Naritsugu and surrounds the young lord with a guard of 200 samurai instead of the usual 70. All hell is about to break loose.
With 13 Assassins, Takashi Miike rushes full bore into the samurai genre—and he does so without an ounce of self-conscious cheek. The movie embraces the tried and true forms of the jidaigeki without hesitation, yet punctuates those conventions with Miike's unbridled energy and splashes of his bizarre sensibilities. Instead of a deconstruction of the genre, Miike offers up a modern entry that plays it straight. If the movie's opening scene evokes Masaki Kobayashi's Harakiri, or if its wild man Koyata is reminiscent of Kikuchiyo, the uncouth would-be ronin in Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai (played to iconic perfection by Toshiro Mifune), then Miike never nudges or winks at the audience over the similarities. He allows the archetypes to have a life of their own within the story he's telling, and 13 Assassins is all the better for his restraint.
The first half of 13 Assassins concerns itself with introducing characters and setting up the extended battle that comprises the last hour of the story. Throughout this exposition, Miike delivers elegant and formal compositions within the 2.40:1 frame. His mix of static shots and slow, unobtrusive camera moves is reminiscent of the work of postwar Japanese genre directors like Hiroshi Inagaki (Chushingura) and Kurosawa, and couldn't be more far removed from the frenetic music video style of most of Miike's pictures. Despite the visual classicism, none of this set-up is stodgy or dull because the characters have genuine personality and Miike underscores their introductions with splashes of humor that don't violate the movie's otherwise serious tone, as well as a few truly thrilling small scale action set pieces.
13 Assassins' entire second hour is concerned with the assassination attempt, during which Shinzaemon and his team slice through a seemingly endless cavalcade of samurai in order to get to Naritsugu. That the action stretches out to an hour is the sort of thing that ought to be gimmicky and tiresome, but is saved by the emotional weight it receives from Miike's careful set up during the film's first half, as well as the director's technical precision in staging action that is consistently coherent and builds to a series of satisfying climaxes. In Seven Samurai, Akira Kurosawa puts much second act effort into presenting the geography of the farmers' village so that viewers can easily follow the long stretch of action during the movie's finale. In 13 Assassins, Miike goes in the opposite direction. His team of warriors turn the town in which they plan to attack Naritsugu's retinue into a shifting labyrinth by constructing outsized, sliding bamboo walls and a series of rooftop walkways with which they can constantly change the town's layout. The scheme is gently disorienting in a way that makes the action coherent by freeing the viewer from having to keep track of the location of each of the assassins. The shifting walls are a bit of a goofy conceit, but they serve the movie's action well by giving us license to ignore geography in favor of character and drama. The expertly crafted ebb and flow of 13 Assassins' big battle places it near the hallowed ground occupied by top shelf extended action sequences such as the truck chase in George Miller's The Road Warrior or the entire third act of Steven Spielberg's Raiders of the Lost Ark. That's high praise, I know, but large-scale action movie badassery is rarely this beautifully crafted.
The movie's DVD presentation is solid, though no match for high definition visuals. The 2.40:1 anamorphically enhanced transfer delivers strong detail and a dearth of digital artifacts. Colors are accurate if a bit bland. Black levels aren't quite satisfying, though they avoid the greater sin of black crush. The disc contains the 125-minute International cut of the film, as opposed to the original Japanese edit which runs 15 minutes longer (I'd love to see the version from the Land of the Rising Sun because 13 Assassins is entirely awesome in its slightly redacted form).
Dolby 5.1 surround tracks are offered in both the original Japanese and an English dub. Both are plenty loud and aggressive when they need to be, while handling quiet dialogue with aplomb. Optional subtitles are available in English and Spanish.
The disc also contains a smattering of extras:
Deleted Scenes (18:15)
An Interview with Takashi Miike (18:44)
The disc also houses a theatrical trailer for the movie.
The keep case includes an insert with a redemption code for a downloadable digital copy of the movie.
13 Assassins is a smart, earnest genre picture that is not only the best film Takashi Miike has ever made but also the best action movie I've seen in years.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Magnolia Pictures
• Deleted Scenes
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