Released by: Magnolia Films
Released on: 7/5/2011
Director: Takashi Miike
Cast: Koji Yakusho, Goro Inagaki, Yusuke Isey, Mikijiro Hira
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Takashi Miike’s better known for his ‘out there’ films like Ichi The Killer and Audition than for his more straight-laced fare but 13 Assassins will likely change all that and raises the bar for Japan’s most prolific filmmaker by a noticeable margin. Here, channeling the ghosts of Peckinpah and Kurosawa, he’s craft a film that combines astonishing action set pieces with a strong emotional core and the results are pretty damn impressive.
A remake of the 1963 film directed by Eiichi Kudo, the movie begins with a fairly simple set up. Placed in feudal Japan, 1844 to be exact, we see the leader of the Akashi clan, Zusho Mamiya, commit seppuku as protest against the actions of the Shogun’s brother, Naritsugu (Goro Inagaki), a truly despicable man who uses his power and social status for selfish gain and whose actions threaten the political stability of the country. The Shogun’s advisor, Sir Doi (Mikijiro Hira), can’t allow Naritsugu to keep doing what he’s been doing and so he sets up a secret meeting with a retired samurai named Shinzaemon (Koji Yakusho) to explain to him that situation. Here we learn of Naritsugu’s penchant for rape, murder and the abuse of his subjects, making Sir Doi’s stance on the man completely understandable – something needs to be done about him.
Shinzaemon decides that Sir Doi is right and so he takes it upon himself, as Doi had hoped he would, to gather up a band of likeminded swordsmen to accompany him on what will essentially be a suicide mission, the only reward being the chance to die the way a samurai should die, that being in battle and with honor. He sets about gathering his men, including his own nephew, Shinrokuro (Takayuki Yamada), an aging samurai named Saheita (Hiroki Matsukata), a bloodthirsty ronin named Kujuro (Tsuyoshi Ihara), the dangerous spear master Heizo (Arata Furuta) and a few others and off they go to the town of Ochiai, a strategic location that serves as a pass into the mountains where they figure they can launch an ambush. They pick up a hunter named Koyata (Yusuke Iseya) on the way, and upon their arrival, they quickly get to work turning the town into a death trap. With Naritsugu’s forces at two hundred strong, lead by the unshakably loyal Hanbei (Misachika Ichimura), and they only thirteen in number, they’ll have to use every trick in the book to accomplish their mission.
A fantastic blend of elements from The Wild Bunch and Seven Samurai (with Iseya’s Koyata being quite obviously influenced by Toshiro Mifune’s Kikuchiyo character from that film), Miike’s film takes its time with the set up, making sure that the audience shares the protagonist group’s hatred of Naritsugu enough so that we can really get behind them and as such, invest ourselves in the film. A perfect example is the creepiest and most typically Miike scene in the film, where Sir Doi shows Shinzaemon an example of Naritsugu’s cruelty by introducing him to a woman who has had her arms, legs and tongue cut off and who writes the words ‘total massacre’ using a brush held between her teeth. We know pretty early on where all this is going, the characters themselves discuss how they will likely die in battle so there are no surprises when that battle actually begins, but with that having been said, that takes none of the impact out of the big finish.
So with it all building up to the inevitable battle scene, is the pay off worth the wait? Absolutely! Miike has staged some amazing set pieces in this film and everything, from the sets and locations used in the film to the stunts to, yes, even the CGI, is handled pretty much perfectly. This is a battle that really does encompass all of the supposed honor and glory of the samurai spirit, the inevitable conclusion to what most of these men have been working towards their entire lives and which brings the story to a fantastic close. If The Wild Bunch closes the book on the glory of the American wild west, Miike’s film does the same thing for samurai culture – both films send out an important historical era in their respective country’s history with a bang and both films stand head and shoulders above the crowd as testament to how gripping and involving good action films can really be.
The 2.40.1 widescreen AVC encoded 1080p high definition transfer on this disc is pretty impressive and offers up nice detail and very natural colors. A natural amount of film grain is present and there are no problems with noise reduction or heavy filtering to report, but the image is consistently clean and free of any actual print damage. The film’s color scheme tends to lean towards earth tones so it’s not the brightest or most colorful picture ever made but that looks is reproduced well here and detail is strong throughout, especially in close up shots.
The Japanese language DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track on this disc is even more impressive than the audio, providing plenty of surround channel usage, particularly during the climactic finale where the entire stage is used to excellent effect. Lots of directional effects put us right in the middle of the battle while the subwoofer hammers out a nice, level low end. Dialogue is occasionally slightly soft but those instances are few and far between and overall the movie sounds great. Optional English and Spanish subtitles are provided as is an English language DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio dub which sounds fine, but which doesn’t suit the film nearly as well a the original language track does.
There aren’t a ton of extras here but there are a few starting with a collection of deleted scenes (18:14) which were included in the film’s Japanese release but trimmed for international theatrical play. Ideally these would have been put back into the film but they don’t really affect things all that much, most are simple character development bits which, while they might have helped make us feel for some of the characters a bit more, don’t change the story much at all.
Magnolia has also included An Interview With Director Takashi Miike (18:43) in which the director talks about putting this picture together, the importance of the sound design in the overall effect of the picture, and some of the trials and tribulations involved in shooting the phenomenal finale to the film.
Rounding out the extras are the film’s original theatrical trailer, trailers for a few other Magnolia properties available on home video (Hobo With A Shotgun, Rubber, Troll Hunter, The Perfect Host) and a commercial for HDNet. Animated menus and chapter stops are also included and the disc comes with a digital copy.
The Final Word:
With 13 Assassins, not only has Miike crafted an outstanding action film but he’s managed to put enough character and personality into it that you’ll actually find yourself caring about how it all plays out. Stylish, violent, tense and exciting it’s pretty damn great and if Magnolia’s disc is a bit short on extra features, it presents the film in excellent quality and is, overall, an excellent package.