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Featured Blu-ray / DVD Review: 13 Assassins

July 5th, 2011

13 Assassins - Buy from Amazon: DVD or Blu-ray

13 Assassins is directed by Takashi Miike, whom some might recognize as the director of such films as Ichi the Killer and Audition. His films tends to be part of the Body Horror genre, a genre with extreme violence. As such, he seems like an almost curious choice to direct a period piece set in feudal Japan. Curious choice, but perhaps the right choice?

The Movie

We learn in the beginning from a title-card that the Shogun's younger brother, Lord Naritsugu Matsudaira, is a cruel and violent man who has committed countless acts of murder and rape. But, because he is the shogun's brother, he is above the law. Worried about his rise to higher power, Sir Doi, the Top Shogun Official, decides that if the Shogun won't stop Lord Naritsugu, he will. Shinzaemon Shimada is asked to assemble a team to rid Japan of this cruel man and ensure peace will remain. Among those he chooses is his nephew, Shinrokuro, a Samurai who spends his time gambling and womanizing because he's tired of being a Samurai during peacetime. This mission is a chance to become what he trained to be.

As Shinzaemon goes about choosing his men, Lord Naritsugu's head Samurai, Hanbei Kitou also comes to the conclusion that his master has gone too far and that someone will be forced to assassinate him. He even concludes Shinzaemon was the one hired for this task. However, he is honor bound to defend his master, despite all that his master has done and even talks to Shinzaemon to convince him to give up this mission. Neither man can convince the other, and when they part ways, they know a battle is inevitable.

Shinzaemon's plan is to get Lord Naritsugu and his guard to the small town of Ochiai by blocking his path in Kiso using diplomatic means. In the meantime, two of twelve men will get to Ochiai as fast as possible and buy the town. The rest will follow and help fortify the place in preparations for an ambush. Hanbei anticipates Shinzaemon will try to pass him and pays some of the local ronin to fight Shinzaemon and his men, which forces Shinzaemon to the mountains. It is there they meet Koyata Kiga, a hunter who was thrown out of his pack after putting the moves on his boss's wife. He claims to come from samurai stock and offers to act as their guide, in exchange for food. And then there were thirteen.

It takes a little more than a hour for the plan to be put together and be put into action, which means for the second hour of the film, it's nothing but combat. Any plot details past that point are spoilers. It does also divide the film into two parts: the character driven part of the movie and the combat driven part of the movie. The first part moves with deliberation, starting with a rather subdued hara-kiri. Since the movie was directed by Takashi Miike, I was a little worried this part would be gory in an over-the-top way, but fortunately that was not the case. I think it would have set the wrong tone. We do see enough of Lord Naritsugu's action so that there's no ambiguity in the mission. Clearly Shinzaemon is fighting on the side of justice, despite what Hanbei says about duty and honor. Also, the strategic battle between Shinzaemon and Hanbei plays out well. The political machinations are there, to add another layer, but are not such that they distract from the emotional core.

That said, some people watching the film will just be waiting for the main battle to start, and when we get to it, it is impressive. Not only do we get to see an excellent example of the commonly used small band of warriors vs. an army, but we also see a few things we normally don't in these movies. (A pair of the samurais are experts in explosives, so there are a few big ones thrown around. Plus, there are flaming bulls. This is not a euphemism. It is awesome.) It's a bloody battle, but not one gruesome in a way that will make you want to turn away. (There's really only one moment like that in the film.) Its chaotic, it's epic, and there's a sense of humor to it as well. (This is mostly thanks to Koyata.) And I haven't even gotten to the technical aspects of the film. The film only cost $6 million to make, but it looks much bigger than that. I guess because the main battle takes place in a small town, the filmmakers didn't have to spent huge amounts of money on set designs. I would assume recreating a period palace with all of its intricate artwork would cost a lot more than building larger wooden buildings, even ones you have to blow up during the climactic battle.

The biggest complaint I have is that you could really call the film 5 Assassins, as there are only five of the thirteen assassins that stand out as individuals. There's Shinzaemon, the leader; Kuranaga, the second in command; Shinrokuro, Shinzaemon's nephew; Ogura, the youngest samurai with no prior combat experience; and Koyata, the outsider. The other eight at little more than filler, and at times it's hard to tell which ones are involved in which action scene or who dies when. That's not to insult the actors, who were great, but the characters could have been a little more unique and made to stand out a tad more.

The Extras

The extras on the DVD include 18 minutes of deleted / extended scenes, some of which add a bit more character depth, or add details to the plan, etc., while others just extend some of the actions scenes. The average scene is under a minute long, but even so, many of them should have remained in the film. The second extra is a 19-minute interview with Takashi Miike.

I don't have the Blu-ray to review, at least not yet, but I can discuss its price. I have good news and bad news here. The list price for the Blu-ray is only about 10% more than the DVD; however, on, the discount on the DVD is much, much deeper and the Blu-ray is 60% more than the DVD. On the one hand, 60% more is too much to ask for a movie like this. On the other hand, $18 for a Blu-ray is hardly a bad deal.

The Verdict

13 Assassins is arguably Takashi Miike's best movie, and if not his best, certainly in the top five. It should please fans of samurai movies in particular, or fans of historical battle epics in general. The DVD and the Blu-ray are worth picking up. My only caveat is keep an eye on the price.

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Filed under: Video Review, Jûsan-nin no shikaku