AKA: Thirteen Assassins
Year of release: 2010
Genre: martial arts
Director: Takashi Miike
Action director: Keiji Tsujii
Producers: Toshiaki Nakazawa, Jeremy Thomas, Takashi Hirajo
Writer: Daisuke Tengan
Cinematography: Nobuyasu Kita
Music: Koji Endo
Editor: Kenji Yamashita
Stars: Koji Yakusho, Takayuki Yamada, Yusuke Iseya, Goro Inagaki, Naritsugu Matsudaira, Masachika Ichimura, Mikijiro Hira, Hiroki Matsukata
Rated R for violence, language, and nudity
Note: this review is based on the "international version", which is approximately eighteen minutes shorter than the original Japanese edit.
This release, from Magnolia's genre label Magnet, is sourced from the international cut of the film, running at 125 minutes versus the original Japanese version's runtime of 141 minutes. The deleted scenes are included as an extra, but there is no way to include them in the actual movie.
Other bonus features include an eighteen-minute interview with Takashi Miike, trailers for the movie and other Magnolia releases, and a digital copy of the movie.
Like the majority of Magnet's other releases, this DVD looks and sounds great for the most part. The film is presnted in anamorphic widescreen at 2.40:1. Available audio tracks (which are in Dolby 5.1) include Japanese and an English dub, with English and Spanish subtitles.
The DVD and Blu-ray are available from Amazon.
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For the most part, Takashi Miike is a director best known to western audiences for his unsettling suspense/horror pictures such as Audition or hard-boiled Yakuza films like Dead or Alive. However, over his twenty year long career, Miike has shown himself to be able to create compelling movies in almost any genre, even with kid-centric films, as evidenced by 2005's The Great Yokai War. Miike's latest movie, 13 Assassins, shows that he's also able to work deftly in the realm of swordplay epics as well.
The film is a remake of a 1963 Eiichi Kudo picture, and is based around actual historical events. In 1835, the feudal period in Japan was coming to an end. The values of the samurai, and thus the control they had over the general populace, were deteriorating, as evidenced by the actions of Lord Naritsugu Matsudaira (Goro Inagaki), who uses his high position to wantonly commit atrocities on the people he is supposed to be protecting. This causes the shogun warlords to tap the veteran samurai Shinzaemon Shimada (Koji Yakusho) to take out Naritsugu by any means necessary.
The first two-thirds of 13 Assassins details how Shinzaemon assembles his rag-tag team of thirteen, which is eventually set up against Naritsugu's army of two hundred in the confines of a small village. This climatic battle is definitely the meat and potatoes of 13 Assassins. While the rest of the film takes a typically Japanese slow burn, the last forty-five minutes in which the confrontation occurs is unabashedly balls-to-the-wall in its' nearly gleeful portrayal of graphic violence. Unfortunately, much of the footage here is shot too closely and edited too fast, which leads to the power of the scenes being diminished somewhat.
Yes, it can be said that Miike (and his action director, Keiji Tsujii) were trying to capture the claustrophobic nature of close-quarters combat. But one would think that a versatile and experienced director such as Miike could find a more palatable way to portray the action of swordfights versus simply placing the camera a couple of feet away from the combatants. Combined with an ending that features the seeming resurrection of a character shortly before shown to be killed -- though one could argue that the character was actually a ghost, this actually opens a whole new can of worms -- it could be said that 13 Assassins has been over-rated by many critics.
That is, if the movie wasn't so damn good in every other respect. Miike's deft touch makes anticipating and then seeing the fate of even the most minor characters compelling material and, as such, the viewer will still be glued to the screen until the end credits roll, despite any qualms they may or may not have about have the swordplay is handled. From beginning to end, this is a motion picture that was obviously crafted with a great amount of love for both the story and the genre as a whole. In a sea of junky martial arts movies from all corners of the world, 13 Assassins stands out as one of the increasingly rare entries in this day and age of Xeroxed cookie-cutter formulaic fare that actually raises the bar for the audience instead of simply pandering to their lowest common denominator.