Set in 19th century feudal Japan, 13 Assassins is the story of well, thirteen assassins who are recruited to take out a sadistic overlord named Naritsugu (Goro Inagaki) before he finds protection with another clan and continues his spree of brutal dominance. How brutal is he? Well, let’s see… he slices off appendages of women he grows tired of (not to be cliché and only cut off arms and legs, Naritsugu goes for the legendary resonance by removing their tongues, too) and shoots arrows at bound children for no other reason than he can. The thirteen assassins of the film’s title are assembled by the samurai Shinzaemon (Koji Yakusho), who is given top-secret orders to do so by another lord, Sir Doi (Mikijiro Hira). The plan is to ambush Naritsugu on his trek and wipe him out with extreme prejudice. Let the games begin, after the jump.
The resemblances to Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai are more than conspicuous, and it begs the question how 13 Assassins would have been received if it had billed itself as a straight-up remake (or even reimagining). The filmmakers even go so far as to include a comic relief character named Koyata (Yusuke Iseya), who functions much in the same way Toshiro Mifune’s Kikuchiyo lightened up the Kurosawa film.
If you love your blood and guts Miike style (which is to say in great abundance), then this film’s for you. Limbs are severed, bodies are hacked and copious amounts of blood geyser freely. But the film is also more than just a splatterfest. These characters are all well defined, and their relationships and dynamics actually make us care about them (all-too-rare in actions films these days). As expected, themes of friendship, loyalty and vengeance are explored, but none of it’s done with a cheesy eye that could have easily made the movie so much less than it is.
Miike’s shift from horror-gore into action-gore is a seamless one and he gives his fans lots of hope in his potential to branch out into other genres (but make no mistake, his trademarks are still there; much of the ground is covered crimson after the battles in this film). The movie’s action is stylized and deliberate, meaning it’s a lot more thought-out (and interesting to watch) than so many big-budget Hollywood cut-at-a-dizzying-frame-rate monstrosities.
The production design front may by the film’s only real stumbling block. Everything in this film looks clean and freshly built. And while the sets are nice to look at, the only problem here is the movie supposedly takes place in the closing days of the Shogunate, meaning it’s a world that should be heavily battled-scarred and well worn. The living quarters (and condition of the land in general, for that matter) don’t necessarily reflect this. Still, this is a minor point in an action film so solid, deft and well crafted in its fight sequences. And let’s be honest, that’s what we’re watching a Miike film for anyway.
The picture and sound quality are both adequate, which is to say they look and sound right for a DVD, but they’re not Blu-ray. Images are crisp and audio is strong enough that we can clearly hear the repeated (and distinguished to each individual assassin, as the director tells us in the supplemental section) sound of blade cutting through flesh and bone without obstruction.
Enthusiasts of the director will find the one-on-one interview with Miike to be interesting. The filmmaker talks in depth about specifics he was going for while constructing a number of scenes and performances. There’s not a whole lot of dynamic between Miike and his over-ebullient interviewer, so don’t prepare for very much excitement during this segment. Eighteen minutes of deleted scenes (none of which is remarkable as being outstandingly good or bad) mostly serve as filler that round out the supplemental section of the DVD.
Miike’s diehard fans won’t be disappointed and those less prone to the horror genre and more action-oriented are in for a solid viewing experience. Beneath all the blood, guts and gore, 13 Assassins has a beating heart. It’s definitely a film worth watching.