Edo period Japan and the untouchable brother of the Shogun, the villainous Lord Naritsugu (played wonderfully by SMAP member Goro Inagaki), is out of control and a group of samurai (and a wandering bandit) set out to assassinate Naritsugu before he rises too high and things get far worse. Laying a trap for him and his guards the group of assassins must fight through hundreds of of men in order to get to him. In their efforts to kill him they employ complex tactics and ingenious contraptions but it is their tenacity that is perhaps their greatest strength.
13 Assassins is based on a true story and is also a remake of an under-seen but exceptional 1963 film of the same name by Eiichi Kudo. Kudo's original was the first film in a loose trilogy with The Great Killing and 11 Assassins. Although The Great Killing is often considered his masterpiece, perhaps due to it drawing the most on the political unrest of the time, the 13 Assassins is still a film well worth tracking down. With beautiful cinematography and expert plotting it is an excellent example of the jidaigeki of the time and the lengthy battle sequence is utterly gripping.
With this remake Takashi Miike has, perhaps unsurprisingly given his previous work, upped the ante in every area including the lengthy battle sequence. Here the action accounts for almost half the film's running time and is as gripping if not more so than in Kudo's film. Thankfully Miike never exaggerates elements of the chanbara genre too far though avoiding slipping into the cartoonish excess that could have wrecked the compelling story. That said there are moments in 13 Assassins that are incredibly audacious and in the action Miike pushes the violence very far. Decapitations, seppuku and arrows fired at children are all present but these feel part of the ugly world the story inhabits rather than excessive flourishes.
Miike also expertly orchestrates the tension in the violent and more action heavy scenes, often building the tension only to break for a moment (a sequence where a child is urinating is one novel example) before returning to intense and dramatic action. This approach to the action is present in Miike's previous work but few films of his have achieved this level of tension so well. One notable film of his that dealt in tension building though is Audition which, like 13 Assassins, was scripted by Daisuke Tengan (son of the legendary Shohei Imamura). The tension is clearly not all in the script and Miike's directing and Kenji Yamashita's editing add greatly but the partnership of Miike and Daisuke is obviously a very fruitful one and hopefully they will work together again.
One of the most striking things about 13 Assassins though is the way in which it harks back to another period in Japanese cinema. Not just a remake of a classic samurai film, 13 Assassins is almost a tribute to the chanbara film genre and a lament for its decline. In recruiting his band of assassins Shinzaemon (Koji Yakusho) points out that it has been a long time since they have used their swords and one character mentions how many samurai have pawned their swords away. The characters appear to hold a yearning for a time when they could be samurai and use their swords for their intended purpose. As Naritsugu also utters at one point "Who would have thought the age of war would be like this? It's magnificent." The brutal violence of the battle may be ugly in many ways but Miike finds the magnificence in it and the bored and sadistic Naritsugu finally finds his place on the battlefield.
This yearning of the characters and the way this theme runs through the film appears to follow through in Miike's choice to direct 13 Assassins and his choice of future projects. Although he has previously directed historical films and 'samurai' films (see Kumamoto Monogatari for instance) and the chanbara is far from dead, 13 Assassins is probably the closest Miike has come to a 60s/70s samurai film and it is a wonderful modern example. It is also a trend that he may be continuing, with his decision to remake Masaki Kobayashi's 1962 film Harakiri (in 3D this time). If Miike can deliver as satisfyingly with Harakiri as he has done here then we can look forward to this trend continuing.
There is one inescapable issue with the Artificial Eye 13 Assassins Blu-ray that unfortunately lets down this and every 'international' release of the film. When the film was sold worldwide the only cut of the film supposedly available for purchase was the 'International Cut' and buyers were unable to secure the rights to the original domestic cut (released in Japanese theatres and on home video there) even if they wanted to. The difference in the cuts is reasonably substantial but the 'International Cut' was allegedly approved by Takashi Miike and, as I've hopefully made clear above, is still a magnificent film even in this slightly truncated form.
Although the longer cut is not included on this disc Artificial Eye have included the 'missing' scenes within a deleted scenes special feature. Watching the scenes out of context is a little ludicrous (constant cuts to black and scenes beginning with half a line of dialogue are a very unsatisfying) but it's certainly a good thing that they have been included. The additional scenes mostly involve character moments that help flesh out the titular assassins a little more, helping you to better understand their motivations, and watching them after the film certainly reveal new aspects to story.
Perhaps the most significant deleted scenes are those involving Koyata, a character that provides a lot of the comic relief in the film. The additional scenes hint that there might be more to the character than there appears to be in the shorter cut and also go some way to explaining a somewhat odd moment with his character at the end of the film. Also excised from the shorter cut but included in the deleted scenes is a sequence in which Koyata beds all the women in a village and, still unsatisfied, has sex with the (male) village elder. The scene is played for bawdy laughs and it would have been very interesting to see how this would have sat within the rest of the film.
Although the option to only watch the shorter cut is pretty disappointing, the inclusion of the deleted scenes make up for it somewhat and with no English subtitled DVD or Blu-ray on the horizon (the recent Japanese Blu-ray is completely un-subtitled) this will most likely be the only option for non-Japanese speakers to watch the film for some time.
Also included on the disc is an interview with Takashi Miike (ported from the US disc) that features a very enthusiastic interviewer asking him questions on a number of elements of the film. Miike is eloquent and interesting here and provides some insights into his reasons for making the film and also why he made certain crucial decisions regarding the production. Unfortunately Miike also answers a question regarding his personal highlight in the film with the choice of the scene with Koyata and the village elder, the deleted scene mentioned above.
The HD transfer of the main feature is exceptional with definite fidelity to the source material. The film was shot on 35mm and the transfer retains a reasonably consistent, fine layer of grain throughout and everything about the picture is in keeping with my two theatrical experiences with the film (both projected under optimal conditions). A significant portion of the film involves scenes shot with candlelight, something that represents a unique set of challenges in production and post-production, but these scenes are mostly flawlessly shot and a lot of attention has clearly been paid to getting these right in the transfer too.
The Blu-ray offers the option to watch the film with either a 5.1 or 2.0 mix, both in Japanese (no nasty English dub here - look to the US disc if that appeals to you), and both are superb with wide range and clarity. Miike makes mention of the importance of the sound design in the interview on the disc and the careful consideration taken with this part of the film by Miike is well represented in both mixes.
This Blu-ray release from Artificial Eye is an excellent disc and easy to recommend, although if an English subtitled release with the longer domestic cut does appear then it might be worth thinking twice before picking it up.
13 Assassins is available to buy or rent on DVD and Blu-ray from the 5th of September.