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13 Assassins Review

April 29, 2011 | Posted by Chad Webb
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13 Assassins Review  

Koji Yakusho: Shinzaemon Shimada
Takayuki Yamada: Shinrokuro
Yusuke Iseya: Koyata
Goro Inagaki: Lord Naritsugu
Masachika Ichimura: Hanbei
Mikijiro Hira: Sir Doi
Miroki Matsukara: Karanaga
Directed By: Takashi Miike
Written By: Daisuke Tengan (based on Kaneo Ikegami’s screenplay)
Video on Demand Release Date: March 25th, 2011
Theatrical Release Date: April 29th, 2011
Running Time: 124 minutes

Rated R for sequences of bloody violence, some disturbing images and brief nudity.

Bloody and feverishly engaging, Takashi Miike’s 13 Assassins is a remake of a little seen 1963 film by Eichi Kudo. It is also a throw back to classic samurai pictures, one that combines the fun and action of Akira Kurosawa’s finest efforts with the relationships and machinations of Kon Ichikawa’s 47 Ronin. But Miike also integrates his own traits, frenetic bloodshed and a sly macabre wit to be exact, so that the classicism is laced with his own kooky signature. This is a polished and straightforward achievement that all audiences, even those not keen on subtitles, will find were two hours well spent.

The plot is hardly new terrain for the genre. It is set around a peaceful era in 1844, when the Shogunate still ruled Japan and when the samurai era was waning. The first scene is impossible to shake as nobleman Zusho Mamiya commits hara-kiri, a spiritual suicide, to protest the despicable actions of Lord Naritsugu (Goro Inagaki), the Shogun’s half-brother, who is about to ascend higher in the political chain of command. Because he is a brother of the Shogun, Naritsugu is basically untouchable. Publicly admitting his wrongdoings would announce that there are flaws with the Shogun’s lineage. One of his trusted officials, Sir Doi (Mikijiro Hira), has had enough, and hires aged samurai Shinzaemon (Koji Yakusho) to dispose of this issue. Along the way, Shinzaemon recruits 12 more warrior samurai and inadvertently acquires one guide to aid in a battle where they will surely be outnumbered. Lord Naritsugu is under the protection of Shinzaemon’s old friend, Hanbei, who leads his large assemblage of bodyguards. Once Naritsugu gets into Akashi territory, nothing can be done, and so 13 men track their enemy carefully, waiting for the perfect time to strike.

The nods, tips of the top hat, and salutes to Takashi Miike’s predecessors are obvious and frequent, but occasionally the elements within 13 Assassins come across as imitations. Miike’s ronin adventure is Seven Samurai intertwined with Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven and Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, and many of the personalities found in Miike’s film can be found in Kurosawa’s masterpiece. And if that is a flaw, which it is, viewers will get over it quickly. Some of the characters are familiar archetypes, but others are fabulously original, such as the samurai who demands a fee before he joins, or the eager youngster who looks as if he’s barely reached puberty. The guide, whom the dirty dozen discover caged up in a tree for sleeping with his boss’ wife, echoes Toshiro Mifune’s “Kikuchiyo” role, albeit with a twist at the end. Nevertheless, his weapon of choice is whipping bags of sand, so any criticisms should be mute. Yusuke Iseya’s portrayal of this guide, named Koyata, is one of the more memorable of the pack.

As delightfully silly as Koyata is, Goro Inagaki’s performance as Lord Naritsugu, the Devil incarnate, steals the show…and then some. His tranquil, lackadaisical attitude as he perpetrates the most atrocious things to seemingly innocent people, makes him as evil as possible. This is an individual who viciously rapes a new bride just because she happened to be in the same hallway. When her husband runs to her side, he is given a sword in the back for his troubles. He also cut off the limbs of a young woman and used her as his play toy. Disgusting as that may sound on paper, actually observing this deformed person takes our opinion of Naritsugu to a whole new level of hatred. His list of misdeeds, a polite way of labeling them, goes on and on. Once Naritsugu’s crimes become clear, we are rooting for the assassins like cheerleaders at a championship sporting event, despite the individual faults of the samurai themselves.

Koji Yakusho is convincing and determined as Shinzaemon, but it’s a relatively easy role. His best scenes are with Masachika Ichimura’s Hanbei, and both know they will face each other in the field of battle. They describe this as an “ill twist of fate.” Through Hanbei, the dilemma of whether or not the fervent obedience of the samurai toward their masters conflicts with what is right for the country is raised. One can sense that Hanbei understands the ruthlessness of Lord Naritsugu, but absolutely can not submit to these beliefs or contest the superior he must protect. Shinzaemon’s nephew Shinrokuro is a womanizing gambler, but as his Uncle informs him, he can never be a true player by just sitting back and watching. Takayuki Yamada is distinct as Shinrokuro, maturing as the violent situation escalates. 13 Assassins contains several solid supporting turns. It should be no surprise that some characters are short changed in terms of screen time, but Miike, along with Daisuke Tengan’s screenplay and the costumes of Kazuhiro Sawataishi, attempts to flesh out these important figures and their unique attributes even if they’re mainly seen with the group.

For every highly recommended film he churns out, Japanese director Takashi Miike unloads dozens that few know of, care about, or even like. Since his masterpiece Audition in 1999, he has stood at the helm for over 50 cinematic offerings from the Dead or Alive trilogy to Sukiyaki Western Django with Quentin Tarantino on the cast. His innate skill has not been challenged, but he has not paced himself in years as he does with 13 Assassins. He simply moves too quickly, and if he pulled back a tad from three to five films per year and concentrated on one or two, the results might be more satisfying. Similar complaints were lodged at the recently late Sidney Lumet as well, who was described as already thinking of his next film sitting on the set of one in production. Here, Miike embraces a no-nonsense approach, reminding everyone he is more than capable of it by resurrecting a simple tale (based on true events apparently) and saturating it with engrossing characters and exhilarating action.

I recalled the humorous story of how decades ago Akira Kurosawa and his crew relentlessly tried to create the ideal samurai sword swipe into a human. Initially beef and pork were hacked at, but that did not meet Kurosawa’s wishes, so a whole chicken was stuffed with chopsticks, and that was chopped into with gleeful reactions and promptly chosen. It’s a sound effect still used today, and sometimes we take these small details for granted, but the vivid and spine-tingling sound editing from Miike and his crew on 13 Assassins is brilliant. You can almost feel the flesh being torn as Mimiya carries out the hara-kiri, or when any number of people gets decapitated. Miike’s trusty composer Koji Endo provides a rousing score that fuels the energy with a measured recklessness, while Nobuyasu Kita’s cinematography captures the beauty of the lush countrysides and serene villages amidst the imposing task at hand. But it’s Miike who outlines his universe so intelligently, stages the locations so lucidly, and avoids excessive convolution.

13 Assassins is conventional by Takashi Miike’s standards, and those who have seen Ichi the Killer and added examples of his “gore to the extreme” tendencies, will be aware that he shows restraint with the mayhem in this case. The final 45 minutes or so of the picture unravel as one epic clash at the town of Ochiai. It is an action sequence for the ages as Shinzaemon’s troops discover that Naritsugu and his Akashi clan have more men than anticipated. The samurai unleash a vast array of booby traps, arrows from elevated positions, and even stampeding bulls lit on fire. On a side note, the bulls mark the only evidence of poorly used CGI. The chaos of the encounter makes it somewhat difficult to keep tabs on everyone, but the communication between the characters certainly prevents that from becoming a distraction. This enormous fight never becomes monotonous because Miike controls the pace and camera movement with finesse and ardor. One of my favorite scenes transpires when a house crumbles and a wave of blood from the roof crashes to the ground, having collected there from all the deaths that just happened.

This is an easy film to watch, and that is a high compliment. Though framed with the recognizable elements of samurai productions, Miike focuses on the adrenaline of the skirmishes while maintaining the riveting strategy of each clan and the motivations of just about every character involved in the mission. The Japanese version extends by 15-20 minutes, but producers excised a portion which took place in a bordello the night prior to the big fight because it slowed the flow down. That was probably smart, as the dull moments in this cut are few and far between. In 13 Assassins Takashi Miike charges ahead with confidence and utilizes uncomplicated methods to supply a traditional, yet supremely “kick-ass” experience.

The 411: When I heard that Takashi Miike's new film was a remake and a samurai picture, I wasn't sure what to expect, and to be truthful, it took me a little while to warm up to how straightforward this effort is. With Miike as your director, one is not accustomed to conventionality, but 13 Assassins is successful. If you have not checked out any of the classic samurai films, but were always curious to see what the samurai were like sans Tom Cruise, this could be the perfect introduction. This is a well-acted, assuredly made film with one of the best concluding battle sequences you'll see in years. 13 Assassins has been on demand for weeks now, and therefore on illegal sites as well, but it has now arrived on the big screen, which is probably the best way to experience the delicious carnage.
411 Elite Award
Final Score:  8.5   [ Very Good ]  legend

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