13 Assassins

 

Written by Daisuke Tengan

Based on a 1963 screenplay Kaneo Ikegami

Original Story: Shoichirou Ikemiya

Cinematographer: Nobuyasu Kita

Music: Koji Endo
Character Designer: Isao Tsuge

Executive Producer: Jeremy Thomas

Directed by Takashi Miike

2010

 

Cast:

Koji Yakusho

Takayuki Yamada

Yusuke Iseya

Goro Inagaki

Masachika Ichimura

Mikijiro Hira

Hiroki Matsukata

Ikki Sawamura

 

Production Studio:

Theatrical: Sedic Int’l, RPC, ABC, Asahi Shimbun, et al

Video: Magnet (Magnolia Home Entertainment}

 

Video: 

Aspect ratio: 2.40:1

Resolution: 1080p

Codec: AVC

Disc Size: 44.6 GB

Bit Rate: High (30-40 Mbps)

Runtime: 125 minutes

Chapters: 11

 

Audio:

Japanese DTS-HD MA 5.1

English (dub) DTS-HD MA 5.1

 

Subtitles: English, English SDH, English Narrative, Spanish

 

Extras:

• Interview with Director Takashi Miike - in HD (18:40)

• 19 Deleted Scenes - in HD (18:10)

• Theatrical Trailer - in HD

• Digital Copy

 

Presentation:

Blu-ray case w/slipcover: BRD x 1

Street Date: July 5, 2011



Synopsis (per Magnet):

Cult director Takashi Miike (Ichi the Killer, Audition) delivers a bravado jidaigeki period action film set at the end of Japan's feudal era in which a group of samurai are enlisted to bring down a sadistic lord and prevent him from ascending to the throne and plunging the country into a war-torn future.

 

The Movie: 8.5

(Note: Magnolia offers the 126-minute “International” version, rather than the 141-minute Japanese theatrical version (available without subtitles on Blu-ray here.)


     

 

13 Assassins has a venerable pedigree dating back to historical fact and legend from the period in the mid-nineteenth century shortly before the seven centuries old Japanese samurai-supported feudal shogunate was to give way to the western influenced Meiji Imperial Restoration that has been in place until after WWII.  The story is based on an actual incident, brilliantly orchestrated by Miike and his artistic designers.  The screenplay by Daisuke Tengan based his screenplay on the 1963 black & white film of the same name directed by Eiichi Kudo and written by Kaneo Ikegami, who derived his script from an original story by Shoichirou Ikemiya.  Miike’s film was nominated for Best Picture at the Japan Academy Awards (won that year by Tetsuya Nakashima’s “Confessions.”)


     

 

Even the casual moviegoer will recognize in 13 Assassins the story of the Seven Samurai, hired to defend a town against seasonal marauders. The manner in which Shinzaemon (Koji Yakusho), a once respected a nd decorated samurai, locates his thirteen, and how he comes upon the lone non-samurai mountain man – Kiga Koyata (Yusuke Iseya) reminiscent of Toshiro Mifune’s memorable Kikuchiyo – is almost uncomfortably evocative of Kurosawa’s masterpiece.  But there is another story, made into countless movies and TV shows, which 13 Assassins owes its life to: Chushingura, the story of the 47 ronin who sacrifice their lives, not only to avenge the wrongful death of their former lord, but to do so in an act of violence that would send a message to upper management about just how much injustice they were willing to tolerate – an act, by the way of no small important to 13 Assassins, that must invariably result in their deaths, having committed a crime that carries that penalty with it.


     

 

It should come as no surprise that Miike knows these stories very well and that he makes deliberate decisions about how his movie will depart from them.  In the climactic battle that occupies some 20 minutes of his 1962 Chushingura, Hiroshi Inagaki isolates each duel from the rest of the attack on Kira’s fortified home.  While we know there is mayhem and confusion just outside the frame, there are no scenes where opponents are massed or slicing each other up in bloody mayhem.  All this to Akira Ifukube’s pulsing score that connects even those moments of fruitless search.  There is a stylized elegance to Inagaki’s method – an elegance that the antagonist in 13 Assassins observes with some irony as his men slice and are sliced into.

 

In Seven Samurai, Kurosawa stretches out the defense of the village over three days, one of them in pouring rain.  He focuses on fewer protagonists, each costumed and postured so as to distinguish one from the other, and so that we never lose sight of their individuality.  Anyhow, Kurosawa has nearly hours in which to introduce and flesh out his seven protagonists, with plenty of room for the farmers as well, so that every death is riveting and individual.


     

 

Miike would be foolish to attempt to similarly individuate his thirteen assassins, though by the end we can tell one from the other and have some idea of each of their personal journeys to arrive at the moment of their deaths.  Considering the odds – more than 10:1 – Miike choreographs relentlessly clever ways for the protagonists to isolate and attack the forces loyal to Naritsugu (Goru Inagaki) over some forty minutes of relentless attack and counterattack.  Curiously, but again, smartly, Miike eschews the use of music during the battle.  What he is after is mayhem and music would likely impose a layer of unwished for order.  Even so, he lingers on the death of each of his protagonists, effectively reminding us of their individuality.

 

Another interesting difference between Seven Samurai and 13 Assassins is that the earlier film ignores the personal story of any of the brigands and instead focuses on the relationship of the defenders and those they are defending.  In Miike’s movie, the villagers are paid off to leave their town altogether so that it can be adequately prepared for the trap they hope to lay for Naritsugu’s forces.  The conflict is not therefore between the samurai and villagers but between loyalties – those loyal to the ideals of feudal fealty and those loyal to justice, personified by Hanbei (Naritsugu’s personal bodyguard) on the one hand and Shinzaemon on the other.

 

While honoring the tradition set by Kurosawa, Inagaki and others, Miike, deviates in creative and contemporary ways to create as original a beast as he dares.


     

 

For all its carnage, two moral issues are brought to our attention repeatedly. The question of conflict of obligations, as just noted, and one asked in so remote a film as The Day the Earth Stood Still: that civilization depends on a self-imposed police force, able to exact the ultimate punishment to ensure peace.

 

What interests me about Chushingura and 13 Assassins is that it is not the people that are trying to set things right. On the contrary, in these stories, like the American Western Movie, ordinary men and women are sidelined as spectators or victims, leaving justice to middle management.  Imagine, if you will, if the American Revolution were fought between the Continental Congress and the court of George III, rather than their respective armies.  It’s hardly an original idea – that the principle par6ties should just duke it out – but one that has never caught on, presumably because there is something gratifying about actual combat.

 

Ultimately, after the massive body count litters the streets, 13 Assassins still wants to ask the question that was posed in Battle of Wits: Is there some compelling attraction to war even in times of peace - perhaps, especially in times of peace?  Is it, as Denzel Washington’s character suggests in Crimson Tide that the true enemy of war is war itself?  Do you know the word “internecine?”


     

 

Image: 8/9

13 Assassins is not so much a movie that will bring out the best in your high definition video system as that it demands what such a system can offer, and it will surely test your display to the limit.  I don’t see how this movie can work on DVD unless on 36 inches or less – and even then. . . Director Takashi Miike, Cinematographer Nobuyasu Kita and Lighting Designer Yoshimi Watabe have designed their movie as a journey from darkness into light, from despair and secrecy to confrontation and action, yet ending once again in darkness. By contrast, the bad guys are almost aways shot in strong, heathy light, and the two rarely come together in the light until the final duel. 


For a considerable amount of the first half of the movie, the contrast is flat, color desaturated, faces are seen to emerge from a carpet of browns and burnished yellows shot in what appears to be flickering candlelight, which, in good light, would be costumes and interiors. . . none of those lavish, brilliant sets we have come to enjoy in the films of Zhang Yimou here. Yet there is activity, personality, drama, conflict, decision in these shadows.  As resolve becomes clear, so too does the light.  A brief moment of confrontation between Naritsugu and a small contingent of forces barring their way into their village enjoys sunlight temporarily, and no sooner than it is over than we are plunged deep into a deep forest where the way is unclear.


     

 

One’s video display needs to gather all its resolve to hold our attention without enhancing the contrast.  So, too, should the Blu-ray image, for the urge to make something out of very little must be hard to resist.  But resist it, Magnolia does – without brightening the image or adding edge enhancement or falling into noise.  Kudos.

 

Unfortunately, there is the matter of the subtitles, which ordinarily would be addressed elsewhere in a review but I have placed it here because they are such as to interfere with the proper viewing of the picture. I do like that they translate the names and tiles of the key players, but this could have been accomplished without taking up so much space.  The subtitles are so large and so white and so bright as to require your iris to close down. This might not be that much of a problem in many movies but in 13 Assassins where the contrast is delicate, the image becomes problematic.  It’s like trying to make out faces in a dark street with a bright streetlamp in your eye instead of on your subject.  These are the most obtrusive subtitles that I can ever remember seeing on Blu-ray.  If you don’t believe it, just turn them off and behold.


     

 

Audio & Music: 9/8

The audio mix is every bit as vital. Dialogue is satisfactory, if not exemplary. It starts off somewhat front-directed, and becomes more immersive as the story progresses, especially so during the climactic battle. There are appropriately exaggerated cues for the act of harakiri that starts the film off, while other more subtle sounds like the rustling of clothes and the fall of distant rain are delicately felt.  Once into the battle, the sound field becomes saturated with every manner of fighting implement: arrows whistle by from all sides and hit their targets with authoritative thuds.  I was, however, a little troubled by the effect of the gnashing of swords.  I was reminded of the problem faced by boxing films like Rocky and Raging Bull.  To keep things interesting, realistic or not, there needs to more subtle variation in the timbre and amplitude of the blows than is here, though 13 Assassins is less guilty of this than most samurai type movies.  I think it’s the sheer length of the battle that wears some. 


     

 

In a movie whose fight is between a couple hundred opponents, things can get monotonous quickly if there isn’t some attempt to vary the sonic quality of the meeting of sword against armor and flesh.  Not that this is entirely absent here.  Far from it.  But eventually, I felt myself worn out by Jun Nakamura and Kenji Shibazaki's sound design. From Miike’s interview we know he intended variety.  The yelling of Naritsugu’s forces, made all the more single-minded by their head covering, got to be more than a little stultifying.  Perhaps Nakamura neglected to modulate their character, or, perhaps, this is just one of things that comes with the territory.  I found it exhausting - and I’m not entirely convinced the effect was entirely intentional.  All the same, this is a minor issue compared to the power and internecine effects of the fight.  Fortunately, there are fires, room shaking explosions - all the more effective being few and unexpected - crumbling buildings and car chases ;) to liven things up with.

 

The one thing I was keenly aware of after a while was how much I was not aware of Koji Endo’s music, which is probably a good thing – tired as we must all be of those generic action scores whose effect is to diminish the value of every movie they are supposed to support.


     

 

Extras: 3

Magnolia/Magnet relies on the somewhat truncated International version of the film.  There are some 18 deleted scenes over as many minutes in high-def, but I can’t say if these amount to the footage cut for the international version.  Possibly not since Miike (in the interview) counts the battles as 50 minutes and I as 40.

 

The interview is conducted in Japanese with subtitles (apparently for Japanese media), in crystal clear high-def.  It seemed to me, possibly because of the translation, that the interviewer and the director were working at cross purposes: she coming across as a typical ET airhead and he trying to explicate his film in cinematic terms, emphasizing its dramatic qualities more than its action.  Miike has quite a sense of humor and seemed to enjoy his interviewer’s discomfort as she described her reactions to its carnage.


     

 

As to the translation for the feature film: In general, the translation was in easy to understand colloquial English that at the same time respected the period.  That said, I would have preferred “Lord” as a title of direct address instead of “Sir,” which may or may not be more accurate, but feels less European. And instead of “Acquaint yourself” I would have said “Introduce yourself” regardless of the literal meaning of the words.


The Digital Copy is not a disc but an insert with a key and instructions as to how to download your copy.


     

 

Recommendation: 8

13 Assassins is highly praised by the critics for a couple of reasons, I think: we are all starved for a good samurai movie that honors the traditions, and anything that comes close is likely to get high marks simply out of good intentions as long as there are no glaring defects.  The other reason is 13 Assassins is a little unexpected.  With it, director Takashi Miike has moved from what many would have considered as a purveyor of gratuitous violence to an artist who can find a place for meaningful violence.  13 Assassins has offered Miike a ticket to join the big boys like Masaki Kobayashi, Kenji Mizoguchi, Hiroshi Inagaki and Akira Kurosawa.  Time will tell if he can or chooses to mix it up with them.

 

Magnolia/Magnet has provided a satisfying Blu-ray (except for the intrusive subtitles) and a marginally useful interview with the director.  Warmly Recommended.  On rewatch try it sans subtitles.


     

 


Leonard Norwitz

© LensViews

June 28, 2011


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