Tuesday, July 19, 2011

DVD Review: 13 ASSASSINS (2011)

13 ASSASSINS (2011)
Label: Magnet Releasing
Region Code: Region 1 NTSC
Rating: R
Duration: 125 mins
Video: 2.40:1 Widescreen 16x9
Audio: English, Japanese Dolby Digital 5.1
Director: Takashi Miike
Cast: Koji yakusho, Takayuki Yamada, Yusuka Iseya, Goro Inagaki

Prolific Japanese cult director Takashi Miike is known for his stylish, twisted, often ultra-violent films. In just twenty years Miike has amassed a filmography of over 85 films, it's an unsettling body of work that I've only just scratched the surface of with viewings of AUDITION (2000), ICHI THE KILLER (2001), DEADLY OUTLAW: REKKA (2002), THREE... EXTREMES (2004), SUKIYAKI WESTERN DJANGO (2007) and the MASTERS OF HORROR episode IMPRINT (2005) with MPD PSYCHO (2000) still sitting on a stack of films yet to be watched.  What's that, seven films out of 85, yeesh, it could be a while before I even begin to approach the midway point and by that time he could have 150 films under his belt. What I've seen I've particularly enjoyed. Like most I know it was AUDITION that brought him to my attention after seeing it featured on Bravo's 100 Scariest Movie Moments special, but it's ICHI THE KILLER and DEADLY OUTLAW: REKKA, his Yakuza films that really captured my attention, brilliantly violent films.

This time out Miike has chosen to remake Eiichi Kudo's 13 ASSASSINS (1963) which I've never seen so I have no comparison's to make. The setting is feudal Japan in 1844. The former Shogun's son and the current Shogun's brother-in-law is Lord Narritsugu (Goro Ingaki, SAIMIN), the heir to Clan Akashi, he is a vile man who uses his royal lineage to get away with the rape and murder of innocents. His disregard for life borders on insanity and his actions threaten the stability of the empire. The Shogun turns a blind eye to these despicable actions. however, one of the Shogun's advisors Sir Doi (Mikijiro Hira, RAMPO) realizes his ascent to power must be terminated. He secretly meets with a retired samurai named Shinzaemon (Koji Yakusho, EKIRO) whom after hearing of Naritsugu's atrocities sets about amassing a band of twelve honor-bound samurai whom will join him on his quest to assassinate the sadistic Lord. 

His band of samurai include his womanizing nephew Shinrokuro (Takayuki Yamada), a master spearsman, two demolitions experts, a deadly ronin, a spirited novice and war weary samurai among others. It's readily acknowledged this is a suicide mission, no one expects to return from battle, only to die a noble death worthy of a samurai. It is shortly before they embark on their grim sojourn that Shinzaemon is visited upon by Hanbei (Misachika Ichimura), someone from his past whom is a samurai in Naritsugu's service who's come to dissuade Shinza from interfering in Naritsuga's affairs. It is quite evident that these battle worn samurai respect one another but both hold separate allegiances, the meeting is civil but tenuous, a promise to meet again is made and Hanbei departs.
The decision is made to ambush Naritsugu's entourage, which numbers two-hundred men, in the village of Ochiai as he makes his way through the Edo territories before entering the Akashio domain. The 12 assassins decide to travel through the heavily forested mountains, it is here they encounter a hunter named Koyata (Ysuke Iseya, BLINDNESS), a quirky character that claims to come from samurai lineage but also disparages the samurai at every opportunity, he infuses the film with a great deal of humor and he slings a mean rock, too. The group take him on as the 13th assassin and he guides them through the thick terrain to the village of Ochiai. Once there they evacuate the townsfolk and set about fortifying the village and laying traps in preparation of the ambush.
Thus far the film has been building tension and anticipation, both sides maneuvering their men like chess pieces, positioning them for the epic battle finale. Miike has masterfully led us to this point, and when the kettle boils over he does not disappoint in any way, it's a truly epic forty-five minute battle scene. It's a bloody affair but I may have been expecting a bit more from Miike in the gore department. Regardless, the last 45 minutes of this film are non-stop samurai action, constant momentum, moving forward, blood-spilling awesomeness. 
There's definitely some comparisons to made here to Peckinpah's THE WILD BUNCH (1969) and Kurosawa's SEVEN SAMURAI (1954), as the band of warriors go up against overwhelming odds, it's compelling stuff. Not that I've seen a ton of Miike's films but this had a different kinda feel, it's more polished, it has broader appeal and there weren't many typical Miike moments aside from a few notably disturbing scenes that put Naritsugu's cruelty on display. The first is of him using a family with small children as targets for archery practice, the other is of a woman he's rendered limbless, her tongue removed, as she clutches a paintbrush between her teeth scrawling the words "total massacre" onto a scroll of paper, that was 100% Miike.

That his demented hyper-violent signature isn't stamped across this film doesn't detract from it in the least, this is a modern classic, a samurai epic. The film looks fantastic, the battles are superior, the set pieces are amazing and it's steeped in fate, duty bound honor and glory, the stuff of samurai legend. This could definitely be the film to bring Miike throngs of new fans and I would dare say that this is his most easily digestible film that I've seen, surely one of the greatest warrior films to come along in some time.

DVD: 13 ASSASSINS is presented in it's original aspect ratio of 2.40:1 widescreen and is 16x9 enhanced, it looks quite good, the color scheme is a bit muted, there's lots of earth tones and natural colors, so it's not a very vibrant disc. The print is impeccable, no flaws but I didn't think the SD image was very sharp, I would love to see this on Blu-ray to compare. Audio options include a choice of Japanese or English language Dolby Digital 5.1 with optional English and Spanish subtitles. Both tracks sound great though I would say stick with the original Japanese language track, it's a more nuanced performance than the English dub, naturally.

Special features are pretty slim, there's a Japanese TV interview with Miike, a trailer and nearly 20 minutes of deleted scenes which were trimmed from the Japanese release for the international market. I would have enjoyed seeing them stitched back into the film for this DVD release but that's not to be. Lastly, a collection of Magnolia release trailers and a digital copy for your mobile devices.

Special Features:
- Interview with Director Takashi Miike (18:44) 16x9
- Deleted Scenes (18:14) 16x9
- Theatrical Trailer (2:33) 16x9

Verdict: Miike's 13 ASSASSINS is much more a classical Samurai film than what I would have expected from this gonzo cult filmmaker, but fear not for it's both stylish and ultra-violent if not particularly gory, there's severed limbs, decapitations, harakiri and lots of bloodshed but it's just not glorified to the nth degree. Up next for Miike is HARA-KIRI: DEATH OF A SAMURAI (ICHIMEI) which is a remake of Masaki Kobayashi's 17th century Samurai revenge tale HARAKIRI (1963). The film is shot in 3D which doesn't exactly set my mind on fire with anticipation, but knowing what Miike is capable of I'm 100% in at this point. 4.25 outta 5