13 Assassins Blu-ray review

Takashi Miike’s samurai epic 13 Assassins arrives on Blu-ray and, Paul writes, it’s an exciting, explosive piece of action filmmaking...

It says something about Takashi Miike’s formidable reputation as Japanese cinema’s enfant terrible that a film filled with as much bloodshed and savagery as 13 Assassins would seem uncharacteristically demure. But such was the unforgettable power of his extreme cinema cornerstones Ichi The Killer, Audition and Visitor Q that 13 Assassins does occasionally seem almost staid by comparison.

In fact, in his native Japan, Miike is known for his versatility – incredibly prolific, he’s directed straight crime movies, romances and even light comedies over the past decade, but in the West we only tend to see the scabrous, hideously twisted works that he produces every few years.

So it’s good news for everyone’s sanity and stomachs that 13 Assassins largely forgoes the shock tactics of his previous work, instead concentrating solely on producing the kind of traditional samurai sword-fighting epic that has been sorely lacking from our screens in recent years.

The set-up is very familiar for anyone who’s watched a samurai film before– in late 19th century feudal Japan, the insane Lord Naritsugu is threatening the realm with his reprehensible and repeated acts of torture, rape and abuse, inflicted on his people seemingly out of boredom. As he stands to inherit the role of Shogun, and the laws and codes of Japanese society are so constringent, he seems to operate above the law.

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After an elder samurai commits hara-kiri in protest at Lord Naritsugu’s regime, a government official realises the gravity of the situation and enlists the respected Shinzaemon to perform an assassination – but Lord Naritsugu is heavily protected, with Shinzaemon’s old sparring partner Hanbei acting as his personal bodyguard. Shinzamoen then sets about forming a team of ronin (masterless samurai), capable of confronting Naritsugu and his army, and taking them down once and for all.

How much you enjoy 13 Assassins will probably depend on what kind of film you’re after. If you’re after the visually sumptuous, balletic swordplay of something like Hero or House Of Flying Daggers, you’re out of luck. 13 Assassins is a beautifully shot film, but its aesthetic is consistently grimy and nasty – when people get struck with swords, it hurts, and towards the end of the final battle most of the surviving characters are bleeding profusely and literally wallowing in mud. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon this ain’t.

Similarly, if you like the more contemplative style of samurai period drama offered by the likes of Twilight Samurai and When The Last Sword Is Drawn you may be disappointed. It’s not that the film doesn’t get the period stuff right – it does totally, with its themes (the death throes of feudal Japan, the suffocating dogma and codes of honour that constrict the samurai) being well articulated with flawless production values.

It’s just that the film can’t help but suffer when compared to these films, particularly Seven Samurai, its spiritual ancestor, and Kurosawa’s other samurai works, which have all covered identical territory (in Kurosawa’s case, over 50 years ago) to slightly more poignant and resonant effect.

The characters aren’t as well drawn in Miike’s film – possibly unavoidable, since there are nearly twice as many central players – and unlike Kurosawa’s work, there are very few moments of humour to lighten proceedings, resulting in a film that’s occasionally almost oppressively sombre in tone.

While many will be struck by the similarities between the basic plot of Seven Samurai and 13 Assassins, Miike’s film is actually a remake of another film (the obscure 1963 movie of the same name), and a surprisingly faithful one, with the first half in particular being almost scene for scene the same. The changes Miike makes are important ones, however, including inserting a truly memorable and horrific image to demonstrate Naritsugu’s brutality that is the only part of the film that tips you off that the director is the same diseased brain responsible for Audition.

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Where 13 Assassins really excels, though, is as a spectacle – it’s a phenomenally accomplished and well-executed action movie, one of the very best of the last decade, that invites favourable comparisons with classic men on a mission movies like The Dirty Dozen and Zulu. Purely in terms of good guys versus bad guys action, it doesn’t get much better than this.

Structurally, it is brilliant in its simplicity – the first half is all about selling how much of a horrific monster Naritsugu is, then the second half is an extended setpiece following the assassins as they attempt to take him down with extreme prejudice. It’s this 50-minute long action setpiece that has become the big talking point of everyone who has seen 13 Assassins – and in this case, you can believe the hype.

Miike expertly juggles swordplay, explosions, impressive stuntwork and even CG animals while never resorting to the shortcut of shaky-cam, or losing sight of where every character is and what their motives are at every juncture. It’s an astonishingly sustained display of technical brilliance, as pure an example of action filmmaking as you will ever see, and worth the price of the Blu-ray all by itself.

13 Assassins is a superb throwback to classic samurai pictures, and a rewarding, thrilling experience for all fans of action cinema, Asian or otherwise. It’s also a Miike movie you can watch with your girlfriend or mum without fear being dumped/sectioned, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing, either.


The rest of the disc offers a disappointingly slim package, with just an interview with Miike conducted by an enthusiastic but slightly dippy Japanese TV personality, some deleted scenes, and a trailer. Special mention must also go to the bizarre Blu-ray menu, which features a still photo of Kôji Yakusho as Shinzaemon, but with the pupils of his eyes animated to make him look around. It’s like a Terry Gilliam Monty Python cartoon, and a bit of a strange choice, considering that the movie behind it is so sober.

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The film itself, however, looks fantastic.


4 stars

You can rent or buy 13 Assassins at Blockbuster.co.uk.

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4 out of 5