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Review: 13 Assassins (2011)

13 Assassins (2011)

Directed by: Takashi Miike

Premise: A remake of the 1963 film. Taking place in Japan at the twilight of the samurai era, a group of samurai plan to assassinate a vicious and corrupt lord who is about to ascend to a senior position.

What Works: 13 Assassins is an attempt to adapt the samurai film, which has generally been told in a very staid and formally structured style, and infuse it with contemporary action and art house filmmaking techniques. The result is, at least on purely cinematic grounds, very successful. Director Takashi Miike, whose other films include Audition and Ichi the Killer, brings his unique visual style to the samurai genre. His films have often been characterized by serenely beautiful settings in which something ghastly takes place, and 13 Assassins does that very well. A few of the scenes in this film, such as the flashback of a woman whose body has been mangled by the villainous aristocrat, have a grotesque beauty in the way the visuals are shot and staged. The climax of the film also reaches this intersection of the grotesque and the beautiful in a furious and bloody sword fight that is as impressive as anything in the samurai genre. Like most samurai films, 13 Assassins is a film about duty and honor and among its lead characters the film handles this theme well, especially in the conflict between the lead assassin played by Kôji Yakusho and a loyal samurai played by Mikijiro Hira. The two are old friends and their relationship gives the violent conflict emotional resonance and literalizes the themes of the film. The villain of 13 Assassins, played by Gorô Inagaki, is a fascinating character. He is a sadistic monster but the actor plays the role in very a restrained way. His tightly reigned performance creates an impression of power but also a certain naiveté about violence that comes out very effectively in the climax.

What Doesn’t: 13 Assassins does not cohere to the expectations or styles of American action films and American audiences may perceive it as a bit slow. While that is not necessarily a flaw, the film is a little unbalanced between its exposition-heavy first half and its action-oriented second half. This is obviously a deliberate choice, as the film introduces and develops its themes and characters with the payoff to come in the climax. But despite the amount of screen time invested in that development, 13 Assassins does not get much in return. The film’s take on the typical themes and characters of samurai films is not distinguishable from the presentation of that content in pictures such as Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai and Sanjoro or Eiichi Kudo’s original 1963 version of this film. There is another flaw to 13 Assassins that may not be a fault of the film or its makers but of its distributor. In the version of 13 Assassins released to U.S. theaters, the English subtitles are questionable. The text comes in and out very quickly, making it difficult to read, and a lot of the diction, syntax, and idioms of the dialogue have a contemporary quality that is inconsistent with the historical period of the film. If this is a case of poor translation, it is flaw that could be repaired when the film reaches DVD. 

Bottom Line: 13 Assassins is a must-see for those who have an understanding or appreciation for samurai films or those who are fans of director Takashi Miike. Mainstream American audiences will probably find themselves overwhelmed and disoriented by the picture and it is ultimately a fairly standard samurai story. However, as an exercise in visceral action filmmaking it is very well made. 

Episode: #343 (June 12, 2011)