Wednesday, July 13, 2011

13 Assassins - Blu-ray Review



13 ASSASSINS





Blu-ray/DVD Release Date: July 5,  2011

I had heard many great things about this film. That is was one of the best samurai movies ever made and even drew praises that compared it favorably to those Kurosawa classics. But there was no way this could ever live up to the hype built up around it. Everyone was blowing things out of proportion right? Oh how wrong I was and how great it felt to be so wrong.


Review Vital Stats:
Format: Blu-ray
Player: Playstation 3 Slim
Monitor: Samsung 40' LCD Series 5
Picture Quality: 1080p
Sound Quality: DTS HD - Japanese

Biases:
Loves: Men on a mission stories, revenge movies, huge action scenes done well
Likes: Takashi Miike, directors that know how to make you care for their characters
Neutral: Nothing
Hates: Nothing
Intense: The final 50 minute battle scene


Note to readers, I watched this film using the original Japanese language with English Subtitles. If that is a deal breaker for you then so be it. Just thought I would be up front about it in case that is an issue for you (which it most likely is).

Takashi Miike has been hailed as a legendary filmmaker. I honestly never knew why. I admit to not seeing all of his filmography but the couple I had seen, Ichi the Killer and Audition, didn't exactly set my world on fire. I found Ichi to be a somewhat clumsy film that seemed to be going for an over the top exploitation vibe. Audition's big selling point was the last 20 to 30 minutes of that film and while I agree that finale is pretty shocking, it was and still is the only thing I took away from the experience. In other words Miike had not done anything to win me over as he apparently did with his fan base (working at a DVD store introduced me to many Ichi fans). So when I started hearing grand things about his new film 13 Assassins I kind of shrugged my shoulders to anyone that told me how great it was. I have never been so proud to be wrong though in my expectations. This is what I have come to consider Takashi Miike's crowning jewel, every director has at least one great film in him and this is his.

The setting is 1844 Feudal Japan, it is a time where the era of the samurai is quickly coming to a close. While there are still Lords of the land that employ their talents it almost seems pointless due to the long reign of peace that has pervaded the land. That is until the day a new lord by the name Noritsugu (Goro Inagaki) comes of age and begins a reign of tyranny and pain upon the land unlike any have seen before. He is the brother of the current Shogun and is deemed nigh untouchable by anyone that would try to make him pay for his crimes. So a few select political figures take it upon themselves to hire one of the last great Samurai of his time, a man by the name Shinzaemon (Koji Yakusho) or Shinza for short. They task him with a mission to assassinate Lord Noritsugu before he can do any permanent damage and end this long standing era of peace.

Evil has never looked so innocent.

This is a glorious film to watch and experience. I will admit that it probably won't appeal to everyone out there but for anyone that either likes to be challenged mentally or is just a fan of film in general you will have no problem falling under the spell this movie casts on you. It is rare for any film in today's climate that aspires to be something beyond your mindless action movie fare and it is even more unusual to have those aspirations realized in such an astounding way. Watching 13 Assassins is like a wake up call to everyone out there, film goers and filmmakers alike, on just exactly what a great film is and how much of a difference it makes when the people involved in the production are both passionate and skilled craftsman.

The first thing that will hit home for most as they begin to soak in the richness of this story is just how beautiful it is. Not just the landscapes (which are gorgeous by the way) but the meticulous amount of detail that was paid to every frame of ever shot. I never once got the feeling that anything I was witnessing wasn't thought through laboriously. The opening scene of the film is shot in such a way that you know exactly what is occurring without actually showing you what is happening which makes the scene much more disturbing that it probably would have been if we were free to see it in all it's glory. The amount of care put into every scene throughout the film is given no less attention to detail and I often found myself just mesmerized by the marvelous set and costume designs that filled the screen.

Shinza rallies his samurai for the slaughter.

While the look and production on the film are extremely exquisite it doesn't change the fact that this is your basic men on a mission story. This is a revenge tale, an incredibly acted and filmed one, but a revenge tale no less. There were moments where I found myself recounting such amazing films as The Dirty Dozen, Saving Private Ryan and The Magnificent Seven (as well as many of those Kurosawa greats). This isn't the first time those films have popped in my head while watching another similar movie but this is one of those very few instances where I thought of those as equals to what I was witnessing. The key to the narrative success of 13 Assassins is in its simplicity.

The group of assassins/ronin/samurai (I suppose they are all three) are front and center with only their target and his entourage getting equal screen time. We see Shinza go through the process of recruiting his men for their mission and we see his good friend and unfortunate protector of Lord Noritsugu, Hanbei (Masachika Ichimura) preparing for the imminent attack that Shinza and his samurai will initiate. What makes this simple set up work is a well mixed combination of colorful and lively characters and a constant momentum that will lead us to the inevitable conflict and here we have both of those elements in spades.


13 assassins prepare for battle.

The men that Shinza recruits are all noble and skilled samurai. They are a grand mixture of different generations of samurai with some that have seen many battles, some that have lost their way and others that are so young that they have never even swung a sword at another person before. I have no doubt that everyone will have their favorites amongst the bunch, mine happen to be Shinza's pupil Hirayama (Tsuyoshi Ihara) and the relationship he has with his own much younger pupil Ogura (Masataka Kubota). But they are all a joy to watch and are developed in such a nuanced fashion that by the time you reach the final climatic battle you may just find yourself caring for all thirteen of them.

Before I mention that final battle too much I think I have to give proper respect to the villain of the film, Lord Noritsugu. It is an essential piece of the puzzle for any revenge or vengeful story to have someone that we despise. Not because we crave to see injustice or witness poor souls being tortured but because we live in a world where justice isn't always served to those that deserve it. So when we sit down and get settled in to watch a film about a group of honorable men being sent on what amounts to a suicide mission to take down said villain it is only fitting that their target be as despicable as humanly possible. But there is a fine line there where the villain could easily turn cartoonish if done too broad but Noritsugu never crosses that line. Instead he straddles it by being one of the most vicious and exacting villains to ever grace the screen. I have no doubt what so ever that after witnessing the atrocities he commits that you will not only hope and pray that Shinza and his men are successful but also that when they do strike that killing blow it is as painful as possible.

The assassins spring their trap.

Now, much has been made of the final battle in the film and for good reason. This near fifty minute long exercise in mayhem and carnage is not just impossibly epic but also exhilarating beyond belief. Much of that is due to the long set up leading up to it where we got to know all the characters before they were asked to put their lives on the line. But the real winner here is the strategy that the assassins employ and the tight direction by Miike. At every moment of this battle I knew what was occurring on all fronts and with it all going down in such a small location (it takes place in a very small mountain town) we need to know what is happening at all times. I dare not spoil what transpires here but be prepared for one of the longest and bloodiest battles you have ever seen. And I guarantee that when it concludes you will be both mentally and physically exhausted in the best way possible.

13 Assassins should be a blue print for all aspiring action filmmakers out there. This is a step by step tutorial on not only how to film action and make characters that resonate with the audience but also on how to keep focused on what matters most in the story (those looking for a romantic subplot need not apply). I cannot recommend this film enough, it is a shining beacon of hope for all action film fans out there (and don't be misled by that comment, this is as much a drama as it is an action film) in a summer and year in which we have been subjugated to all kinds of horrible. See this film without hesitation and you will be rewarded kindly.


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Every samurai craves an honorable death, but also the completion of their mission.

What's on the disc?

This is a pretty healthy dose of extras despite their brevity. Less is more and just about every feature on this disc is a worthwhile watch with the interview of director Takashi Miike taking the cake for anyone interested in his thoughts on the film. The deleted scenes also have a great wealth of information due to a number of important (and hilarious) scenes that were cut for reasons unknown beyond perhaps just trimming down the length of the film. If I had a wish for anything beyond what is here it would probably have to be some actual behind the scenes footage as well as interviews with the cast and their thoughts on the production. Either way though this is a fantastic disc and one that will not disappoint.

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Deleted Scenes (18:14 min) HD - This is a collection of over 20 deleted and extended scenes ranging from minutes in length to mere seconds. This has to be one of the best collections of deleted scenes I have seen in quite some time which probably has a little something to do with the fact that there is a longer cut of the film that exists and just so happens to be an extra 18 to 20 minutes in length. Not all of them needed to be in the final film but most should have been and there is one standout scene that is so hilarious and disturbing that I am not sure if it was a good or bad idea that it was removed from the film. BE WARNED! these deleted scenes contain spoilers so only read on if you have seen the film. Another note is that these are only viewable together, there is no option to watch them individually unfortunately.

Deleted Scene 1 - Sir Doi expresses his admiration towards Shinzaemon for accepting his mission.
Deleted Scene 2 - Lord Naritsugu contemplates his fate and his place in the world.
Deleted Scene 3 - Shinzaemon meets up with Kuranaga while recruiting.
Deleted Scene 4 - An extended scene with Shinrokuro at the gambling/brothel house.
Deleted Scene 5 - Shinrokuro gets mugged.
Deleted Scene 6 - Hanbei prepares for their journey and how they will protect their lord.
Deleted Scene 7 - An extended scene with Shinzaemon planning their strategy.
Deleted Scene 8 - Small extended scene with Shinzaemon sending one of his men on a task.
Deleted Scene 9 - Two of the assassins make small talk at their first stop on the road.
Deleted Scene 10 - Very brief scene with Shinzaemon standing up after the ambush.
Deleted Scene 11 - Hanbei makes a decision on where to travel next.
Deleted Scene 12 - Extended scene after Koyata gets Shinzaemon and his men to the road where he tries to join them on their mission. A rather funny scene as well.
Deleted Scene 13 - The mayor of Ochiai greats Shinzaemon and his men while also offering up the town women for their pleasure which only Koyata seems interested in.
Deleted Scene 14 - OK now, this is positively one of the funniest things I have seen in a very long time. Koyata gets his wish and he has sex with every woman in town leaving them scattered like wounded soldiers outside his room all over the floor. You see his latest conquest come walking out bull-legged and crying because she couldn't take any more. When Koyata proclaims he needs more women and the man in charge of them says he destroyed them all he promptly takes the man into his room and proceeds to have a go at him as well. Now I am serious here, this has to be seen to be believed and I have no idea how this would have fit into the film. But regardless it is the best thing out of all these extras.
Deleted Scene 15 - Another scene so brief that it boggles the mind as to why it was cut. It literally shows Lord Naritsugu turning a corner during the final battle.
Deleted Scene 16 - One of the assassins fighting for his life.
Deleted Scene 17 - A quick montage of different assassins fighting off their enemies.
Deleted Scene 18 - Two death scenes that should have been in the final film.
Deleted Scene 19 - In the wake of the final battle there is a brief skirmish between two surviving samurai.
Deleted Scene 20 - A bit of an extended piece to the end of the film so be warned once again....we get to see the homecoming of Shinrokuro just before the credits roll.

Lord Noritsugu has some target practice...but what is he using as targets?

Interview with Director Takashi Miike (18:43 min) HD - WARNING! stay far away from this interview until you have seen the film, major spoilers lie within. This is a very insightful interview with the director where we get some clarification on what he was trying to achieve with the film along with his thoughts on how he hopes audiences would react to it. Highlights include him calling it a family film for all ages, his use of sound and lack of music during the final battle and his thoughts on how most modern films today are made to relax us as opposed to challenge us. The only downside to this feature is the woman doing the interview, whenever she speaks I completely tuned out but as soon as Miike started talking again I got drawn back in each time. This is a must watch for fans of the film.

Theatrical Trailer (2:32 min) - The film's theatrical trailer.


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Final Verdict:

Not much more needs to be said. This is one of the best films of the year and if you are one of the many who have not seen it yet then you are doing yourself a disservice. With the Blu-ray you get yourself a fantastic and crisp picture with impeccable sound to boot. The extras may seem slim with so few bullet points on the back of the box but it is more the content of them that matters and in this case that content is exactly what it needed to be.

Movie   -  A+
Video   -  A+
Audio   -  A+
Extras  -  B

BUY IT IMMEDIATELY

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