Takashi Miike’s 13 Assassins spills buckets of blood throughout its maximum-overdrive samurai narrative. During the film’s 2010 festival run and early-2011 theatrical release, ecstatic film critics responded in kind, spilling pages of celebratory prose on the whacked-out Japanese auteur’s jarring turn into polished classicism. As usual, there’s a major redundancy issue for those writers tackling the film’s video release. What new avenues of criticism can we explore in a film so devoted to its razor-sharp linear structure, a cinematic approach as lean and mean as its devoted samurai characters? Is there anything left to discover about 13 Assassins beyond the meticulously directed carnage and watch-like precision? I’d argue yes. Miike’s genre juggernaut has plenty of fresh aesthetic veins to slice open, and plenty of critical life left in its belly.
The evolution of opinion surrounding 13 Assassins has been an interesting one to watch unfold. Initial collective glee led to an expected backlash that all critically acclaimed films experience, most notably with some writers haggling over the age-old remake-versus-original dilemmas that seem perfunctory to Miike’s brand of closed-off and constricting mise-en-scène. I’m worried this trend will continue because of Magnolias lackluster video transfer, which not only softens Miike’s cold-hard visuals, but also fails to bridge the thunderous theatrical experience to the home viewer. While my high regard for 13 Assassins didn’t wilt under these suspect circumstances, the disappointing hi-def transfer certainly left me questioning some of my critical reasoning.
A main tipping point for critical revision seems to be Miike’s almost instinctual first act, which purposefully lacks character development and familiar men-on-a-mission genre conventions. But I found noble samurai Shimada’s (Kôji Yakusho) seamless acquisition of lethal volunteers even more abstract upon secondary review; his actions stress a kind of anti-exposition that flourishes even while the characters are cluing the audience in on crucial political and social contexts of the era. This has everything to do with the subtle cinematic flourishes Miike celebrates during this extended prologue of anticipation and planning.
Candlelight defines the mood of almost every important early scene in 13 Assassins, flickering shadows across the faces of conflicted samurai as they sit in silence. The dancing illumination instills a poetic feeling during their moments of reflection, adding an aesthetic depth to match the men’s complex interior resolve before the action kicks into gear. Since Miike’s film is most definitely a violent political action plan against tyranny, the time for character development and nuances have past, and we’re left with wonderfully blunt confessions like, “I’ve been wishing for a noble death” and “Lose your life, but make the enemy pay!” The brimming rage these men feel toward the actions of the murderous Lord Naritsugu (Goro Inagaki) is an interior, personal anger that eventually becomes a form of outward protest, convincingly expressed by their swords, spears, and arrows.
To complement this sense of psychological waiting, Miike defines the early scenes of 13 Assassins with snail-like camera movement creeping through tense sequences as if filming from the POV of a spy. Each tracking shot lingers on Shimada and his men as they begin to realize the gravity of their collective task. There’s a tenacious simplicity to these moments, and Miike allows his retrained visual palette to function as a cinematic banner for their sacrifice. This contrasts greatly with the kinetics of the extended battle scenes late in the film.
While the setup in 13 Assassins proves to be even more interesting on second viewing, the extended payoff of the samurai bloodbath is still resoundingly entertaining. Yet, aside from the impressive action scenes, the strange supernatural aura surrounding the ending of the film also deserves more attention. Miike’s prowess as a stager of rhythmic destruction is something to behold, but there’s a striking inference of the divine that surrounds Shimada’s samurai, personified by Kiga (Yusuke Iseya), the primitive bandit they pick up during their journey. Miike transcends the bloodshed in the final moments by cutting away to Kiga’s flashback of his lover bathing under a waterfall, a sublime hint of salvation in this wasteland of death. We can only hope the other characters received a similar bright flash of peace before their demise.
Juxtaposing 13 Assassins and Miike’s follow-up, Harakiri: Death of a Samurai, a terribly misguided remake of Masaki Kobayashi’s 1962 masterpiece and a laborious melodrama of the worst kind, will undoubtedly be another interesting project to come. The former moves swiftly, while the latter extends the most tertiary elements of the original to feature-length status. Maybe Miike is battling his own tyrannical impulses within the samurai genre, unable to figure out which aesthetic sensibility to follow. Some advice, Mr. Miike, from a devout follower: “Live for the sword.”
Bad news Takashi Miike fans: Magnolia’s 1080p transfer muddies and softens the pristine visuals of 13 Assassins, stripping the film of all its glorious textures. The blood, soot, mud, and sweat so prominent to the film’s visceral impact merely blends into the background here. Colors are muted throughout, and the black levels are unbalanced during the night scenes. Characters’ faces lack detail and sometimes blend into the darkness when they’re supposed to be the focus of the scene. The DTS 5.1 HD-MA sound is stellar, maximizing every swipe of the sword and zoom of an arrow to wonderful effect. The galloping of horses and stampeding charge of fiery bulls also prove to be an impressive technological marvel for the home viewer to enjoy.
Considering Miike’s influence on modern genre cinema and the critical success of 13 Assassins, you’d think the possibilities for supplemental extras for the Blu-ray disc would be vast. Well, you’d be wrong. An Entertainment Tonight-style interview with Miike finds the director pitted against a bubbly and fawning questionnaire whose questions are absurdly juvenile, in one instance asking how he "made the characters so cool." Eighteen minutes of deleted scenes, used for the director’s cut of the film, only confounds and complicates the story. Specifically, one side tangent involving Kiga’s sexual prowess is nothing short of baffling. If there ever was proof the editor as auteur, this might be it. Also included, the obligatory theatrical trailer.
13 Assassins is a stampeding raging bull of a samurai movie, and it deserves a better Blu-ray package to complement its endlessly magnetic visage.