DVD Review: 13 Assassins (15)

(Artificial Eye, �15.99)

IT’S not often that a Japanese martial arts movie receives such a wave of critical acclaim in the UK as that bestowed upon 13 Assassins when it hit cinemas earlier this year. Picking up a lauded five star accolade from Time Out and four stars from a swathe of national press, it was obviously something special.

Directed by the legendary Takashi Miike, Japan’s most prolific film-maker and the genius behind Audition and Ichi The Killer, it offers a long-overdue revival of the samurai genre, updated for modern audiences with brutal, beautifully-choreographed action sequences.

In the mid-19th century, as feudal Japan begins to enjoy a rare period of peace, the era of the samurai appears to be fading into history, until psychotic sadist Lord Naritsugu threatens the stability of the nation with a bloody rampage of rape and murder.

Esteemed warrior Shinzaemon Shimada (Koji Yakusho) is tasked with gathering and training an elite group of dedicated samurai to destroy Naritsugu before it’s too late, but the 13 honourable men discover they are massively outnumbered, resulting in a desperate battle to the death against overwhelming odds which will leave just two men standing…

It’s a simple concept, but that’s probably why it works so well. Why layer on unnecessary detail when what we really want to see is a lot of samurai warriors beating the living hell out of each other? But Miike still takes the time to develop the characters of his protagonists to the extent that you are emotionally involved in their survival, rather than seeing them as so much cannon fodder.

Very much a film of two halves, the first segment focuses mainly on the recruitment and training of Shinzaemon’s allies, while also taking time to set up Naritsugu as a force for evil who isn’t adverse to dismembering his victims for cheap thrills.

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But it is the second half of the film which makes 13 Assassins truly worth its reputation as a modern classic, with a stunning splatterfest of swords and skill which will leave audiences reeling. That’s an epic battle of getting on for an hour, with the 13 samurai taking on a hoard of around 200 opponents in a clash which manages to retain its realism despite the phenomenal opposition and likely outcome.

Like Home Alone for adults, the warriors rig the village with various deadly booby traps involving spikes and big smashing things, and then wait for Naritsugu’s men to unleash mayhem, before wading in for some hand-to-hand combat.

Miike manages to avoid what is a hugely extended battle scene from ever becoming boring, and presents action sequences infused with clarity and drama often lacking in many Hollywood blockbusters, with an ending which will actually leave you thinking about consequences of the bloodshed you have witnessed, rather than just revelling in the slaughter. A truly magnificent work, and possibly one of the best samurai flicks ever made.