13 Assassins (2010)
Directed by Takashi Miike

13 Assassins
Jusan-nin no shikaku
Starring Koji Yakusho (Shinzaemon Shimada), Masachika Ichimura (Hanbei), Takayuki Yamada (Shinrokuro), Tsuyoshi Ihara (Hirayama), Yusuke Iseya (Koyata), Mikijiro Hira (Sir Doi), Masataka Kubota (Ogura), Goro Inagaki (Lord Naritsugu), Hiroki Matsukata (Kuranaga), Arata Furuta (Sahara)

Toho Company, 141 minutes (Japanese cut); 126 minutes (International cut)
Color, 2.35:1 scope ratio
English-subtitled DVD and Blu-ray:
Magnolia Home Entertainment

Remaking old classic movies obviously makes sense commercially, but artistically it's usually hopeless. If the new version exactly recreates the original, there's really no point; if a remake goes in its own direction, fans of the classic will complain about the changes. It's a rare feat for a remake to find the balance somewhere in the middle, being both faithful and innovative, and pleasing the original's admirers and new fans alike. Takashi Miike's astonishing 13 Assassins succeeds on all counts, bringing new hope to a film industry fixated on recycling and regurgitation. See, Hollywood? Remakes don't have to suck.

For a number of years I've been a fan of Eiichi Kudo's 1963 Thirteen Assassins (commonly written with the number spelled out instead of the digits, which I find helpful to differentiate the two movies). When I heard Miike was remaking it, I groaned and expected an ironic postmodern CGI travesty. But it's not that at all. It captures the authentic spirit of classic chambara movies in a way no filmmaker has achieved in decades. Miike says he was inspired by watching those old movies and having the sad impression that the Japanese had lost the ability to make movies with such power and energy. True, there have been some worthy samurai films in recent years, but they tend to be either lightweight parodies or low-key and introspective, reflecting wistfully on a bygone age. But 13 Assassins is the first jidai-geki of the post-Kurosawa era to possess such a level of intelligence, craftsmanship and balls.

The remake preserves the essential story of the original: the brutal lord Naritsugu threatens peace and stability in the shogunate, and the valiant Shinzaemon Shimada is assigned the task of plotting an ambush to kill him. But Miike doesn't remain slavishly oliged to his source, taking a number of bold liberties to make the story his own. As an Eiichi Kudo fan, I find myself saying "That's an interesting choice" instead of "What the hell did he change that for?"

One major difference is that Lord Naritsugu is vastly amped up to supervillain status. In the Kudo film, he was mainly a lecherous spoiled brat whose predominant crime was assaulting women, and proved himself a coward in the face of danger. Miike removes all wimpiness in favor of making the character a full-on bad-ass, capably skilled with a sword and lapping up sadistic thrills from inflicting violence. Up front we meet a tragic woman whose limbs and tongue Naritsugu hacked off for fun, and he retaliates against the opening seppuku protest by shooting arrows at the dead samurai's family members. The audience's hatred for Naritsugu really gets heaped up to make the eventual assassins' assault that much more satisfying. His wickedness stops just shy of cartoon mustache-twirling, and it works to see the character's thirst to bring back the age of war.

Miike also brings richer characterization to our thirteen heroes. Kudo really gave distinct personalities only to Shinzaemon, his nephew Shinrokuro and the master swordsman Hirayama. Here we get to know the other guys a little better, notably the young apprentice Ogura and the 200-ryo ronin Sahara (called Sawara in the original). It's impossible to get to know all their personal stories in a two-hour film, but Miike does a better job than Kudo did of helping us tell the secondary assassins apart and care more about them in the thick of battle.

The story deviates from the original in the second act when Shinzaemon's men elect to surreptitiously travel through the woods instead of being detected on the main roads. This literal detour in the plot adds excitement for an old fan like me, because now we've gone off the path with no idea what this new direction will lead to. The discovery on this journey turns out to be the thirteenth assassin, Koyata. Kudo's version was a simple "country samurai" who joined up hoping his bravery would earn the hand of an innkeeper's daughter. Miike takes a whole different tack on Koyota, making him an eccentric mountain man and hunter pining for his lost love Upashi. Koyata volunteers to join their mission just because he enjoys fighting and hates arrogant samurai. He's custom-built to be an audience favorite, a comic relief combination of Kikuchihyo from Seven Samurai and Bugs Bunny. And more than that: evidence suggests that Koyata may actually be some type of forest goblin from folklore, which reputedly had huge testicles that they would club their enemies with. This fighting style is arguably sublimated into Koyata's swinging rocks in a sling as his weapon of choice. The 15 minutes cut from the Japanese release consisted largely of nonessential extra tidbits on Koyota. Having seen both versions, I actually prefer the streamlined international edit.

The casting in 13 Assassins is brilliant beyond words. Somehow Miike found the perfect successor to Chiezo Kataoka in the lead role of Shinzaemon. Koji Yashuko is an accomplished actor who has only done a handful of jida-geki before, including his title role in Kon Ichikawa's Dora-Heita. Your typical young handsome Japanese actor of today could have torpedoed the movie's credibility, but Yashuko embodies Shinzaemon with grim and earnest authority. He even bears enough resemblance to Kataoka that I could believe the actors were father and son. Just check out the scene where Shinzaemon smiles in response to the brutal testimony of Naritsugu's limbless victim, overcome with emotion that he has be given his true purpose in life by avenging her. As his character says, Yashuko accomplishes his task with magnificence.

The supporting cast is also excellent, bolstered by two veterans from the classic era of samurai film. Mikijiro Hira lends legitimacy to the production, having worked with Eiichi Kudo on The Great Killing. He plays the cameo role of Sir Doi, the official who gives Shinzaemon his mission, which was played by Tetsuro Tamba in the original. That means in both versions of the movie, Sir Doi is played by a member of the Three Outlaw Samurai. How awesome is that? Also on hand is old-time chambara star Hiroki Matsukata, masterfully playing Shinzaemon's right-hand man Kuranaga. With so few of the classic actors still alive, it's wonderful to see these gentlemen doing vibrant new work.

I've also got to hand it to Goro Inagaki for absolutely killing it as Lord Naritsugu. Amazingly enough, he's also a pop star in a boy band called SMAP -- unlike his bandmate Shingo Katori, who failed miserably in his pretense as the blind swordsman in Zatoichi: The Last, Inagaki shows tremendous acting talent. I will say that the nephew Shinrokuro role is not performed as well here as Kotaro Satomi did it (I miss that intense shamisen-playing scene), and Naritsugu's cunning bodyguard Hanbei was done just a bit better by Ryohei Uchida. Otherwise, all the major roles are pulled off just as well or better than in the original. And that's saying a lot.

So what about the main attraction, the epic ambush at Ochiai? In the original the fight lasted a blistering half hour, and Miike somehow super-sizes it to 45 minutes without sacrificing its intensity and power. This action sequence is the essence of Thirteen Assassins, and successfully reproducing it was the key to making this remake work. All I can say is wow. A brilliantly staged and executed ballet of carnage. You can really feel the mud, the blood, the fire and the fury of peacetime soldiers drawing their swords in combat for the first time in their lives. Miike ups the stakes by having about 200 men in Naritsugu's entourage instead of 50, but he employs explosives to help get the numbers back in line. The widely criticized fiery bull stampede was probably one CGI toke over the line, but otherwise the action is terribly visceral and real.

Sound plays a huge part in the battle, since Miike took care to vary the soundscape to keep the extended clamor from dulling viewers' senses. Whizzing arrows and galloping hoofbeats envelope the audience, and the clash of steel blades has never reverberating more forcefully. When the first of the thirteen falls to the enemy, all music drops out of the soundtrack and we're left with only the bare documentary-style din of combat.

I applaud Miike's decision to totally change the ending, restructuring the final showdown between Shinzaemon, Hanbei and Naritsugu into a new but equally valid climax. That way us old fans got to have the same suspenseful thrill as the uninitated, not knowing how it was going to end. And it's that new audience that I feel really excited about.

What a blessing it was for Magnolia Pictures to distribute this movie in the U.S., bringing mass exposure to the best samurai film made since Ran, twenty-five years ago. Miike earned a mainstream American theatrical run (remarkable for a subtitled film!) and generous promotion via the Internet and video-on-demand. The DVD and the excellent Blu-ray should prove to be strong sellers. I'm really hopeful 13 Assassins will be a gateway for curious viewers to discover the majestic treasures of the vintage jidai-geki classics, much like Kill Bill Vol. 1 was for me. Maybe some of you have googled and found this very article you're reading now in search of more about this Eiichi Kudo guy and those old-timey samurai movies. Welcome, my friends. It's good to have you here.

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