The famed Toei Studio had two branches; one in Tokyo that made gendai-geki (dramas set in the modern world) and one in Kyoto which made jidai-geki films (chanbara). Eiichi Kudo wanted to stay in Tokyo, despite pleading from his boss to join the Kyoto team, Kudo protested. He didn’t have any experience in jidai-geki so how could he make a competent film in that genre. Eventually, his boss demanded he make the move, Kudo reluctantly made the trip and a few short years later he made a samurai film worthy of a chanbara veteran: 13 ASSASSINS.
Voted the number 2 samurai film of all-time by Kinema Jyunpo, this film tells the story of 13 men who are given the task of assassinating an out-of-control lord who is on the cusp of receiving new political powers. Led by the calming force of the elder samurai (a quiet and complex Chiezo Kataoka), the 13 men slowly stalk their prey until the moment is ripe to spring their trap which is located in a small village. It is here that one of the greatest fight scenes in chanbara history takes place; a no-holds barred slice and dice of the first order, a maze of mayhem and killing. For those quick to compare this with SEVEN SAMURAI, save it. Outside of each film having a collection of warriors it really doesn’t compare at all from a story perspective.
This is the first film in Kudo’s Samurai Revolution Trilogy, followed by THE GREAT KILLING, and THE ELEVEN SAMURAI, all in stunning black and white. Though they are each strong films, neither of the other films in the trilogy reach the heights of the first film (Takashi Miike’s remake came close). 13 ASSASSINS is brooding but contemplative, exploring loyalty and vengeance, innocence and guilt, a constant contrast that permeates the film until the final battle but returns to punctuate the message at the end.
Though this is a remarkable film, it isn’t a film I would rank as highly as it did on Kinema Jyunpo’s list; certainly Top 20, maybe Top 10, but not #2. Though exhilarating, it is a tad overstuffed with characters which creates an emotional detachment that is most clearly evident during the final battle. When characters are well defined in a film their death is almost painful for the viewer, here it is a shrug as we cut to the next fight scene. This is not true of every character in the battle, but it is true for most. Having said that; Eichi Kudo is clearly a master director. His name belongs in the same league of as other famed directors of chanbara: Kenji Musami, Hiroshi Inagaki, Hideo Gosha, and others. If you’re a fan of good cinema, buy this. If you’re a fan of samurai cinema, buy this right now. I am not one for pushy bosses, but goddamn I am glad someone told Kudo to get his ass to Kyoto.
AnimEigo has never been heavy on special features and this release isn’t going to change that trend: Trailers, program notes, cast & crew bios, and an image gallery are all you get.
VERDICT: BUY IT!
13 ASSASSINS STREETS 6/5/2012
SEE YOU ON FORTY DEUCE,
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