There’s a damn good reason on why Kinema Junpo, one of Japan’s oldest film publications, ranked Eiichi Kudo’s 13 Assassins as the #2 samurai film of all time. The first entry in Kudo’s Samurai Revolution Trilogy, the film follows Shinzaemon Shimada (Chiezo Kataoka), a loyal retainer that has been given a difficult problem to solve. Lord Naritsugu Matsudaira (Kantaro Suga) has been abusing his power by committing rape and murder as he pleases. Even though he does this, due to the Shogun being his brother, he will be able to retain a seat in power and continue to cause problems for the land. The high council devises a secret plan to hire Shinzaemon and carry out an assassination, in order to ensure peace and tranquility for the future. He receives the help of 12 other men and goes forth to complete this immense task.
Much like Masaki Kobayashi’s fantastic entries in the chambara (sword fight) genre, Harakiri and Samurai Rebellion, 13 Assassins succeeds at delivering a thrilling and compelling film, while at the same time, subverting its original formula. Like Kobayashi’s works, on the surface, the film is about maintaining loyalty and being honorable, but explores the social injustice of the political systems at hand. This is done through the two rivals of the film, Shinzaemon and his rival, Hanbei Onigashira (Ryohei Uchida). Both men are carrying out their respected duties, but Hanbei is clearly serving the evil aspects of the feudalist empire while his elder is serving a much more humane and ethical stance, whilst still being a loyal samurai. 13 Assassins maintains a level of tension throughout most of its running time through its political schemes and plans, to then explode with a thrilling and intense climax that is both satisfying and poignant.
There isn’t a single wasted scene in the film and every moment looks absolutely beautiful. This is carried out by cinematographer Jubei Suzuki and gaffer Masuda Yoshiaki, that make every frame of the film a joy to behold. Whether its the assassins sitting around and planning an attack or them fighting against soldiers, both of are true artisans and their work is a sight to behold. Kaneo Ikigami’s screenplay of the film may seem very simple and clear cut, but its in its execution and Eiichi Kudo’s fine direction that make 13 Assassins stand out as an excellent work of Japanese cinema.
Animeigo’s DVD release marks the very first time the film has been released here in the U.S. and it’s quite a delight. As always, their use of subtitles has always been top notch, by color coating different subs when multiple people are involved in a scene. Their liner notes always provide insight on not only the film’s production itself, but the context of dialog and the time period that it takes place in as well. 13 Assassins is presented in an anamorphic widescreen presentation, with an aspect ratio of 2.35:1, that is crystal clear and pretty flawless for a DVD release.
Takashi Miike made a remake of the film last year and after watching the original, it is an almost exact replica of Kudo’s film. While they’re both the same story, Miike’s film works more on a sense of the spectacle and action of a chambara film, while Kudo’s film is an anti-establishment film masked as a chambara film. Eiichi Kudo’s 13 Assassins is very much a high mark in samurai cinema and Animeigo’s release of it does every single bit of it justice. Highly Recommended!