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5.0 out of 5 stars 13 Assassins - A Masterpiece!, 22 April 2012
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This review is from: 13 Assassins [DVD] (DVD)
13 Assassins (2010) directed by Takashi Miike is a stunningly beautiful Japanese action movie that kept me glued in front of the TV for the whole 141 minutes running time. It is a feast for all martial arts fans with insights into the philosophy of the Samurai, featuring breath-taking choreography, striking costumes and profound quotes, such as our main character Shinzaemon Shimada telling us: ` No mercy! There's no samurai code or fair play in battle! No sword? Use a stick. No stick? Use a rock. No rock? Use your fists and feet! Lose your life, but make the enemy pay! `
The plot follows the creation of a band of 13 warriors who are tasked as assassins, brought together to kill a bloodthirsty politician before he rises to higher office, and thus becomes untouchable. But fear not, the film doesn't expect you to understand feudal Japanese politics, as the main reasons for the assassination attempt are much more graphic, logical and, in the way of the Samurai, honourable.
Forming the band and performing their task is nigh-on impossible, as by the finale our intrepid 13 warriors are faced with an army of some 200 soldiers in order to reach their target. Clearly, for some, this will be a one-way mission, but our heroes lay down their lives at the opposition's great expense, and their strategies soon turn disadvantage to advantage. The final, long battle scene brings our warriors face to face with their opponents in a one-horse town, where only one side can be victorious.

This is a great piece of historical drama, where the film-makers have tried to keep true to the spirit of Samurai and have avoided adding a Hollywood sheen. It is gritty, realistic, honest and blunt. While we may find some of the Samurai beliefs about `honour' to be confusing and self-defeating, the film never tries to modernise or apologise for how things were. This is history, not revisionist drama. The costumes and weapons are wonderfully accurate and the martial arts are, in most cases (bar the occasional wobble) extremely well performed. There is real affection here for the stories and ways of the Samurai.

But there are downsides. Unfortunately, while the picture quality and overall cinematography is superb, the same cannot be said about the use of sound effects, particularly during the fight scenes. They are too much for my personal taste. Too much `Weapons Sound Effects Volume 14 - Swords, Knives and Stabbings'! Just as when movies use squealing tyres SFX for a car on a gravel path (um, just WHAT are the tyres squealing on?), here the film-makers used swooshing sounds for every sword movement (it is quite hard to make a sword `swoosh' and not all swords do it!), metal scraping FX every time a sword is unsheathed (the scabbards - saya - are made of wood, not metal, plus a Samurai wants to be silent when unsheathing their sword!) and clangy/ringing SFX when the swords hit each other (most katana don't make this sort of steel-on-steel sound when they hit). Am I being a tad OTT here? Possibly, but then I am a practising Iaido martial artist and handle Katanas on a daily basis...I know what I am talking about and in a film that gets Samurai right on so many levels, to have them get the sounds wrong is a real let down.

The other thing that annoyed me was the use of some CGI cows that had been set alight and used as a weapon. Historically, this may well have been a technique employed by warriors of the time in Japan, and of course, no one expects the film-makers to use real cattle! But the CGI was atrocious, so utterly horrendous that all you can do is laugh and hope it goes away very quickly. There is a similarly bad use of CGI when a bridge explodes and some horses that get blown up. In a film devoid of CGI for a lot of its run-time, these two uses could have been dropped and not harm the movie in any way.

The Blu-Ray includes an interview with the director, a trailer plus deleted scenes (nothing thrilling) but the film itself is truly epic. A slow starter, but well worth the watch. It is a Samurai movie that deserves its place in every good martial arts collection. Something for the Katana fans, and something for the general fans, it is a solid historical drama with some superb action, strong acting, beautiful design work and stunning landscapes.
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