By Simon Abrams
I don’t expect people to have seen Eiichi Kudo’s original 1963 samurai film Thirteen Assassins before watching 13 Assassins, Takashi Miike’s recent remake. That said, I know that knowing where a remake is coming from is a helpful, if not always essential, part of my viewing experience. As such, I find 13 Assassins wanting. It's a remake of a response to an original, and a disappointing one.
The first thing you should know is that Kudo’s original film is a response to, not a rip-off, Akira Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai. What's the difference? It might be an abitrary distinction, but for me, a film that owes its existence to another film is a rip-off if it’s bad and a response if it's good. Kudo's film is good, therefore it's a response to Kurosawa. Thirteen Assassins is to Seven Samurai what Sergio Corbucci's Django (1966) was to A Fistful of Dollars: a tribute that at a certain point takes on a life of its own.
Thirteen Assassins -- which was released yesterday on DVD in its 126-minute international cut, 15 minutes shorter than the Japanese version -- has both a more novelistic plot structure than Seven Samurai , and a more grueling climax. It follows a group of 13 samurai scheming to overthrow the corrupt brother of the reigning shogun. In the Kudo film, the shogun, Naritsugu (Kantaro Suga), is mostly described as a vile man who wantonly rapes and murders. Miike, being Miike, shows the character's abuse of power almost immediately, and gruesomely: the character has lopped off the limbs and the tongue of a geisha and is forcing her to communicate by writing with a brush lodged between her teeth. One can’t help but watch this monster without expectantly taking it as a sign that Miike has made Kudo’s film his own. Such is (mostly) not the case. Much of 13 Assassins lazily mirrors Kudo’s film, especially the first 80 minutes of the 126-minute cut, which proficient but mostly sleepy set-up to his spellbinding 40-minute finale. Most of the earlier scenes are taken directly from Kudo’s film, and are not embellished in meaningful or even notable ways. As in Kudo's film, Miike's assassins debase themselves and risk their lives for the sake of their ideals (“There’s no samurai code or fair play in battle […] Lose your life, but make the enemy pay!”). Miike enunciates the film’s anti-violence message several times throughout the movie, including lines of dialogue that explicitly spell out the characters’ philosophies on violence and power.
In these first 80 minutes, Miike’s 13 Assassins rarely comes alive. There are hints of a livelier, more affably loose, and at least semi-original film in there, particularly in Miike's sporadic, endearingly goofy comic interludes. In one scene, two assassins make and test bombs, waiting for a lit fuse to explode. It’s not exactly a ground-breaking routine, but it's satisfying thanks to Miike’s comic timing.
That scene is also, unfortunately, a perfect example of what’s missing from these first 80 minutes, and perhaps the entire 125-minute cut: a reliable sense of pacing. While creating seamless narratives was never Miike’s forte, he has proven on several occasions that he can film tense scenes of mounting action (for proof, see his contribution to omnibus horror film Three Extremes). I grew restless during 13 Assassins not just because I had already seen Kudo cover the same ground before, but because he’d done it more purposefully and with more flair. 13 Assassins is, by contrast, mostly just a seemingly interminable period of rising action.
Which brings us to the film’s big battle sequence. Both Thirteen Assassins and 13 Assassins end with a mammoth fight between a couple hundred of Naritsugu’s men and our rebellious baker’s dozen of samurai. The small town of Ochiai is the chosen battlefield where, in 13 Assassins, booby traps are set to disorient, maim and/or hurt their opponents. It's also the moment when Miike's film finally snaps out of its torpor and delivers something worth remembering. It's the moment where Miike’s queasy, blunt take on the material finally takes off. The difference in energy between this action-packed, seemingly interminable set piece and the film’s preceding 80-minutes of footage is not just a function of narrative necessity. The majority of his film's original material is concentrated here, like the moment when Naritsugu is shown punting a retainer's severed head away from him out of sheer disgust, and Koji Yakusho’s character asks him, in comic astonishment, “How can you kick his head? He gave his life for you,” There’s much more going on in the tail-end of 13 Assassins, both in its presentation of the film's themes and in its immediate action. It’s no wonder that the long climax is the most talked-about part of Miike's movie: it’s the only part that’s actively engaging.
A final note on Magnolia's new DVD release: Would it have been too much to ask for Magnolia to have included both cuts of 13 Assassins -- the 126 minute international version and the 141 minute original cut? The "Deleted Scenes" option featured on Magnolia's DVD release are consists of all the footage that was excised from Miike's director's cut. I don't understand why Magnolia didn't give consumers the option of watching both versions of the film, considering that they already have the option to watch all the cut scenes separately.
Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in the Village Voice, Time Out New York, Slant Magazine, The L Magazine, New York Press and Time Out Chicago. He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Club and is a contributing writer at the Comics Journal. His writings on film are collected at the blog, Extended Cut.