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May 28, 2012

13 Assassins (1963)

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Jusan-nin no shikaku
Eiichi Kudo - 1963
AnimEigo Region 1 DVD

Watching the original 13 Assassins, my feeling is that Kudo film served as a general blueprint for Takashi Miike. The effect is as if the comedy and horror, as well as some of the elaborations of characters, were all pared away. The story remains the same, but the difference is between Miike's rococo tendencies that might have been needed to make the film more entertaining for contemporary audiences, and Kudo's trust in keeping things mostly direct and plain.

Essentially, a samurai has been recruited to assassinate the half-brother of the Shogun. The film takes place in 1844, as the Shogun era in Japan is about to end. The shogun's half-brother has cause disarray in the government due to his indiscretions, including the rape of another lord's daughter in law. The samurai, Shimada, enlist eleven other samurai and ronin who can be trusted to take on this clandestine mission. The thirteenth member of the group is a self-styled samurai in the town where the confrontation is to take place.

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Much of the critical attention on Kudo's film is based on the final battle, with its then innovative use of hand held cameras. And I am sure that the shaky cam stirred up the audiences almost fifty years ago. But what was more interesting to me was the use of tracking shots, nothing unusually long, but providing a visual style to the proceedings of lords and samurai talking about taking action or what it means to be a samurai. Rather than cutting back and forth, Kudo keeps most his characters within the same wide screen frame. Close-ups and some brief montage, such as a series of shots of samurai grabbing swords, are only used for the infrequent moments of visual emphasis. Kudo's visual style with the emphasis on wide shots forces the viewer to be an active participant while Miike will throw the spectacle in your face.

13 Assassins is the first of Eiichi Kudo's films to get an official DVD release in the U.S. His other two films in his "Samurai Trilogy" are scheduled for release in the near future. Probably the best online overview of his career can be found at Midnight Eye. Robin Gatto points out that Chiezo Kataoka, the actor playing Shimada, was a major star of Japanese period films, especially in the years preceding World War II. Two of the more significant names, in smaller roles here, are the seemingly ubiquitous Tetsuro Tamba as the government official who initiates the assassination plot, and Junko Fuji as the daughter of an inn owner, in what was her second screen appearance, but one where Kudo saw fit to provide her with her own medium shot.

What also distinguishes 13 Assassins both from period films of from the Sixties, as well as the most samurai films in general, is the sense of detachment. Part of what attracts audiences to the genre is the visceral excitement. The distance here is not just visual, but emotional as well, with Kudo acting as an almost impartial observer to what is both a battle of wits as well as swords.

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Posted by peter at May 28, 2012 09:09 AM

Comments

Awesome I really have to pick this up.

Posted by: Eponoro at June 5, 2012 10:40 PM