13 Assassins (Jusan-nin no shikaku)

13 Assassins

I don't know if I could fight with a straight face against a bunch of guys with dinner plates on their heads.

(2010) Samurai (Magnet) Koji Yakusho, Takayuki Yamada, Yusuki Iseya, Goro Inagaki, Masachika Ichimura, Mikijiro Hira, Hiroki Matsukata, Ikki Sawamura, Arata Furuta, Tsuyoshi Ihara, Masataka Kubota, Sosuke Takaoka, Seiji Rokkaku. Directed by Takashi Miike

When you are trained to a life of service and honor is your most prized possession, justice is an important and necessary function of what you do. When justice is replaced by cruelty and barbarism, what is an honorable man to do?

In feudal Japan, the tradition of the samurai is on the wane as the Land of the Rising Sun slowly but definitely approaches the Meiji era, kicking and screaming in some places. The Shogun is still the de facto political power, deriving his power from the Emperor but in many ways wreathed in more temporal power than he.

The one currently in power has appointed his half-brother (and son of the previous Shogun) Lord Naritsugu (Inagaki) as his heir and the head of the country. Naritsugu, however, is corrupt and amoral, raping and killing without fear of reprisal because of his standing. Even other feudal lords aren’t immune as he attacks members of other clans without conscience. The country is on the verge of being plunged into civil war and even the Shogun knows it. He cannot openly oppose his half-brother or demote him from his position; to do so would lose tremendous face for him. However, through back channels he approaches one of the few samurai left who are honorable but without master – Shinzaemon (Yakusho).

Shinzaemon is shown the proof of Naritsugu’s depravity; a limbless woman whose tongue has been torn out, the wife of a peasant who dared speak out against Naritsugu’s depravations. She has been repeatedly raped and when asked what became of her family, she took a brush in her mouth and wrote out the words “TOTAL MASSACRE” before letting loose a wordless animal scream that is as compelling a moment as you’ll see on the screen this year – and also much more indicative of Miike’s usual style.

Shinzaemon knows that Naritsugu will be nearly impregnable in his palace in Edo (Tokyo) but awaits him to leave for the long journey to his home castle. He knows that even the well-protected Naritsugu will be vulnerable on the road. He can’t have a very large army like Naritsugu does; a pitched conflict would probably not end well for Shinzaemon and quite frankly would further destabilize the situation.

No, this is meant to be an assassination and to make it happen, he enlists the help of twelve like-minded samurai, including his nephew Shinrouko (Yamada). The task is made doubly difficult because Shinzaemon’s protégé Hanbei (Ichimura) is Naritsugu’s bodyguard and while Hanbei doesn’t approve of what Naritsugu does, he is loyal to his master as a samurai should be and will protect him to the best of his abilities, which are considerable.

Shinzaemon’s plan is to divide Naritsugu’s forces and send him through a specific town. In order to do that, he has to bar his travel across a single bridge. Fortunately, the clan that owns that bridge is more than happy to send Naritsugu on his way. The stage is set but Shinzaemon has to get ahead of Naritsugu by traversing a mountain. Unfortunately he gets lost but he comes upon a hunter named Koyata (Iseya) who while descended of samurai stock actually finds the samurai quite boring and unexciting.

Once they get to the village they turn it into a death trap with hidden fortifications, explosives and burning bulls (CGI flames animal lovers – don’t get your panties in a twist). However when Naritsugu arrives later than anticipated, Shinzaemon’s plan is thrown into disarray when it is discovered that rather than the 70 soldiers that they estimated he had with him, he has more than 200, a ploy used by the clever Hanbei to buy time to get reinforcements.

This leads to an epic battle in which much blood will be spilled, heads will roll, heroes will fall and Hanbei and Shinzaemon will cross swords at last. Will justice be served?

Miike is best known for his twisted and sometimes graphic horror films, but there are some who find his sensibilities a bit of an acquired taste. Fortunately, it’s a taste I’ve acquired. Miike has a reputation for deconstructing different genres when he attempts them (slasher horror, superhero and so on). He is incredibly prolific although this one seems to have taken more time than he usually does.

In fact, in a somewhat surprising move, Miike has opted to play this one more or less straight (other than a few occasional images including the limbless lady) which considering the depravity of Naritsugu probably brought up a few of Miike’s admirers up short. Samurai movies are a staple of Japanese cinema, and pretty much reached their nadir with Seven Samurai, Kurosawa’s epic (which inspired, among other things, The Magnificent Seven. This is based on a movie from the same era from a different director and perhaps more in need of a remake but Miike does surprisingly well.

The cinematography is beautiful and ugly at once, with lush Japanese countrysides and bucolic villages combined with horrifying images of brutal violence. The final battle sequence takes up nearly half the movie and is the reason you’re going to either love this movie or hate it; some will find the sequence too overwhelming and over-the-top, some too long and others might even find it not long enough. In any case, how you feel about battle sequences is largely going to determine how you feel about 13 Assassins.

The acting is pretty decent here. Of note is Japanese rock star Inagaki who plays the powerful Lord as almost childish in his petulance crossed with an amoral serial killer and rapist. He is completely corrupt and without any sort of morals – sort of like a Wall Street CEO who suddenly realizes he can get away with anything.

Yakusho is a big star in Japan and he shows why here. He is charismatic and powerful, a man used to being obeyed (at least Shinzaemon is) and certainly confident in his talents. Shinzaemon is a man worthy of respect (and if you don’t show him the respect he deserves, he’s liable to lop off your head) and is a worthy leader of these disparate samurai. Iseya provides much-needed comic relief. He is agile and monkey-nimble, but surprisingly strong using rocks and sticks to kill his armed and armored opponents.

Part of the movie’s problem is that 13 are really too many samurai for us to get to know properly. Most are little more than a single personality trait that quickly gets lost in the carnage. Remembering their names? Forget about it. I couldn’t always keep them straight and I’m usually pretty adept at that sort of thing.

What this boils down to is an epic struggle, one in which honor takes center stage. The honor of a man avenging injustice against the honor of a man defending his master until the bitter end. It is truly a morality play, Japanese-style and the swordplay and buckets of blood are merely window dressing on it. This isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but if you like samurai films you’ll like this one. If you like extensive battle sequences showcasing the sword skills of samurai you’ll love this one. If you like character development, you might want to give this a pass.

REASONS TO GO: Plenty of awesome battle sequences, lots of blood violence and a truly hiss-able villain.

REASONS TO STAY: A little on the too long side, and it is difficult for Western audiences to really get too involved with the individuals who, except for the top three or four leads, aren’t developed as characters very much.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s plenty of bloody violence, some disturbing images, a rape and some nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The story was based on an actual incident in feudal Japan, and was previously made into a black and white movie in 1963.

HOME OR THEATER: The epic scope of the film virtually screams theater.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Stuff

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