A Totally Biased Movie Review: 13 Assassins

A wondrous, bloody Samurai epic. For better or worse.

Very few films these days build strong emotional attachments or give you any sort of significant reason to care about the on-screen characters, much less the action. Film villains are, very rarely, given any reason to be hated besides the fact that they are opposite the good guy, and in some cases, the villains are written more complexly and are simply more enjoyable to watch as characters. It’s refreshing then that a character, such as the villain in the 2010 release “13 Assassins,” is portrayed as the embodiment of pure evil. No, even that is an insult to the truly, viciously insane, which this character far exceeds. Someone who is above the law and does as he pleases without retribution. Who commits such acts of atrocity, that I’ve begun to wonder if my stomach has grown softer in age.

The film is a period piece, by Takashi Miike, set near the middle of the 1800s. The age of the samurai is ending. Few live who honor the code anymore. Fewer warriors still are worthy of the title. The Shogunate (ruling body of Japan) is corrupt, a hive of despots and a perversion of its former, nobler sovereigns. One such dark stain on the ruling body is the Shogun’s half-brother, Lord Naritsugu (Goro Inagaki). Being of direct relation to the Shogun, he is above the law, and is unable to be held accountable for any action. Few characters have ever chilled my blood the way Naritsugu does: Hannibal Lecter, Norman Bates, and even John Doe have been given a run for their money with this guy. He non-chalantly murders entire families, rapes and kills wives and husbands, amputates victims and discards them when he’s bored with them… He shows virtually no emotion when committing positively grotesque, heinous and diabolical acts of violence, and it’s this lack of emotion that makes him all the more menacing. Normally, sociopaths spout nonsense and come off as insane, driven out of their “need” to commit atrocities. With Naritsugu, it’s unclear whether he does it because he feels he has to, out of boredom, or simply because he enjoys it, and it lends an air of tension to any scene he appears in. I should think no one around him would feel safe. Ever. When the tables eventually turn on him, however, it makes it all the more satisfying.

The movie opens relatively simply, with someone committing harakiri (ritualistic self-disembowelment) in protest to this violent, bloody ruler. It immediately sets the tone for the movie, and not necessarily in a good way. A sense of desperation is portrayed through the grotesque violence, and in that desperation, a noble named Sir Doi secretly hires Shinzaemon Shimada (Koji Yakusho), a revered and skilled warrior, to kill Naritsugu before he is promoted to the Shogun’s personal council. He knows it’s a suicide mission, and eventually recruits 12 other man to fight alongside him. Knowing their chances are nil, they give themselves the best option they can by buying out an entire village, planning to attack Lord Naritsugu on a journey home from Edo. They spend what must have been quite a while rigging the village into a massive maze of death, full of traps, mines, flaming bulls and sharp objects. The entire third act of the film takes place in the village, with the camera spending a considerable amount of time capturing the wonderful chereography of the samurai trying their best to take as many of Naritsugu’s men with them. Most films these days opt for more kinetic action, with shots zoomed into the frenetic movement, and quick, frantic cuts that lend excess energy. Here, Miike masterfully captures the gritty reality of ancient battles and the violent nature of war in days past by keeping the camera zoomed farther back, allowing the action to unfold neatly onscreen, an interesting dynamic.

What’s more important, is before the first sword is drawn in the lengthy, 45-minute-plus battle sequence, he’s spent the first two acts of the film establishing all of the characters and their roles in the battle. Certain characters fit the romanticized Samurai archetypes, while others are more forgettable. It’s simply the nature of a foreign film where 13 characters with difficult to pronounce names are involved: some of them just don’t come off as being as important as others. None-the-less, we still feel some sort of emotional attachment to their endeavors, if for no other reason than the first act so wonderfully established the astonishing villain. From the very first time he’s shown in the film, there’s very little to argue against how much we’d like to see Naritsugu die. The writers and director wisely kept from giving him any redeeming qualities, allowing him to silently be surrounded by an almost supernatural aura of evil. The 13 heroes, however, are all very likable and adhere to the honor-bound lifestyle of the samurai. They are noble, selfless, and fight for what they believe to be right. If only things were the same way these days. The most we can do now is muster the courage to protest or attend a peace rally. In the days of the samurai, men changed the world at the point of a sword.

The action in the film is given more weight with these ideas, namely by the strong sense of beliefs on each side of Naritsugu’s madness: his top officer, Hanbei Kitou, a powerful Samurai and former sparring partner of Shinzaemon, refuses to leave his Lord’s side, despite the disgusting acts of violence he commits, claiming the samurai’s purpose is to serve. For those unaware, the word “samurai” translates loosely into “to serve.” Shinzaemon knows, however, that if Naritsugu ascends into the Shogun’s council, it will bring death and descruction to the people of Japan. Both men refuse to waiver from their respective paths, even when Hanbei appears during a secret meeting at Shinzaemon’s dwelling, with both sides subtly hinting at their plans and pleading in vain to the other to reconsider. It’s a testament to the cleverness of the writing and the beauty of the language that so much can be said so indirectly and with so few words.

While the third act, namely the lengthy battle sequence, is brilliantly contained thanks to good editing and pacing, it’s not nearly the high point of the film. The establishing of the 13 heroes and their motivations is far more enthralling than the carnage portrayed at the end. That’s not to say that the battle scene isn’t one of the best of recent memory, just that by the end, I was getting a little fatigued and tired by the drawn-out nature of the conflict. With very few sequences involving characters I recognized, I lost track of what was going on and who was where, which may have been the point. The characters that I did remember, however, were spectacular, particularly Shinzaemon’s right-hand men, a former pupil and older, chief inspector. The fantastic camera work is accompanied by sparse musical scores that I imagine was omitted to let the drama and action on-screen portray its own sense of emotion. It’s worth mentioning, however, that the music, when used, is highly captivating and effective. The sound work is also quite good, with the audio spectrum fully fleshed out even as chaotic fighting fills the screen. The lighting and cinematography are effective as well, although much more so in the first two acts, where subtle and sometimes stark shadows create both wonderment and menace.

Samurai films carry with them a certain weight, as we appreciate the life-style of warriors bound to honor and loyalty. Unfortunately, as the film depicts in great abundance, it was, at times, an immensely violent life-style these men lived. And if I have any complaints, it’s that I’m simply not as impressed with the film’s depiction of such monstrous, aberrant, grotesque acts of violence. From the very first scene, we’re shown that the time period the film took place in was one of the bloodiest, most brutal in human history, where the sick and depraved thrived in such bloody decadence that it’s difficult for us to comprehend. The film makes no exceptions in its violent portrayal of this time long past, and although it helps the atmosphere of the film as well as the dramatic necessity of the story, it’s simply something that caught me completely off-guard, and left me with a little bit of a bad taste in my mouth.

If you’re looking for a well-written, well-played, and well-filmed foreign action vehicle, then you can’t get a much better deal for your money. However, the abundance of violence and the cruel, vile nature of its villain who commits despicable acts without care or remorse, make it difficult to recommend to many besides those with iron-stomachs.

If you’re into samurai epics, however, you know exactly what you’re getting yourself into, and if you can sit through the violence, it’s a film well worth doing so for.

Oh, and did I mention one of the characters may, or may not, be a mountain demon?

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