July 17, 2013

Movie Review: 13 Assassins (2010)

What are the limits of honor? What should it require of us? Is there a time when doing the dishonorable thing is actually the right, or honorable, thing to do? These are questions asked in Takashi Miike's fantastic samurai movie, 13 Assassins.

Set in the 19th Century, a mere 20 years or so before Commodore Perry's arrival in the waters off Edo, we are immediately presented with a samurai committing ritual suicide, or seppuku. It has been done as a protest against the actions of the Shogun's half-brother Naritsugu. He is a sociopath who rapes and kills on a whim. In one chilling scene, he uses the remaining family members of the official we see in the opening scene as target practice, killing a child last. Since he is the Shogun's brother, he is untouchable. So Sir Doi, the chief justice for the Shogunate, quietly hires an aging samurai named Shinzaemon to kill Naritsugu. This is done without official sanction. This brings Shinzaemon into conflict with a colleague named Hanbei, who has tied his future to Naritsugu. Despite his knowledge of Naritsugu's evil, honor dictates that Hanbei should obey and protect his lord no matter what.

It is here where we see how the concept of honor and loyalty has been twisted beyond recognition in the waning days of the Shogunate. Nartisugu disobeys the order of the Shogun to leave the family alone, a dishonorable act. Yet Hanbei maintains his loyalty to a man he knows is dangerous and evil, preserving honor towards a man who deserves none but receives it because of an accident of birth. These are themes Miike brings up over and over again. A code of honor only works when everyone is worthy of it. All it takes is one man to abuse the system and it becomes a twisted version of itself. And then doing the right thing can be seen as the wrong thing.

13 Assassins is very much a movie in the vein of Kurosawa's epic Seven Samurai. Shinzaemon gathers 12 men and they set out to assassinate Naritsugu. This plan comes to fruition in an epic assault that takes 45 minutes at the end of the film. The 13 Assassins have turned a small village into a killing trap. But Hanbei and Naritsugu have brought 200 men with them instead of the expected 70. The resulting carnage is exquisitely shot and is one of the best battle scenes you will see on film.

And the constant returning to the ideas about honor and loyalty, things which defined feudal Japan, tie the movie together. In their own ways, both Hanbei and Shinzaemon are being both honorable and dishonorable. The system has become a convoluted mess. The major difference between Hanbei and Shinzaemon is that the latter recognizes this, while the former still holds to the old ways.

Miike has really come into his own with 13 Assassins. People worried about seeing excessive gore or disturbing scenes (like in Audition, Ichi the Killer or Visitor Q) have little reason to fear. Aside from one scene that is essential to demonstrating Naritsugu's cruelty, there is no crazy gore. Even the scenes of seppuku are shot with the camera holding on the face. We hear the cut of the knife, and that is even more effective.

I cannot recommend this film enough. If you are lucky enough to have Netflix Instant, you can see it now. Otherwise, either buy, rent or acquire the DVD by some other means. It's that good.


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