A blog about movies and filmmaking.


In action on May 22, 2011 at 12:52 am

I’ll admit, over the past few weeks I’ve found myself less and less interested in writing reviews. I have a post started that was meant to be a “one and done” of all the schlocky, genre movies I’ve seen lately. The beginning of the Summer reviews I’ve done for THOR and PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN were nearly torturous. Even the four-hour “masterpiece” I just watched called LOVE EXPLOSION, hasn’t made me want to bust out the blogging software.

But that all just changed with 13 ASSASSINS, the new samurai epic from Takashi Miike. A movie that has been trumpeted by many others as a masterpiece, and I’d say it goes beyond even that to being a perfect film. 

The movie starts with a man kneeling. He opens his robes, feels around his stomach, and then pierces it with his short sword. Dragging it across his stomach, only to then impale himself through the heart, we see he’s done this act in front of no one. A lone palace in front of him.

From there we movie to the introduction of Shinzaemon Shimada – a samurai who has given over to being a fisherman. He’s been summoned by Sir Doi, a Governor who has taken it on himself to right a nationwide catastrophe – the dishonor and embarrassment of a head of state – the man who committed harakiri, mentioned above. So, Doi conscripts Shinza to put together a team of assassins to murder the party at the root of this turmoil; the Shogun’s younger brother, Lord Naritsugu, who is a cruel and psychopathic man that has taken his position as permission to do whatever he wants. We are witness to a number of the atrocities that he perpetrates. As Shinza gets to see first-hand the handiwork of this monster, he naturally takes the job.

So, in the fashion of all “men on a mission” type of movie, they begin recruiting. It’s not as flashy or fun putting together the team as in say SEVEN SAMURAI – or it’s American counterpart, THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN – but we’re introduced to a number of individual samurais, that while aren’t given much character, manage to stand-out. Key among the recruits are Shinza’s nephew, Shinrouko (Takayuki Yamada); Shinza’s key pupil, Hirayama; and Koyata Kiga (Yusuke Iseya), a bandit that’s recruited along the way. They eventually head off on their mission, or meeting with destiny as Shinza believes it to be, seeing as he has not yet been given the warrior’s death.

The movie has a moderate pace. It’s not slow, but it’s also not too action packed until the final battle. But throughout the movie we are learning more and more about Naritsugu, his lieutenant Hanbei, and the assassins. There’s some gambling, some explosives training and during the first half hour of the movie, a number of grotesqueries and brutal action. It’s setup that we’re supposed to root for these guys to accomplish their goal.

But what happens instead is almost the same, anti-violence stance that was given to Clint Eastwood’s UNFORGIVEN. None of the violence here is glamorized, nor is it meant to look cool. I was thoroughly disgusted by a number of things at the beginning of the movie. None of the “good” samurai who eventually are over-powered, are given glamorous deaths to make us envy their giving their life for this cause. It’s just death and it’s ugly, and painful, and not meant to be taken lightly. During the final battle Naritsugu says that he really enjoys seeing the carnage going on around him and that when he becomes second in-command under the Shogun, he’ll reinstate a time of war so this is what their whole nation will look like. It’s here that the faulty logic of a samurai, who is supposed to give their life for their master, registers on Hanbei’s face…Though he still carries out his duty.

I loved this movie. In the same way that I love UNFORGIVEN, and many other movies that aren’t meant to get us excited about death and revenge, but do so in a way that tricks us. (Which, I guess, is kind of a weird thing to love…) But, it’s through these movies which revel in the violence it’s protesting, that we see the humanity of these characters come out. It’s the idea that you don’t realize how useless war is, until you’re standing at the front of the battlefield. And as Naritsugu soon learns, it’s not that great when you’re the one doing the fighting.

The characters here are all excellent. We see the assassins that have been gathered are not people to mess with – particularly Hirayama – who manages three slices for every swing of the sword of his opponent. Played by Tsuyoshi Ihara, Hirayama was just a badass – as mentioned in the movie’s Wikipedia page, he’s comparable to Britt (played by Yul Brynner) in THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN. And as I said, while this movie isn’t meant to glorify violence to the audience, it’s also difficult to not be impressed by these warriors. Shinzaemon, played by Koji Yakusho, is magnificent as the leader of the group. His dignity and demeanor, really just by his look, lets you see that this man is dangerous. Then there’s Naritsugu, played by Goro Inagaki. He manages evil in a way, I don’t know that I’ve ever seen before. It’s not showy. He doesn’t necessarily relish in the atrocities he commits in anyway that particularly shows him enjoying it as much as it’s what his station in life has allowed. It’s almost a ritual…A sick and twisted one, but nothing out of the ordinary in his mind.

The last thing to talk about is the final battle sequence. The first thing to say about it – and the whole movie, really – is just how under-stated the violence is. There are moments of bloody gore, sure, but for the most part it’s all underplayed. When characters are hacking and slashing, there aren’t giant sprays of blood – either through practical effects or as has become the norm, CGI sprays – or even much focus on graphic wounds. In some ways, I’d say it makes a lot of the movie even more brutal to watch, since there aren’t those cartoony moments that are normal in movies like this – whether they’re meant to be funny or not – of gallons of blood shooting everywhere. Though, by the end, the town the finale takes place in, is littered with bodies and there is certainly blood everywhere.

This movie has become one of my favorite movies of the year. As I mentioned, I consider it to be pretty much a perfect film. It hit all the notes that I love from a great movie. It exceeded any and all of my expectations.

I can’t recommend it enough.


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