13 Assassins

13 Assassins

(MA15+) Icon DVD/BD

The synopsis of one of the best films of 2011: At the end of Japan’s feudal era a group of unemployed samurai are enlisted to bring down a sadistic lord and prevent him from ascending to the throne.

Just like a dozen other samurai movies? Yes and no.

There are obvious comparisons with Seven Samurai and 47 Ronin (remake coming in 2012).

Familiar plot (13 versus 200). Recognisable themes (what is the honourable way of the samurai?). But beautifully shot. Wonderfully acted and directed with sophistication (by Takashi Miike).

It is gory from the beginning (aurally) to its long, final concluding battle. There are one or two moments of levity and some dark humour but it’s mostly bloody and grim — particularly when the “sadistic lord” is on screen.

He is Lord Naritsugu Matsudaira (Goro Inagaki), the shogun’s younger half brother, a cruel and violent man … but above the law.

Worried about his rise to higher power, Sir Doi (Mikijiro Hira) the top shogun official, decides Naritsugu must be stopped.

He asks venerable samurai Shinzaemon Shimada (Koji Yakusho) to assemble a team to kill Naritsugu and preserve peace.

Shinzaemon (“he who values his own life dies a dog’s death”) finds purpose in battle. So when asked to take on the fearsome mission says, “I will accomplish your wish with magnificence.”

Among those he chooses is his nephew, Shinrokuro (Takayuki Yamada), a gambler, alcoholic and womaniser, tired of being a samurai during peacetime. This mission is a chance to become what he trained to be.

Meanwhile, Naritsugu’s head samurai, Hanbei Kitou (Masachika Ichimura), who trained with Shinzaemon, knows his master has gone too far but feels honour-bound to defend him.

Knowing their heyday is over, Shinzaemon’s assassins are impatient to begin what is probably their final mission … and last chance for a noble death. Tension builds as the two groups strategise for the inevitable battle.

By the end they confront one another like growling, wounded animals.

It is very inelegant. It is grisly. There is horrific violence.

When the slaughter ends in a climactic duel Naritsugu observes (perhaps echoing those who prefer the genre’s clichés) that compared to the bloody massed brawl there is such elegance in fighting one-on-one.

Others will disagree.

There are some classic samurai fight scenes, brilliant choreography and close-ups where the swordplay must be imagined.

Unlike some recent samurai films (Takeshi Kitano’s Zatōichi) there is no cartoonish blood-spray in 13 Assassins. But it is bloody nevertheless. Realism adds to the horror.

Naritsugu’s perversity and barbarism is complete when, experiencing the blood-soaked battlefield, he says, “It’s magnificent. With death comes gratitude for life. If a man has lived in vain, then how trivial his life is.”

He tells Hanbei, “Something wonderful has come to my mind … Once I’m on the shogun’s council, let’s bring the age of war.”

The irony, of course, is that the samurai know if Naritsugu joins the shogun’s council disaster will befall the people, “chaos will ruin the nation”.

The age of war will return purpose to the samurai but the time has come to lay down their lives for a better cause.

Stephen Webb


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