13 Assasins (2010)

Dir. Takashi Miike, 121 minutes, Japanese with English subtitles

Nicole and I rode the bus up to the Music Box to see 13 Assassins which if nothing else has ensured that I can now correctly spell ‘assassins’ on the first attempt.

Miike, who is famous in these parts for directing Audition (2000) (which I still haven’t seen) brings together a story about a band of conspiratory samurai at the end of the feudal era in Japan. Led by aging samurai master Shinzaemon (Kôji Yakusho), their mission is to decapitate local feudal lord Naritsugo (Gorô Inagaki) who is a demented torturer and rapist and wants to destroy the fragile peace that holds the shogunates together.

Sad to say, my knowledge of feudal Japan consists of playing a board game called Shogun with my brothers in grade school and watching the utterly terrible The Last Samurai (2003), which as I recall was about the industrial revolution era and only referenced the olden days of samurai and shoguns. I seem to recall a very cool Japanese television series that was about feudal Japan that I used to watch in high school on a public access channel, but I only caught it occasionally and never really understood what was going on.

Hence, jumping right into a film like this made me feel I was missing out on a lot, including various Bushido references and master/servant relationships. Added to that was the fact that this film has a lot of characters. Of the thirteen assassins, most of them have back stories, but some of those back stories are presented in quick, one line summaries. Overall though, the pervasive theme is that each of them wants a clean, honorable death in battle and not to wither away and die without glory.

The film is violent, but not excessively gory. Much of the sounds and facial expressions tell the story of pain and suffering, even during the most shocking of visuals. You can’t ask for much more in tasteful violence from a story whose first scene is a ritual disembowelment.

The final battle sequence lasts for well over half an hour, and involves, as Roger Ebert put it in his review, a series of “structured vignettes” in which each fighter gets his chance of taking on impossible odds. The plan against the shogunate lord is to turn a whole village into a boobytrapped “town of death” in order to compensate for the extreme mismatch (200 body guards versus 13 assassins). In terms of comparable western films, I can regrettably only think of The Thirteenth Warrior, which is not nearly as good; maybe it’s just that they both have thirteen in the title…

The martial arts action mostly involves swordplay and multiple beheadings, but is easy to follow and within the realm of the real, or as real as it gets when one guy fights a circle of thirty or so warriors around him. Notably absent are any women who do anything of consequence, but I’ll chalk that one up to the time period (if this had been a western film, there probably would have been a wisecracking Amazonian warrior who beats up a chauvinistic chump in act one). It’s nice to have a departure from the traditional summer action fare. If you have the time, I would recommend taking the trip out to the Music Box to check it out. On Mondays, shows are only $5, so I’m sure I’ll be back at some point over the summer!