13 Assassins

A couple years ago my good friend Justin Muschong lent me the film Samurai Rebellion and insisted I watch it because it was a “great movie”. It sat on my shelf for a long while because I just wasn’t in the mood to watch a great movie and instead I read comic books and watched Demolition Man. My mistake. When I finally did get around to watching Samurai Rebellion I was pleased to find that it was indeed a “great movie” and that I was a better person for watching it. Samurai Rebellion is great for it’s themes of honor and loyalty, but what makes it also enjoyable is the slow buildup of tension that finally explodes when there is a fucking samurai rebellion. 13 Assassins follows this same template but does give you more bits of action before the grand finale because audiences would get impatient if all these guys with swords just kept talking all the time. 13 Assassins also owes a debt to Seven Samurai but of course it does.

For a Takashi Miike film 13 Assassins is subdued and polished. It says something about Miike’s other films that 13 Assassins contains numerous acts of harakiri and decapitation and yet still counts as a more subtle work from him. The plot is that the now retired samurai Shinzaemon is pulled back into active service by the shogun to assemble of secret team of assassins to kill Lord Naritsugu Matsudaira, who is a fucking asshole. This is the only accurate description of this character after we see him rape a woman, murder her husband and use another family for archery practice. Oh, and he cut a woman’s arms and legs off and left her in the rain. Yup, we got it Miike. Naritsugu is a grade-A jerk.

Shinzaemon is thrilled to have the work because it means he gets to die in battle. Whatever floats your boat, Shinzaemon. Shinzaemon gets to work recruiting his team of assassins including a sloppy old dude with a spear, a badass with a dirtstache, and Shinzaemon’s nephew who has taken to gambling because it’s the only thing that makes him feel alive.

Shinzaemon: Wanna feel alive? Lets go kill some people.

Nephew: Aight. (to wife) Light a torch.

Dirtstache has one of best moments in the film when he comes to the aid of another samurai but not before introducing himself as a ronin and then KILLING EVERYBODY.

The best feature of 13 Assassins is the light touch given to what could be weighty, pretentious material. Just because a film takes place in the past and deals with outmoded social strata and rituals does not mean we have to be glum and po-faced all the time. Shinzaemon has an easy smile and the character of Kiga is what the old showbiz fatsos would call a “crowdpleaser”. The final 45 minutes of 13 Assassins is devoted to a fullout samurai war between some two hundred warriors against the titular thirteen. Lives are lost, lessons are learned, and severed heads are kicked like soccer balls.


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