13 Assassins

Here’s a movie you don’t want to miss.  I saw 13 Assassins back at Fantastic Fest last year and now it’s in limited release in the US; here in Austin it’s showing at the Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar. I went to see it again last night and again was blown away at the brilliance of the film.

13 Assassins is directed by Takashi Miike (Ichi the Killer, Sukiyaki Western Django) and stars Koji Yakusho (Memoirs of a Geisha). It’s a traditional samurai movie in many respects, the kind there used to be scads of but isn’t really made much any more (technically, jidaigeki).

The general setup is that there’s a noble who is a degenerate Caligula style freak who is committing all kinds of atrocities, but he’s the Shogun’s half-brother so can’t be held to account. In fact, he gets nominated to be the Shogun’s chief advisor and once he travels back home from Edo, will take office and be untouchable. Finally the Chief Justice has to do something, and he approaches a samurai, Shinzaemon Shimada, and asks him to take care of this problem. Shinzaemon recruits 11 other samurai willing to risk their lives for the sake of taking out the sadistic noble and they plan an in-route hit, culminating in them taking a small village and turning it into a prepared kill zone. In an unfortunate turn for them the noble’s head samurai, who knows Shinzaemon, is forewarned and gets more troops, so the opposing force is 200+ clan samurai. This does not of course dissuade the samurai, who just hold up a banner stained with the bloody tears of one of the noble’s victims that reads “TOTAL MASSACRE” and then proceed to kick a legendary amount of ass.

The film is very, very well done. It has an economy of motion about it very fitting for a samurai movie.  There aren’t wasted scenes or movement; the momentum of the film builds strongly even through the early recruitment and planning scenes and doesn’t spin out or go over the top even in the end fight scene that’s an hour long(!). The violence is not done in a “cheap” way like in many, where the super-protagonist just kills an unlimited number of people because, hey, it’s a movie and they’re the star.  And it’s not turned into a big epic costume drama either. It is a very personal movie.  I was impressed that the 13 protagonists (they are joined by a hunter they find tied up in the forest, though he is a lot more than he seems) were all distinct characters without being broad stereotypes – that’s hard to do even with smaller ensemble casts.

It is refreshing after a diet of Hollywood movies where all you can really say is “Well, I’m glad it wasn’t awful” – like Thor and everything else I’ve seen this year really – to see something skillfully done, a movie made like a movie can be, with drama and violence and some humor and executed completely faithfully to its theme.

And also – you get to see an unparalleled samurai bloodbath.  Woot! Go see it.

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2 responses to “13 Assassins

  1. Spoilers!

    Discussion question – the hunter guy obviously seems to die in the fight, but comes traipsing happily by in the end. This takes back the samurai, who asks him, “Are you immortal?” This is clearly not a continuity error in an otherwise scrupulous film.

    Some people say maybe he’s the Monkey King or other kind of deity representative. (He did kick a lot of ass for being some hunter). Or just a dude who became immortal, that happens in Asian myth from time to time. Whoever was mad at him hung him up in a net in a tree instead of killing him, perhaps because he can’t be killed?

    Or it could be a ghost thing… Either he was a spirit, or maybe even the samurai really died and is in the spirit realm himself. Thoughts? Anyone Japanese or know enough about Japanese myth to tell us what the most likely explanation is? This is the most talked about issue with the film it seems… People who ascribe it to error are clearly wrong, but it’s hazy to me what it’s supposed to mean exactly.

  2. A side note – 13 Assassins is now on instant streaming on Netflix! So you have no excuse not to watch it, ideally tonight.

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