Badassiest Badassery: 13 Assassins

27 Dec

When Takashi Miike makes a movie, I have one of two reactions, both of which are based on previous experiences with the director:

“Huh, that could be really good. I should check that out!”

“Huh, that could be the thing that finally pushes my teetering hope for humanity over the edge of oblivion and causes me to lose all hope for the species. I SHALL AVOID IT AT ALL COSTS.”

So the stakes on that particular gamble, I think you’ll agree, are quite high.

However, bolstered by my newfound positive outlook, I resolved that should the movie start to go off the rails into Horrortown, I would just Stop Watching.

Because with Instant, you can totally DO THAT. You have the power! Whoo!

And I was pleased to find that the film did not veer off into the land of skull-fornicating nightmares. It was quite great, in fact!

Derivative of Kurosawa’s classic Seven Samurai, 13 assassins is the story of 12 samurai and one extra guy who must make the difficult choice to break their vows and murder a member of the Shogunate’s family. The fellow in question, Lord Naritsugu, is a well-connected noble who is poised to gain unheard-of power; he also  happens to be your common, garden-variety psychopath. His favorite activities include murder, rape, dismembering live people, beheadings, and other actions with deleterious effects on people. He finds peace boring, and can’t WAIT until he has more influence over the current Shogun so that he can usher in a new era of lawlessness and civil chaos.

 

Essentially, he’s a mad dog, and must be put down.

However, this creates a unique conflict for our main characters; as Samurai, they’re honor-bound to and serve the Shogunate at all costs. On the other hand, they must also serve the people as well, and the people would be most royally fornicated with a stick should Naritsugu gain power. The question becomes one of principles: which is more important, upholding the letter of the law, or the spirit?

Of course this sounds pretty heavy, but it’s an oblique theme running through an otherwise action-packed film. Violent, certainly, but nowhere near as gruesome as the most recent installation of the Rambo movies.

So the 13 assassins are assembled over the course of the first third of the film, and must face the formidable army of Naritsugu in order to destroy him. As Naritsugu’s depravities are well-known, the assassins are able to sway a few nobles to their cause and set up an ambush in a remote village. What follows that is an extended battle sequence (no shit, probably 45 minutes long) that does NOT feel long at all as the massive army is whittled down by the sword masters through incredible traps and superior swordwork.

There just subtle nods to Kurosawa’s classic; they’re more like little kids jumping up and down and pointing, but neither does the movie suffer from them. For filmgoers unfamiliar with Kurosawa everything feels fresh, and cinemaphiles won’t be distracted by the flourishes because they are attached in most cases to very new experiences. This is a Miike movie after all, and feels like it, although the usual levels of grotesquerie are absent, with one mild (for him anyway!) exception in the beginning concerning a quadruple-amputee. But the moment does not feel excessive, and rather makes an eloquent point about what, exactly, is at stake for the weak when the strong rule uncontested.

13 Assassins is a great movie–maybe not a date night movie unless you are both already familiar with Miike, and it’s a little heavy for a ‘movie and beers’ night with friends, but it’s still amazing and shouldn’t be missed!

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