13 Assassins (2011) Review: ‘He who values his life dies a dog’s death’

13 Assassins (2011)

Honour, duty, and glorious death in the service of one’s Lord. These are the calling cards of the Samurai film genre and 13 Assassins has them all – in spades.

Set in the 1840s, 13 Assassins takes place with the feudal era of the Tokugawa Shogunate coming to a close in Japan, and with it, the age of the Samurai.

A portrait of cruelty

Enter Lord Naritsugu, the reigning Shogun’s younger brother, who threatens to destroy the empire with his cruelty and barbarism.

While a guest of a local clan, Naritsugu rapes a woman and then hangs around until her husband eventually shows up. The husband tries to console her, and ends up with Naritsugu’s sword through his chest for doing so. Not content with raping the woman and killing her husband in front of her, blood-soaked Naritsugu takes three massive – yet purposeful and measured – hacks to decapitate the already-dead husband. No smile, no menace, no feeling.

Elsewhere, peasants are starving and revolt against Naritsugu, who massacres every one of them, except the daughter of the leader, who he quadruple-amputates and keeps as a “plaything”, before eventually growing bored with her and casting her out.

The opening scene has a high level samurai lord named Mamiya committing hara-kiri (ritual suicide) in protest of this escalating pattern of madness from Naritsugu. Like the rest of the film, it is shot with painstaking detail and length. This scene could have been shot in half the time, but we’re made to watch the slow, deliberate actions of Mamiya, knowing what will come.

After the suicide, a great sign of disrespect to the would-be Shogun, Naritsugu gathers the remaining members of the Mamiya family – women and kids, mostly – ties them up in the courtyard and methodically shoots them all with arrows. Each member, forced to watch as their family is slowly butchered, knowing that eventually an arrow will pierce their body. While doing so, he calmly explains to his Chief Samurai, Hanbei, that “punishment is a master’s duty”, and that Samurai serve and die at their Lord’s pleasure.

Hanbei, who will not disobey his master, is powerless to stop the massacre of the Mamiya family. Naritsugu – played brilliantly by Gorô Inagaki – is unnervingly calm and level-headed during every brutal act he commits.

As the Shogun’s half-brother, Naritsugu’s heinous acts have thus far been covered up. It’s made clear that as the heir apparent to the Shogunate, Naritsugu will undoubtedly destroy Japan’s 200-year peace, and plunge it into war and chaos.

Conspiracy for the greater good

However, Mamiya’s suicide convinces the Shogun himself that something must be done. A samurai named Shinzaemon Shimada is selected by the Shogun Council to settle the matter. Quietly.

13 Assassins (2011)

The plot may seem overly complicated at first, but with so much political intrigue fueling the movie, it’s necessary for the slow-burn-to-a-boil finish that 13 Assassins has in store.

The first 75 minutes of this movie could even be described as slow; that was my first impression. My second viewing (for this review), opened my eyes and allowed me to see how wrong I was. 13 Assassins isn’t slow, it’s methodical. Calculated. Precise. Nearly every scene adding a character, an element of plot, or building on ones already established. Each one advances the audience by a single step towards the end.

Honour, loyalty, and duty are reinforced at every opportunity, perhaps not more brilliantly than in the scene where Hanbei confronts Shinzaemon only days before they will meet in battle. Though never bluntly stated, each knows what the other hopes to accomplish, and that neither will allow the other to succeed. Even though Hanbei knows that Naritsugu will destroy Japan’s peace and bring suffering to all, he will defend his Lord at all costs – he is a Samurai, loyal to his Lord, and that is his duty.

Shinzaemon’s plan to save Japan from its own would-be ruler is to ambush Naritsugu as he travels through the Japanese countryside. With just a handful of men (12 hardened warriors, and one rather annoying peasant character who gets tacked on midway through), Shinzaemon plans to ambush the Shogun’s heir, and his army-like retainer of bodyguards lead by Hanbei, at a small village called Ochiai.

Bloodbath at Ochiai

What follows is a whirlwind of choreographed chaos and death. The viewer is treated to a 45-minute onslaught of intense and claustrophobic fighting as Shinzaemon’s assassins strike fast and retreat; ducking down alleys and through buildings in an effort to make their lives count. Ochiai’s various booby-traps – sliding bamboo walls and rampaging, flaming oxen (literally cows set on fire) – divide and damage Hanbei’s troops.

13 Assassins (2011)

Naritsugu’s retainers doggedly pursue and fight bravely, but they are clearly no match for the assassins’ skill and dedication; numbers are their only advantage – but numbers they have. One by one the assassins – injured, exhausted and overwhelmed – begin to fall. With the fighting so chaotic, it is almost impossible to tell who is truly winning.

Forty-five minutes is a long time for a cinematic battle to take place, and it is not without its flaws. The sounds are repetitive, consisting mostly of screaming and the various stabbing/slashing noises katanas make when they come in contact with the human body. While the fighting starts to feel drawn out at a few points, there is enough individual badassery on the part of a few of the Assassins to make it watchable, and the length creates an uncertain tension as to which way the battle could swing.

Without spoiling the outcome of this vicious battle (which has to be seen, even if just to appreciate the scale of such a cinematic undertaking), it is somewhat anti-climatic. It makes sense, so I don’t have a big issue with it logistically, but you’re just left wanting more – even after 45 minutes of near-relentless bloodletting.

It may have taken me some time to truly appreciate the details so carefully crafted by filmmaker Takashi Miike, but I loved this film.

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