“He who values his life dies a dog’s death.” – Shinzaemon Shimada
I’m going to continue discussing non-traditional war films this week. “13 Assassins” (2010) is Takashi Miike‘s fucking brilliant take on the traditional Japanese Samurai genre. While not superficially a war movie, I would argue it bears the hallmarks of some of the best Western War films. A small group of warriors band together for a mission that has little chance of success. This setup is used some classic traditional War films, “The Dirty Dozen” (1967), “Apocalypse Now” (1979), “Saving Private Ryan” (1998) and “Inglorious Basterds” (2009), just to name a few. Interestingly, there is an argument to be made that these Western War films were inspired by the traditional Japanese Samurai films best exemplified by the classics of Akira Kurosawa. Further complicating matters is that Kurosawa and many other filmmakers in the Samurai genre were inspired by, and inspired, American Western films. I digress, “13 Assassins” (2006) is a war film through and through, and a spectacular one at that.
While not directly discussed in the film, some historical context may be valuable here. In the early 1600’s after decades of feudal warfare amongst rival Shoguns and their Samurai armies, Tokugawa Leyasu consolidated his power and ruled as the one and only Shogun. He did this with sheer brutality more often than not. He and his successors were so effective at crushing dissent that the Tokugawa Shogunate oversaw the longest period of peace in Japanese history, from roughly 1600 to 1868, when the Emperor‘s supreme power was restored. While this was all well and good for many people, it was terrible for the Samurai. With no one left to fight samurai increasingly became courtiers, bureaucrats, and administrators rather than warriors. Those who lived the traditional life were largely left without a purpose and more importantly, the means by which to achieve an Honorable Death.
Set in Feudal Japan the early 1840’s, “13 Assassins” (2010) tells the story of a vicious ruler and the warriors who will stop him. Lord Naritsugu Matsudaira (Goro Inagaki) is a vicious man who rapes and murders the ruling class with impunity because he is the brother-in-law of the Shogun. This tyranny is depicted with Miike‘s typical flair for shocking violence. Aging Samurai Shinzaemon Shimada (Koji Yakusho) is called upon to assassinate Naritsugu by the Shogun’s Finance Minister who fears any further power accrued by Naritsugu. Shinzaemon recruits 11 more Samurai (other dude is picked up along the way). Cue training montage, awesome. Some other stuff happens. The real treat here is the final battle which runs about 45 minutes or 1/3 of the film. It is a masterpiece. Out numbered 13 to over 200, the Samurai fight like true fucking bad-asses. I would say it’s one of the best battles ever depicted in war film.
Directed by the incredibly prolific and notorious Takashi Miike, “13 Assassins” (2010) is a remarkably straight forward genre picture. Miike has mad a wide variety of films but what he’s really known for, what he’s infamous for, is jaw dropping gore and violence. I mean “pardon me while I crawl out of my own skin” type stuff. The man’s work is essentially, cinematic ULTRAVIOLENCE. Miike also tends to play with time, space and traditional narrative structures. His films are often surreal and twisted. With “13 Assassins” (2010), Miike proves unquestionably, that he does not have to rely on shock value to make a great film with a very traditional narrative structure.. Sure, the film fantastically violent but it’s appropriate. It’s also important to note that just like all great war films, “13 Assassins” (2010) that look and feel of an epic. The best Samurai movie in a decade or more and simply one of the best of all-time. It’s a fucking no-brainer. Watch this right now.
13 Assassins – Trailer
Takashi Miike: Watch his early gangster trilogy, The Black Triad Trilogy (“Shinjuku Triad Society” (1995), “Rainy Dog” (1997) and “Ley Lines” (1999)). The slow-boil that pays off pretty horrifically, “Audition” (1999) or test your constitution with the superb but undeniably fucking shocking, horrific and completely bat shit, insane “Ichi The Killer” (2001) a film a can honestly say deserves all of the praise and loathing it got equally. Not an easy thing to pull off.
Samurai Movies: Every Akira Kurosawa Samurai film. “The Lone Wolf and Cub” series or at least “Shogun Assassin” (1980) which combines footage from the first two. “Ghost Dog; The Way of The Samurai” (1999). “The Sword of Doom” (1966), “Samurai Fiction” (1998). There are so many good ones.