July 31, 2011

13 Assassins: An anti-samurai movie

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at July 31, 2011 4:40 PM

Recently I watched the Takashi Miike film 13 Assassins. I definitely recommend it for those of you who are fans of samurai movies. It's structured something like a heist movie, where the first half consists of assembling a team (the eponymous assassins) for a big job, and the second half is one big action set piece. (It occurs to me that Seven Samurai had a similar structure. This is actually a remake of a much older film, and it makes me wonder if the original was actually a shameless knockoff of Seven Samurai that Miike decided to rescue from the dustbin of history. I can't find much information on the original though, maybe it was actually a great movie in its own right.)

There's a clear parallel between samurai movies in Japan and Western movies in the U.S. So clear, in fact, that some of the most famous Westerns are adaptations of jidaigeki films: e.g. The Magnificent Seven, A Fistful of Dollars. Beyond that, in both genres you have a romanticization of an earlier period in history. And in response there are films which push back against the romantic view, whether it's Unforgiven taking apart the myth of the heroic gunfighter, or Blazing Saddles foregrounding the racism of the period.

13 Assassins is clearly in the latter tradition, using the format of the samurai movie to reject nostalgia for the samurai era. The plot follows an attempt to assassinate a corrupt samurai lord, but metaphorically represents an attack on the corruption inherent in the feudal social order. (Alternate title: "Now you see the violence inherent in the system!") Although the main characters are (almost) all samurai themselves, it's clear that they represent different aspects:

  • Lord Naritsugu is the sadistic villain of the piece, who tortures and kills for pleasure and with impunity (since he's the shogun's brother). Not coincidentally, he's also the movie's advocate for the samurai way of life, explicitly justifying his random violence as necessary to maintain order. He expresses nostalgia for the "age of war" (presumably the Sengoku period, a popular setting for samurai movies), and vows to bring it back.
  • Hanbei is Naritsugu's lieutenant, and a model samurai: he sees Naritsugu's evil for what it is, but is nevertheless completely loyal. His adherence to the bushido code applies in combat as well, where he's shown to play by the rules. Hanbei's role is to show how a flawed system can lead good men astray.
  • Shinzaemon is the hero, the leader of the team of assassins, and a former classmate of Hanbei. The clear difference between him and Hanbei is that Shinzaemon is willing to go outside the system when moral principles demand it. Early in the film he is reluctant to carry out the assassination plot, until he hears testimony of Naritsugu's atrocities. Like Hanbei, his attitude is reflected in his combat tactics: he instructs his team that there are no rules in a fight to the death.

The end of the movie emphasizes each of these aspects further. Spoilers below:

Shinzaemon defeats Hanbei in their duel by kicking mud in his face; Hanbei's devotion to the samurai rules blinds him (literally) and is his downfall. Shinzaemon then kills Naritsugu, but not before allowing the villain to deliver a fatal wound. At a metaphorical level, this is because Shinzaemon is himself a samurai, and thus part of the same corrupt system. The only two characters who are allowed to survive are the ones who have rejected the samurai life: Shinzaemon's nephew Shinrokuro, and the hunter Koyata.

This is because Naritsugu's death is connected with the end of the samurai order itself, a connection which is reinforced by the title cards that appear just before the credits roll, describing the arrival of the Meiji Restoration. Miike depicts the last years of the feudal era as the death of an evil and violent tyrant, a clear rejection of any romantic or nostalgic view of this period of Japanese history.

Tags: Movies

I appreciate the review --- I've been contemplating seeing it, actually.

Posted by: Tim Elling | August 1, 2011 3:50 PM
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