Home > Uncategorized > 13 Assassins – Orion’s Take

13 Assassins – Orion’s Take

A man, pale faced yet resolute, careful opens his robe, takes a small knife in his hand, methodically feels his stomach, and cuts.  At this point we see only his face as it contorts in agony, yet he continues the cut across and, with effort straining the muscles in his neck, pulls the knife out.  But his job is not yet finished.  We hear his ragged breathing as he finds the middle of the cut, reinserts the blade, and this time cuts upward.  Finally, he collapses forward in a pool of blood, as the shot pans to the pristine, white letter in front of him.

This is by far the most shockingly violent film I have seen.  Saw, which made me physically ill when I watched it for the first (and only) time, is the only film to come close—and Saw utilized all sorts of cheap tricks to make the violence more shocking than it already was.  Saw also glorified violence for violence’s sake: this film on the other hand, is a direct refutation of the violence we have come to celebrate.  Lord Matsudaira Naritsugu is the son of the former Shogun, and half-brother to the current one.  Nobody can touch him—nobody even dares check his violent and sexual tendencies.  Doi Toshitsura, a senior government official, realizes that if Lord Naritsugu ascends to a higher political position, lots of people will die.  He therefore tacitly informs Shimada Shinzaemon, an aging and trusted Shogunate samurai, that Lord Naritsugu must die.  Shimada collects a team of 13 samurai (really more like 12 samurai plus 1 random forest guy that beats wild bears to death) and together plot the death of one of the most powerful figures in Japan.

To understand what I mean about the denunciation of violence in this film, you have to look at the run time: this movie is two hours long.  About half of that is one continuous action scene.  That sure as hell doesn’t sound like a denunciation of violence—and yet that is exactly the picture that emerges: you can’t enjoy the action scene.  It is so messy, yet so visually appealing, so brutal, yet so captivating, that you feel really damn guilty watching the thing.  The whole time Lord Naritsugu is just watching with this gleam in his eye—you know he’s enjoying it, and suddenly you feel a sense of revulsion.  It’s such a waste.  All these people dying.  You want to enjoy the swordsmanship of the characters, the brutal efficiency of their swords, but the beauty fades away the longer you watch.  The characters get tired.  They get bloody.  The swords, once swinging smoothly, now are flailed around.  One character loses his sword, so he picks up a rock and beats a man to death with it—that simply isn’t pretty.

As I mentioned already, however, it’s Lord Naritsugu that really embodies everything wrong with this violence that we claim to love, we consumers who dine on WWII movies and the occasional flick like The Expendables.  As the battle rages on, as literal heaps of bodies pile around him, he asks with a faint smile if this is what war is like.  As his astonished samurai stammer out a yes, his face twists into an expression of rapt attention and he says “Let’s bring back the age of war.”

The other theme here, less relevant, perhaps, to a Western audience, is that of the conflicting ideals of Bushido—justice for the people?  Or duty to one’s lord?  To go as far as to commit seppuku: probably very few people in America understand that compulsion, the constraints of a society in which honor is valued above life.  But there is a sense of waste in this: the ways in which people that otherwise might be allies kill each other for something almost senseless—duty as more than life, more even than any divinity or deity that might exist—something truly frightening.

There are some problems with the film—sometimes one wonders if the action is a little too polished for the message it is carrying, or if the filmmaker wants to force feed the audience the message—at the end there is a little epilogue in which we are rather smugly told that the Shogunate ended some 23 years later, as if the violence depicted in the film would never come again with the Shoguns out of power.  Also, the character of Kiga Koyata (apparently he’s a demon or something) is interesting but very very very shallow, even in comparison to the other throw-away characters.  Despite all of that, this film still manages to make you think: and any action movie that can do that is worth all the praises I can give it.

4.5/5 Waffles

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