13 Assassins (Jûsan-nin no shikaku), 2010.
Directed by Takashi Miike.
Starring Koji Yakusho, Takayuki Yamada and Yuseke Iseya.
Feudal Japan is in a time of peace, but the sadistic Lord Naritsugu is next in line for the Shogun’s rule. 12 samurai, and one scavenger, are under orders to assassinate Naritsugu to avoid such a political catastrophe.
You know what’s missing from cinema these days? Really good villains. I don’t mean, like, a ‘good’ villain as in a bad-guy who sees the errors of his ways (confusing word order: noted); I mean some detestable sonofabitch that you can’t wait to get their comeuppance. Films that are blessed with such antagonists can build their whole plot around their eventual, humiliating (hopefully bloody) demise. 13 Assassins does so masterfully.
There’s a cheap trick in storytelling called ‘kicking the puppy’. It’s where you have your bad guy commit a bad deed that is separate from his relationship with the hero. These acts should be indefensible and, because they do not concern the ‘good guy’ in any way, will show the villain as an objectively evil person. He isn’t just driven by an accidental wrong the protagonist committed (see: Iron Man 2), but is wicked to the core. So you show a guy kicking a puppy onscreen, or something in a similarly provocative range, and it’s established in your viewer’s mind that he is a villain. It whets the appetite for retribution.
13 Assassins, being a Takeshi Miike film, takes its sweet, graphic time over this. Lord Naritsugu (Goro Inagaki) is the Shogun’s sadistic half-brother, and next in line to the de facto throne of 18th century Feudal Japan. He kicks a whole lotta puppies. In the film’s opening 20 minutes, Naritsugu has already been shown raping a clan leader’s daughter-in-law, then beheading (after three failed attempts, like some demented lumberjack) her husband, and using a tied-up peasant family (who seems to be comprised entirely of women and children, the most sympathetic of puppies) as bow-and-arrow target practice in his garden. Most horrifically, though, is the aftermath of one of his hideous pastimes. A young lady sits weeping in a cloak; her eyes appear black and the tears they leak are a dark crimson. She had been found dumped by a road near Naritsugu’s palace, apparently after he’d grown bored of her. To demonstrate the need for action, one of the Shogun’s advisers, Sir Doi (Mikijiro Hira), is showing an old samurai, Shinzaemon (Koji Yakusho), this example of Lord Naritsugu wickedness. He asks someone to take off the girl’s cloak. It reveals a writhing, limbless torso. “What happened to her family?”, Shinzaemon asks, appalled, but the girl can only speak in cries because Naritsugu had taken her tongue as well. She writes her answer instead on a scroll laid out on the floor. Her red tears stain parts of the paper. An aide holds up the Japanese characters to Sir Dou and Shinzaemon. The white subtitles below read: “Total Massacre”.
The whole sequence is like punting a puppy across a football pitch, and its augmented by those onscreen sharing in the disgust. This is a time of peace in Japan. The Shogun has managed the various clans’ relationships well, and the days of the Samurai are nearing an end. Sir Doi secretly recruits Shinzaemon (“The Shinzaemon?”, everybody seems to ask when he introduces himself, hinting at a glorious past) to assassinate Naritsugu. Shinzaemon’s sword hasn’t been in battle for years. Times of peace aren’t that great for samurai. He dreams of an honourable death, as do the 12 other samurai he recruits for the task. This may be their last opportunity for one.
When you meet a few of the other samurai, you can tell they’re just there for the stuffing, like the red-shirts on a Star Trek away team. You have your loyal one, your joker one, one doing it for the money - it’s all very cute, but they’re never given any time to develop, not like in Seven Samurai. But it’s never really about the 13 assassins. It’s all about Naritsugu getting what he deserves.
Like in Seven Samurai, the 13 men fortify a town. It’s on Naritsugu’s route home, and it is where they will strike. This is what 13 Assassins builds up to. The opening 30 minutes details Naritsugu and the politics of trying to be rid of him. The following 50 minutes show the 13 men being brought together and fortifying the town. It’s paced calmly and with restraint. There’s only a brief flash of swords in the first hour and 20 minutes. Then Naritsugu’s troop arrive at the town. Shinzaemon had prepared to face 70 men. Naritsugu has brought 200. The odds get longer and the body count higher.
What follows is an epic and exhausting 40-minute battle sequence. The cinema frequently gasped at the set pieces, and the chap next to me even punched his fist and said “Yeah!” under his breath at one point. It’s exciting, but because of its immense length, it becomes something of an endurance test. As the assassins tire, so do you. You’ve battled hard with them, and it shows how desensitising and wearing battles really are. And then comes the final showdown. Naritsugu vs Shinzaemon. You’d be hard pressed to find a pay-off sweeter.
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