|You don't count flaming, explosive bulls as extreme, right?|
13 Assassins starts out with a scene of utter manliness. A man sits down and commits seppuku (AKA harakiri) all by his lonesome. That might not sound especially bad-ass, but the basic act has a samurai giving himself a mortal wound by slicing his belly open --- since this was an honorable death, an attendant would cut off the samurai's head before he could start screaming "Oww...! What the hell was I thinking?!?" and thus maintain his dignity (NOTE: that may or may not be a highly inaccurate summary of seppuku). So a dude killing himself without the benefit of a sympathetic beheading is pretty tough. Why did this guy do such a thing? Out of protest. You see, Lord Matsudaira Naritsugu (Gorô Inagaki) is the son of the last Shogun and the brother of the current one; nepotism being what it is, Naritsugu has a position of great power and is essentially untouchable. He takes advantage of that freedom to rape, murder, and butcher people left and right, usually out of boredom. Seppuku guy was protesting the imminent promotion of Naritsugu to the second-most powerful position in Japan.
|The new position? Douche Lord|
|The correct answer is "hire thirteen guys"|
|Good guys wear black|
I will be blunt. 13 Assassins surprised me. I was expecting over-the-top violence, blood mist spraying in the air and a healthy dose of severed limbs. That doesn't really happen. Sure, there is some violence and a good amount of fake blood, but I was expecting to flinch occasionally or maybe rewind a particular scene to take in the ridiculousness one more time. Instead, 13 Assassins tells a very macho tale of honor and doing the greater good, without exploiting the shocking gore that super-sharp swords can create.
That's not to say that 13 Assassins skimps on the action. The sword fights are not amazing, but they are definitely plentiful.
|Above: Shinzaemon vs. three extras, Part XVIII|
- A master swordsman stands at the end of an alley with his apprentice behind him. Thirty or forty bad guys enter the alley and the master asks his apprentice to "Kill the ones that get past me" with the nonchalance of someone carrying laundry asking you to pick up any socks that fall on the floor.
- After the assassins make their initial attack, Shinzaemon announces "Only 130 left!"
|Dual wielding? Skyrim is awesome!|
Director Takashi Miike took a premise that could have easily fitted his established talents of crafting crazy-violent, weird-ass movies and played it straight for a change. The results are far more interesting than I would have imagined; he shot a beautiful movie with an engaging story that made sense. Except for that dude from the woods, who I assume was supposed to be a Japanese godling or an elf or a fairy or something like that; he's not the important part of the movie, so having just one bit that crinkled my brow was a huge step up for Miike in the storytelling department. Oh, and for the record, yes, I realize how odd it is to think of 13 Assassins as a relatively nonviolent film, considering that 200+ samurai characters die in the movie; the difference between this movie's violence and other Miike movies is similar to the difference between war movie violence and horror movie kills.
The acting was pretty good all around, but there are a lot of characters and very few have time to shine. I thought Kôji Yakusho was pretty good as the leader of the assassins. I liked the friendly and deadly rivalry between his character and Masachika Ichimura's role as lead protector of Lord Naritsugu. Both actors internalized a lot of their emotions and gave some layered performances.
|Samurai chess is serious|
It's always nice to stumble across a movie that is willing to surprise you, and that is what I got from 13 Assassins. I appreciated the fighting, enjoyed the story, and was pumped up by the unrelentingly bad-ass characters. While I do enjoy foreign films, I have had difficulty making sense of foreign action films in the past, but this story was easily understood. If Miike had indulged his graphic sensibilities a little more and shown some super-cool deaths, this would move up in my book from "good" to "awesome." Still, if you're looking for a movie with brass balls and are tired of the homo-eroticism of 300, this is a nice pick.