The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
13 Assassins

Written by John Bleasdale.

Photo from the article The connection between Westerns and Easterns has been long established. As well as the adaptations of the Kurosawa classics Seven Samurai (1954) to The Magnificent Seven (1960), and of Yojimbo (1961) to Fistful of Dollars (1964), there has also been the more direct generic cross-fertilization of Edward Zwick’s Last Samurai (2003), which was basically Dances with Wolves (1990) meets the TV series Shogun (1980). Likewise, the Western has returned the favour, having an impact on Asian directors and producing films such Tsui Hark’s Once Upon a Time in China trilogy (1991-3) and Takashi Miike’s Sukiyaki Western Django (2007), which features a bit part by Quentin Tarantino, as well as, more recently, the sublimely entertaining The Good, the Bad, the Weird (2008).

The similarities between cowboy and samurai films are apparent in their rural settings, the underlying idea of wandering warriors guided by an unspoken code, the collision of history and myth, and the constant possibility for violence. Existing as they both do in a kind of adult Neverland, they often predict their own demise. Many classic Westerns are chronicles of the end of the West, be it a little boy crying “Shane... Shane…!”; John Wayne’s lonely walk guillotined by the closing door of domestic civilisation in The Searchers (1956), or the definitive laying of the railway tracks in Once Upon a Time in the West (1968). The sun sets in the west but the sunset is also ‘the West’.

Samurai films often hold within themselves a similar sense of fatality. The aging warriors of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, or the brilliant melancholy of Twilight Samurai (2002) - these films characters’ recognise to some extent that the game is up. Things cannot go on. And none more so than Takashi Miike’s 13 Assassins, a remake of a black-and-white film directed by Eiichi Kudo in 1963. The film is set in a time of peace, the Edo period, which ends shortly after the conclusion of the film, and as such is already to some extent post-samurai. The initial Hara-kiri which sets the scene could stand as emblematic for the whole film’s the narrative arc. This is a story of a warrior class deliberately willing itself out of existence. Like the swansong of the superannuated cowboys that makes up The Wild Bunch (1969), the film is a protracted act of suicide on the part of a group of fighters who recognise their own redundancy and, in their wisdom, see that the world would be better off without them and their kind.

In trying, paradoxically, to execute violence and to off carnage, the film also represents a deconstruction of the genre. An implicit criticism of the audience is present throughout the film to a more and more visible degree in the figure of the evil Lord Naritsugu. Naritsugu’s villainy is apparent from the get go: he rapes women, murders at will, torturing and dismembering a woman, who becomes an additional emotional motivation for Shinzaemon. “Total Massacre”, the limbless woman writes, holding the pen in her mouth in a scene reminiscent of Shakespeare’s bloodiest revenge tragedy, Titus Andronicus. Her initial writing is a description of what happens to her family, but in the course of the film it becomes an incitement to more violence.

As if all this wasn’t enough, Naritsugu also fires arrows at a family that have been tied up, including a little boy. The nihilistic sadism is deplorable in itself, but Takashi also allows us a sly insight into Naritsugu’s ineptness. When murdering the husband of a raped woman, it takes a good three chops to get the head off: “Monkeys’ necks are tough,” he unconvincingly complains. Likewise, he shoots his arrows from a can’t-miss range, finally standing over the prone body of one victim to shoot her dead. This is the bully whose bravado is based in no small part on his small private army, basically holding down all the victims he wishes to torment. He has the icy calm of the voyeur who more than any other character treats the events of the film as a film - a spectacle to be enjoyed, with an occasional nervous smirk breaking his glacial indifference. In this he is similar to the fat gamer glimpsed and reviled in Gamer (2009), an action film which also disconcertingly inscribes its audience in the least attractive role, while simultaneously giving that audience more or less exactly what they want.

In heroically attempting to maintain the peace despite their evident enjoyment of the violence, the samurais resemble James Cagney’s gangster, Rocky Sullivan, in Angels With Dirty Faces (1938), undoing a lifetime’s worth of violence by betraying his code and ridding himself of his own glamour. Lord Naritsugu is the depraved audience, whose bloodlust demands the continuation of violence at whatever cost. He revels in the violence, to which he is mostly a spectator, consciously choosing to stride into the traps laid for him. “Take the foolish path,” he tells his chief bodyguard, Hanbei, early on. “It’s more exciting.” With the battle in full-swing he reveals his political ambition to bring back the days of war for the hell of it.

The samurais are all seeking some kind of redemption, or escape. Trained for war, a peaceful world sees them stagnant and unemployed. Shinzaemon wiles away the time fishing, his nephew whoring and gambling. On hearing of the suicide mission, the samurais are as much attracted by the suicide as they are by the mission itself. And yet the source of their death wish is not a nihilistic despairing of society. One older samurai needs money to pay for his wife’s tomb; Shinzaemon’s nephew has a wife he will (perhaps) return to. Shinzaemon himself is moved by the misery Naritsugu has caused and is, finally, angered by his lack of respect. Naritsugu’s final realisation of the painful nature of violence - “it hurts, it hurts", he screams - is revealing of the thinness of Naritsugu's universe. He doesn’t get it. Again, he is like an audience member who thrills to the ultra-violence on screen and yet would likely weep and shake if delivered of a slap to the face (as, indeed, would I).

However, the samurais themselves don’t get off scot-free. The criticism levelled at them comes from the scruffy tramp, and possibly minor deity, Yusuke Koyata, who they find tied up in a ball and hung from a tree. A broadly comic character with some of the film’s best lines, Koyata is similar in his role to Toshiro Mifune’s flea-bitten Ronin in The Seven Samurai, but without the angst and the inferiority complex. Koyata revels in the violence and chaos of the final battle, constantly complaining of the arrogance of the samurais as he dispatches them with logs and rocks. His way of fighting is basic and earthy by comparison with the artistry of the swordplay, but ultimately all the samurais end up wading in the blood and braining each other with rocks or whatever comes to hand. Koyata also appears to be someone who, unlike most of the samurai, has not given up on the world. He is bound to it by his passion for a woman we glimpse in flashback. His dismissal of the warrior code and his evident lust for life are a counterpoint to the world-weary commitment of Shinzaemon.

Of course, there is a cake and here we are, eating it. The violence of the film, it has to be said, is hugely enjoyable and rife with moments of genuine magnificence. The choreography of the fighting and the geography of the shots is so clear that, despite the number of intercut battles going on, we are rarely confused. That said, as well as delivering the goods, Takashi’s film - as one of the most thoughtful action films for some time - also delivers a bill. As we reach the end, exhausted and bloody, we might hope to identify with Shinzaemon, the heroic, competent warrior, while knowing deep down that we are actually closer to Naritsugu, the inept, parasitic creep. Our cheering of Shinzaemon’s crowd-pleasing victory (and Naritsugu’s excremental end befits his ignoble life) is tinged with discomfort. Shinzaemon’s triumph is inevitably self-destructive. Having murdered the audience, the actor must also bow out.

This Alternate Take was published on May 04, 2011.

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