13 Assassins is perhaps the best kind of reality check for feudal battle enthusiasts who have seen too many films in which goodness and strength of character win out in of themselves. This film is written so as to amplify the intrinsic relationship between conflict and resources, whether those resources are as trivial as swords or maps, or as poignant as the foregone lives of samurai warriors, or the will of nature itself. It redresses battle as a meeting of two objectives, a courting of chance that has to be both taken seriously and lightly at the same time. This makes for a compellingly tight story that despite a shaky start is able to resurrect in its characters a lost kind of chivalry and noble masculinity.
In mid 19th century feudal Japan, the Shogunate system is nearing its historical end and the ways of the samurai are beginning to fade due to the decades-long achievement of civil peace. The equilibriums is threatened by the unfortunate political ascent of the shogun’s illegitimate brother Lord Naritsugu (Gorô Inagaki). Naritsugu is a poor leader and perpetrates acts of hedonistic cruelty just for his own amusement. Despairing at the fate of his Japan, a senior advisor to the Shogun secretly issues orders to the valiant veteran samurai Shinzaemon (Kôji Yakusho) to assemble a hit squad of elite samurai to take out Naritsugu and in doing so preserve precious peace. After preparations, training and bribery, Shinzaemon’s 13 assassins must pit themselves against 200 of the Shogun’s men in what is a rare peacetime suicide mission.
13 Assassins opens with an energetically disturbing Hara-Kiri sequence and the brutal portrait of one of Naritsugu’s young victims. These scenes unfortunately misrepresent the rest of the film. A pair of sensitive old dears walked out of the cinema I was in. I wish they hadn’t left, the film’s remainder never alarmed at that pitch again. Having said that, this is not exactly a date movie. Next, 13 Assassins continues with a surprisingly long and complex political exposition. Much is made of the ‘case’ against the enemy and of the various conflicts of interest among the main players of the assassination plot. This extended start has the potential to confuse at points, as every detail of the government hierarchy is elucidated. It has to be said that once the battle starts, this long preparation almost matches the lifelong wait of the warriors themselves, enriching the battle scenes with a heightened desperation and volatility. In a time when men really did fight to the death, the Samurai especially had to follow the dictum and “pick their battles”.
We don’t get to know the 13 assassins quite as well as their enemy, as the mission itself becomes their identity. You might indeed find yourself simply doing a headcount to remember how many are left or where they are. Battle scenes are notorious for disorienting choreography and fast-cut camerawork and it has to be said 13 Assassins doesn’t trip on those stumbling blocks. The action is coherent, played out in short, vibrant chapters with varying sets, weapons and costumed participants. It’s more colourful this way: A Samurai salad, if you will.
The character of Naritsugu is constructed in a fascinatingly modern way. Often battle epics set in the past rush to explain how the enemy is pure evil, or had been embittered by past misfortune. Naritsugu is neither. Rather, he displays the maniacal behaviour of a detached psychopath attempting to add meaning and excitement to a life he can’t quite grasp the preciousness of. This makes for an incredible struggle, not between the forces of good and evil, but between reason and chaos; sanity and lunacy.
Accordingly, it is strategy that characterises 13 Assassins. Similar to the brilliant Red Cliff, it is not the violence itself that we enjoy, but the sheer genius of the methods used to exact it. There are incredible booby traps, double bluffs, gauntlets, explosions and ingenious weaponry. The combat takes place in a fortified boarding compound, which turns into a perilous maze of shifting walls, dead ends and rooftop escapes. This is a more sophisticated use of the ‘doll house’ melee technique employed in Kung Fu Hustle. Lovers of classic Kung-Fu will no doubt relish the compartmentalised fight choreography and nigh-silly manner with which enemy foot soldiers running screaming toward inevitable doom.
Perhaps the best thing about 13 Assassins is its delightfully dark sense of humour. It makes masterly use of that slapstick, farcical breed of comedy that characterises older martial arts films. The jokes are brilliantly droll and usually operate at the expense of unwilling fools. It’s clear that there is a level at which 13 Assassins is self-aware, really making fun at the expense of martial arts clichés. Some favourite chestnuts appear; the wise old man who belly laughs at everything; the idiotic henchman who runs and screams as he charges; and the no-good nephew playing chasey with a room full of kimonoed concubines.
At its core, 13 Assassins is quite a philosophical contemplation of the components that allow one side to win over another. This is surprising, because in most movies you end up winning if you’re a ‘goodie’. I don’t know anybody who wouldn’t bet on a cowboy in a white Stetson over the moustached guy in a black ten-gallon number. This film takes more than good vs. evil into account: you win a battle first with good men, second with good strategy, then thirdly, and cruelly, with good luck.
This film is considerably pared back from the high-wire poetics of blockbusters like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and despite its violence, takes itself far less seriously. In notable lack are the classical samurai articulated suits of armour, (thanks for nothing, Tom Cruise. You too Ninja Turtles III), melodramatic and ill-fated romantic affairs (what, no Ziyi Zhang?), and of course there’s little underdog-drama about this one (all hail, Bruce Lei). That’s not to say 13 Assassins isn’t visually spectacular or written with a sense of the grandiose. This is a magnificent portrait of good men behaving like heroes and accomplishing great feats using their skills, rather than prophecy, magic or the hand of fate. There’s a lot to like here, and this is no typical martial arts glitterball.
Most introspectively, 13 Assassins also reflects on what it means to be a samurai: is it unquestioning obedience to your master or laying down your life for the greater peace? As Shinzaemon (a name I’m hoping Pokemon will pick up) argues this point with opponent general and old friend Hanbei (Masachika Ichimura), one slowly realises that more often than not it is cinema, not history that decides which honour is most appropriate for an audience’s palate. 13 Assassins is the rare film that begs the question, which is nobler: the vigilante or the loyalist?