' ' Cinema Romantico: 13 Assassins

Monday, February 06, 2012

13 Assassins

"How fate smiles on me. As a samurai in this era of peace I have been wishing for a noble death." - Shinzaemon Shimada, 13 Assassins

Oh, those wacky samurai! Living life all so they can die! It was Mel Gibson's version of William Wallace who claimed that "every man dies, not every man really lives." But for the samurai, I would venture, they haven't really lived unless they've died, which would seem to counteract The Muppets' stance that "Life Is A Happy Song." Can it really be a happy song if your foremost aim is to go out in a blaze of wartime glory? (Preschool Teacher: "What do you want to be when you grow up?" Young Samurai: "A dead samurai!")

Consider Shinzaemon Shimada (Koji Yakusho), for example, a once great samurai who is glimsped for the first time on a picturesque spot of water, fishing atop a ladder. You know fishing, right? Peaceful. But Shimada doesn't much go for the peace and quiet. Dying in a vicious wrestling match with a particularly large carp isn't gonna bring any glory, after all. And this is why he's ecstatic (if nobly restrained) when he is approached by Sir Doi (Mikijiro Hira) about leading a plot to assassinate dastardly Lord Naritsugu.

In fact, dastardly isn't the right word. He rapes, he kills, he beheads total innocents, but because he is the Shogun's son he is above the law and in line potentially for a position with more power likely only to further and expand his cruelty. And so, secretly the Chinese government conspires to take his life.

Shimada gathers 11 assassins, difficult to find in an age where there are few good samurai left, and pitches a plot to ambush Naritsugu in the Chinese countryside. They strike out, taking a shortcut through the forest and meet up with young Koyata (Yusuke Iseya), who guides them and worms his way into their assassination party despite his weariness with what he perceives as the samurai's stuffy, arrogant way. The now 13 assassins make preparations and fortify their position only to face, as they must, a dire twist. As opposed to an opposing army of 70, as expected, they are set to square off with (gulp) 200 men hell bent on guarding their Lord at any cost. But hey, the assassins are in this for a noble death anyway, so to battle they shall go.

And they do. The battle sequence is a solid 45 minutes of screen time and features bows and arrows and swords and explosions and much more. Imagine "Kill Bill's" House of Blue Leaves sequence but with less pulpiness and more seriousness. It's rip-roaring, no doubt, and has a certain resonance beyond the many casual deaths, and while I respect that they kept the warriors land-locked as opposed to magically flying to and fro, well, it didn't quite make me "levitate". Maybe I'm just an idiot American, but I much preferred Angelina Jolie leaping onto semi trucks in "Salt" or the Moscow car chase in "The Bourne Supremacy."

For all the stop-the-presses! aspects of this sequence it actually belies the film's true intent - namely, a brutal, yet strangely tender, elegy to the ways of the samurai. Naritsugu turns out to be the lilliest of the lily-livered and while an assassination may result in political goodwill, the emotional toll turns out to be of an unexpected variety. Shimada's closing lines suggest fate has not smiled on him precisely the way he intended.


Castor said...

Yea that ending action scene is pretty epic in terms of length but I felt some of the samurais just came and went with little emotional impact which is too bad. Nice review Nick!

Nick Prigge said...

Very true. Too many of them to adequately explore, I suppose. And if this was a straight action picture I wouldn't mind that - in fact, I'd encourage it. But since it clearly wants to resonate on a deeper level that does make that aspect of it a bit more problematic.