13 Assassins

52 Movies: Week 14 

13 Assassins

13 Assassins is a masterpiece of the samurai genre, quite possibly the samurai movie to end all samurai movies.

13 Assassins is set in the middle of the 19th century as the era of the shoguns and samurai begins to wane.  Veteran samurai Shinzaemon is given a covert order to assassinate the shogun’s brother, the sadistic and immoral Lord Naritsugu, before he can ascend to a position of greater authority.  Naritsugu is well-protected so Shinzaemon sets about putting together a team for what will most likely be a suicide mission.  This gathering of the heroes is a trope that movie buffs should know well from movies such as The Magnificent Seven and The Dirty Dozen but, of course, it has its origins in Kurosawa’s classic Seven Samurai.

13 Assassins is a remake of a 1963 film of the same name.  I can’t speak to the original but Takashi Miike’s remake definitely pays homage to Seven Samurai.  Apart from the gathering of heroes, we also have the fortifying of the mountain village, the desperate fight against impossible odds and even the unlikely rural clown turned hero, echoing Seven Samurai’s Kikuchiyo.

Seven Samurai is a masterpiece and one of the most influential movies of all time but it is also a product of its time in that the standards of the era did not allow for graphic depictions of violence. The contrast to 13 Assassins in this regard is striking.  13 Assassins takes its time illustrating the politics at play and, critically, developing its characters.  When the fighting begins in earnest, however, it is stunning and relentless.  (I am reminded of Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, another movie which pushed the boundaries of violence in its genre.)

The choreography and cinematography of this final battle is fantastic.  The action is clear and easy to follow.   Because the characters have all been so well developed by this point, we are able to follow individual skirmishes as they play out and understand the strengths of the heroes, their motivations and their relationships with one another.  While the battle may resemble typical action movie fare at its onset, it becomes increasingly brutal as it progresses.

It’s hard to make a samurai movie that does not romanticize death to some extent but, unlike The Hunger Games or movies of an earlier era, 13 Assassins does not sanitize death.  As the carnage becomes increasingly graphic, the effect on the viewer is somewhat like the climax of Clint Eastwood’s deconstruction of the western genre in Unforgiven. The end of the Samurai era is drawing near and, standing amid the ruins and bloodstained streets, one character surely reflects that this may not be a bad thing.

I love Seven Samurai and while few movies can approach it in terms of importance and influence, I will say that 13 Assassins is my new favorite samurai  film.  I give 13 Assassins 5 stars out of 5 and highly recommend it to fans of the genre.

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