Music Box Theatre Goes to the Movies:  13 Assassins

by Meghan Monday, May 30th, 2011 11:40am

Meghan Buckner reviews ’13 Assassins’, now playing at the Music Box.

When it comes to Japan, people think of a few things. Anime, sushi, ramen, ninja, samurai, and Takashi Miike. Okay, so maybe most people don’t think “Takashi Miike”, but for those of you out there who know the name, you probably also know he has a new movie out called* ’13 Assassins’*. Anyone who has seen a Miike film knows what to expect for the most part: a ton of violence, bloodshed, disturbing gore, distressing storylines, shocking images and bizarre characters. ’13 Assassins’ has only two of these, making it a bit more accessible than some of his previous work.

‘13 Assassins’ is a story of a tyrant in feudal Japan, and the people who want to prevent him from rising in the Shogunate ranks any further. As we are shown in the opening title sequence, “the era of the samurai is waning” and Japan is in the middle of several years of peace. Lord Naritsugu (the tyrant) seems to be bored of such peace and is causing trouble throughout the land. Lord Doi, an advisor to the Shogun, discreetly hires on a well-known samurai by the name of Shizaemon Shimida to bring down Naritsugu. Shizaemon recruits 11 other samurai, goes after the tyrant and picks up a bandit on the way.

Do not be turned off by the large amount of characters – most of them we only see once in a while, and it’s fairly easy to keep track. There is violence, but the most disturbing parts go unseen – which is appreciated by the writer of this entry. Miike does not revel in the gore and bloodshed in this movie; he revels in the samurai legend and history. The act of harakiri (Japanese ritual of suicide due to dishonor) plays a decent sized role, as does the notion of what makes a samurai a samurai, a topic debated between Shizaemon’s rival and Naritsugu’s guard, Hanbei. These topics are presented in a way to make the audience ask themselves what being a samurai means – to die for your master, or to defend the people? We are given two characters who represent both sides and while Miike certainly wants you to pick one side over the other, the viewer is still free to ask themselves the aforementioned question.

The violence that is shown is still brutal (it IS a samurai film and people are being cut with swords after all), but is done in a more realistic, less stylized and exaggerated way that is common to Miike films (I’m looking at you, Ichi the Killer.) This is not to say it isn’t at all stylized or exaggerated – it is, just not to the usual extent. The fight scenes are excellent, in particular the final one. Battles are either quick or drawn out in order to emphasize the skill of the samurai currently duking it out, and the sound design for the clanging of swords is a wonderful touch. Keep an eye out for any scene involving Hirayama, the guy is pretty awesome to watch in action.

So then, is ’13 Assassins’ a flick worth checking out? I say yes, especially if you normally avoid Miike as a director. This is not Ichi the Killer or Visitor Q or Audition or even Dead or Alive. It is a samurai movie made in modern times that appeals to fans of Miike, fans of samurai, fans of Japanese cinema, and fans of period pieces. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s a good introduction to Miike in general, but it’s certainly a decent example of what he can do beyond gorefests, horror, and offbeat comedy. While there are some shocking or questionable scenes, most of the film is straight-up samurai fun. Check it out!

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