These days when you have a problem with your boss you make a complaint to HR, maybe make a couple of snarky Facebook posts, or complain to your friends about it over happy hour. But they didn’t have Facebook during the Edo Period so to make a complaint about Lord Naritsugu one of his subordinates commits ritual suicide alongside a list of grievances that he’s got. This is the first shot of Thirteen Assassins, which I watched this weekend (books are a little sparse at the moment since I’m two books behind the Song of Ice and Fire novels with the fifth one on the way.)
Anyway, this Naritsugu is the half-brother of the Shogun and this whole suicide business is a huge scandal, it makes everyone look bad, but the Shogun has already decided to promote Naritsugu to a close advisor position, so he orders that everyone cover up the whole affair, and he suggests to Naritsugu that no reprisals be taken against the subordinate’s family. Instead of obeying this advice Naritsugu has all the subordinate’s relatives hog-tied and uses them for archery targets in his living room, thereby totally justifying whatever it was that the subordinate said about him. Apparently the actor who plays Naritsugu is some sort of pop star, and I’ve got to say he does a great job at portraying this guy as just a 100% horrible prick with no redeeming characteristics whatsoever. He’s kind of like Caligula or some other famously entitled nobleman, he’s a bored aristocrat and he can do whatever he wants, and what he wants includes rape, murder, amputating limbs, and sometimes all of those in various orders.
The Shogun’s advisors are secretly horrified that Naritsugu is getting away with these latest outrages (and this is before they even find out about the whole target practice thing), but officially they have to abide by the decision to cover up all the incidents and promote him. Since they all agree that having Naritsugu in any greater position of authority would be a disaster they unofficially decide to have him killed. This is all in the first ten minutes.
I’d seen a couple of Takashi Miike’s other movies and had heard this one was good, and it is. It’s a lot unlike some of his other work which has more shock value and ultra-violence. This one uses some kind of different film stock with added graininess and washed-out colors. There is a very retro feel to it, it could be any one of many samurai movies made in the 1960s, but it is a good story with great action and furthermore great pacing. And Miike’s touch shows through in a couple of genuinely shocking scenes like the bit with the poor female peasant whose father led a revolt due to Naritsugu’s tax policy.
The peasant is shown to a samurai named Shinzaemon to induce him to take on the commission to complete the assassination. He probably doesn’t need much prompting, though, since he is a warrior born into an age of peace and he hates it. Apparently, Shinzaemon spends his time fishing on the shore because there’s no one to fight, and when asked to take on this project he remarks that fortune has smiled on him by allowing him to finally have a battle to die in. That’s sort of a strange cultural aspect, I guess, since if I was hiring a guy to do an assassination I’d want the job to get done rather than to have the guy get excited at the prospect of dying while doing it, but he’s clearly the right man for this task so I’ll just go with it.
Then Shinzaemon assembles his team, which is nicely covered in broad strokes since something like this is in every movie ever made about similar subject matter. He recruits his nephew, who is drinking too much and trying to start fights in a gambling den. He calls on some old friends who bring along some people they know. Everyone gets a couple of character moments. There’s one guy who hears that they’re going to go on some insane suicide mission and is willing to go along if they give him some money to pay off his debts, put a tombstone over his wife’s grave, and have a little fun before they leave. At first you think that Shinzaemon may be affronted by this, but then they all laugh and say that it “shows spirit” and his services are cheap at the price. They end up with twelve guys. Eventually they pick up a 13th in the woods, who is channeling Toshiro Mifune from Seven Samurai and may not actually be a human being. He thinks fighting is crazy fun, though.
Like any period piece this can be ruined by bringing too much modern sensibility into it. The nobles give Shinzaemon a big trunk of money to use to accomplish this task, so he could have hired a bunch of mercenaries. Not to mention the fact that Naritsugu isn’t exactly keeping a low profile and is surrounded by armed men, so Shinzaemon could have just killed him in Edo or bribed one of his men to do it. For that matter, one of Naritsugu’s enemies has him at gunpoint on a river crossing out in the middle of nowhere at one point and could have him shot. But there’s honor at stake, no one wants the stigma of killing Naritsugu in a socially unacceptable way, even though no one actually likes him and they are probably all secretly hoping someone gets him or he gets snakebit or dies of typhoid or something. In fact it’s kind of surprising that the Shogun hasn’t done something about him, since there’s not one other character in the movie who has anything positive at all to say about Naritsugu, he doesn’t appear to have any other allies and everyone either hates him for something he’s done or fears him for something he will inevitably do. This is toward the end of the Shogunate anyway so my guess is they’re making a point about the ruling elite displaying some poor judgment here. It's hard to say what advice exactly he's going to bring to the Shogun.
Naritsugu’s chief bodyguard is Hanbei, who trained at the same dojo as Shinzaemon. Hanbei’s an interesting character and really drives the plot more than anyone. He took the job with Naritsugu because he was being competitive with Shinzaemon’s own position in the Shogunate. I guess that word about Naritsugu hadn’t gotten around yet, because Hanbei isn’t into all the unbridled horribleness that goes on. For his part, Naritsugu treats Hanbei with amused contempt, especially when he’s trying to persuade Naritsugu not to commit some atrocity, always without success. I’m not entirely sure what the movie thinks about him. It’s nice that he is trying to uphold the honor of the old samurai code but he’s doing it all for someone who isn’t worthy and in fact thinks Hanbei is ridiculous. He talks a lot about his honor but it’s really about pride, because he isn’t as respected as Shinzaemon is, and for all his talk Naritsugu couldn’t get away with all his activities if Hanbei wasn’t there to bail him out. Hanbei could quit, or commit suicide, or honestly just look the other way for five minutes and someone would probably take care of the problem. Really, Hanbei could have avoided all this unpleasantness by taking his job a little less seriously.
Most of the first two thirds of the movie spends its time setting up the situation and developing the characters, then focusing on the battle of wits between Shinzaemon and Hanbei. Hanbei correctly figures that his lord has gone too far for the Shogun’s advisors and that some sort of reprisal is coming, then when he hears about Shinzaemon hanging around he’s terrified, because Shinzaemon fights dirty and always wins. So Hanbei’s subordinates send four goons to spy on the conspiracy and one of the assassins kills all of them in about two seconds. Intelligence isn’t really the issue here, though, since Shinzaemon basically tells Hanbei he’s going to assassinate Naritsugu on the way back to their clan lands. Hanbei tries a couple of tricks like hiring a group of mercenaries to attack the assassins (which drives them off the road for a while) and suggesting to Naritsugu that they forgo an expected social call to avoid a couple of good ambush spots. When Naritsugu refuses, Hanbei takes the sensible precaution of bringing along about 250 men.
Besides the clash with the four goons in Edo and a brief skirmish with the mercenaries, there’s not really a lot of action here. Instead there’s a lot of reflective, quiet moments and people standing around being awesome. This is a movie that’s not afraid to take its time, another nice classic touch.
Then the last third of this movie is one of the best action climaxes I’ve ever seen. Shinzaemon and his guys have fortified a little peasant village and filled it with obstacles and booby traps. They’re expecting to be facing 70 bodyguards, but when they hear that there are over 200 they just shrug and go with it. Since they’re all expecting to die anyway, what the hell. As the thirteen assassins face down all of Naritsugu’s henchmen, there are a lot of long, static camera shots. American action directors, take note: 1) No shakycam, so you can actually tell which of the 13 assassins is performing an action, and since they are dressed differently than the henchmen and have their own unique fighting styles it’s possible to tell where everyone is; 2) use of establishing shots which let you know who is where, and long shots which clearly demonstrate them moving to different places; and 3) appropriately using timing so that we stay focused on each scene long enough to know what is happening there, then cutting to a different one. There are no obvious FX shots, at least in the sense that no one is flying or kicking people through walls, although I doubt that the producers really allowed Miike to set any bulls on fire. Bulls are expensive. Also, a lot of the shots do show that there are a lot of guys just sort of standing around waiting their turn to get slashed, impaled, arrowed, blown up, etc. But that’s a genre convention in itself, there’s nothing to be done about that. Nonetheless, the filmmakers keep the action going steady for 30 or 40 straight minutes while being entirely clear and coherent.
Even in the midst of all this great fighting Naritsugu manages to steal the show. He’s so ridiculously blasé about the whole situation that it is hilarious. His guys are getting cut down left and right and he thinks it is neat, that they don’t have any other purpose but to amuse him. He even says he’s going to start a few wars with his new authority so he can watch more cool battles like this one. They also resist the temptation to make Naritsugu into an ultimate boss fight, although he's more or less totally oblivious to the notion that he could get killed out there. He’s an aristocrat who has an entourage of over 200 bodyguards, of course he’s not an awesome fighter, that’s why he needs so much protection. He’s fine at killing women and children, but a warrior he is not. Anyway he manages to be a complete jerk throughout this, walking around in a battlefield with a spotless white outfit on, refusing to take the advice of people to seek cover, having his men walk into obvious traps ahead of him, and so forth. He even thanks Shinzaemon for such an exciting day. What a great villain for a movie like this.
After the fight it of course wraps up pretty quickly but makes powerful, quick points about the nature of a warrior's life and duty. This movie probably isn’t for everyone but it’s excellent for its genre and blends great action with a patient sensibility.