13 ASSASSINS: The Dharma of War

13 Assassins – 2010 – dir. Takashi Miike

13 Assassins is visually stimulating, philosophically compelling, and dripping with gore, but just in the right places.  Takashi Miike’s prolific career in the Japanese film industry has given him the freedom to do his fair share of genre bending, but this time he’s kept it contained.  While all the elements of the samurai epic are there, Miike’s gruesome touches are found only in the grisly efforts of the evil heir to the Akashi Clan, Naritsugu.  An easy indication of good versus evil is presented early on, yet in the execution of the story is where the real eloquence lies.

While the politics of the picture may be difficult to follow, the audience knows that the shogun’s half-brother, Naritsugu, must never come to power. Scenes of violence, primarily at the hand of Naritsugu, are intermittent within the first half of the film.  An act of harakiri to start the movie off is the hook, but instead of getting to see the grisly act, as one would expect with Miike at the helm, we’re only allotted the sound of it.  Despite its lack of action in the beginning, the film is all the more beautiful to look at.  The colors, sets, and sounds create a perpetual mosaic of feudal Japan, so that by the time we meet our hero and political assassin, samurai Shinzaemon, we’re already full immersed in the story.

Shinzaemon waits patiently on a perch for the fish to take his bait. The imagery turns the philosophical implications towards the audience, who must be patient for the reward of battle. An age of peace represents both conflict and victory for samurai, for their duty of living by the sword is, as our protagonist comes to reveal, ultimately a burden.  When evidence of Naritsugu’s cruelty is shown to our hero, he smiles at the opportunity to die for a noble cause.  This sparks the gathering of the team, the best of men from other provinces, including his nephew, and his former student, who idly practices his swordsmanship in an empty dojo.

Tensions rise as the twelve assassins finally decide on a vantage point.  Striking Naritsugu during transit is their only way to even the playing field, even if they’re still powerfully outnumbered.  Shinzaomon picks up a stray man, Kiga, who barters with them for food, in return for guiding them through the woods.  Oddly enough, the man is fully capable of feeding himself. Ironically, as a man without noble cause nor reason to fight, he offers up some of the more philosophical banter to the Samurai, who themselves live by strict code.  Their preparations begin in the small village of Ochiai, though again, Miike chooses to avoid showing the audience exactly what tricks the assassins have conjured up.  The pay-off is all too grand to describe, but the manipulation of the set in favor of the samurai is a marvel in it of itself, pushing the boundaries of logic, but a sheer pleasure to watch.  When the enemy arrives, more than double the amount of men that Shinzaemon expects, we the audience are rewarded for our patience.  An almost forty-five minute battle ensues, one that involves impossible odds, dynamite, falling buildings and literally showers of blood in a garden of swords.  Takashi Miike saves the best for last.

Though good and evil play the predominant role in 13 Assassins’ story, Miike is subtle in his craft, asking particular questions of the era within the subtext of the film.  A warriors’ place in peacetime, political cruelty and power at the hands of the privileged, and the cause of battle in the first place, are all discussed in the little dialogue that arrives in the second half of the film.  After countless deaths, Kiga, the only unrestrained warrior of the woods calls out “Your samurai brawls are crazy fun!” The unofficial fighter offers up the clearest of all explanations before the political banter falls back on the assassin and his target.  What Takashi Miike offers is a choice. In the end, 13 Assassins is both a philosophical debate of power, war and honor, and an outrageously crafted battle of impossible odds and samurai fighting.  Perhaps Miike bent the genres once more.

Andrea O Written by: