13 Assassins

Heads will roll.

If you’ve worked in a corporate environment any time in the last 25-30 years, then it’s likely you’ve heard that expression. When a corporation makes a huge error in a product line or a miscalculation on the public relations front resulting in major corporate losses on the P&L, or even massive loss of face to the corporate image, this is when people would lose their heads. In the aftermath of such an event, the folks working in these outfits do what is commonly called – hunker down.

That is keeping your head out of view so it won’t get lopped off in what is euphemistically called corporate downsizing. If you are not summarily fired, depending on your rank, you may be spared that public ignominy by being offered the opportunity to resign.

That’s today. Go back about 150 or 160 years to the Edo period in Japan, and things worked in the same way with some subtle variations. Instead of being offered an opportunity to resign, you probably knew that your usefulness was at an end – and it was better to take your own life through the ritual of seppuku or hara-kiri. That meant cutting open your own abdomen in such a way that your guts literally fell out of your body.

Once that was done, someone would spare you the stress of watching your own blood pour out of your body until you were dead, by cutting off your head in a single stroke of a sword.

Hence the term – heads will roll came into play.

In Takashi Miike’s 2010 film called 13 Assassins, a certain Lord Naritsugu (above) is a very bad man. Briefly – he’s the son of the former Shogun, and he’s brother to the current Shogun, which means that in his home territory he would be untouchable; so well protected that it would be impossible to get at him.

Why do they want to assassinate him? To begin with, he’s a rapist; and it only gets worse from there. He cut off a woman’s limbs – then her tongue. Why? Because he could. He visited a town, and raped a woman who had been chosen to serve his food. When her husband objected, Naritsugu not only killed him – but then hacked his body to pieces in front of the wife.

In another town, he’d select a family. They would be bound up in such a way that they couldn’t fight back or run away. He then used each of them as targets for his bow and arrow practice.

Besides the atrocities that he committed on a near daily basis, he also would prefer if the country was in a state of war, rather than heading toward peace. Yes, he’s considered a very bad man – and he’d have to go.

Only the Shogun’s advisors and high council members couldn’t just say it to the Shogun. That would be a very bad breach of manners, then protocol, not to mention, it would be more than likely considered a treasonous offense. One advisor, very close to the powerful shogun, was so ashamed by Lord Naritsugu’s conduct – that he took his own life via the ritual suicide described above. In fact, it was that event that opened the film.

Shinzaemon Shimada on the right is asked to take the mission

Once the plan was agreed upon, next came the formation of the team. It wasn’t as if they could put an ad in the paper. It had to be done with a series of one-on-one interviews, and then only through trusted associates.

Are you ready to die?

Eventually they got to 13 men, who basically had to swear that they were ready to lay down their lives, if necessary, to make sure that the evil Naritsugu would be taken down.

Naritsugu would, under normal circumstances, travel with a retinue of 70 men. But a single rider could always be dispatched to a home base to return with more forces.

There’s your set-up. A suicide mission if there ever was one. You could bet your last dollar or at that time the Japanese money was called ryu’s, that they would have to use trickery, deception, and subterfuge and even then, they’d probably not be able to get Naritsugu on a killing ground.

The film progresses slowly. In the first half we are shown the abusive Naritsugu in action, and we are sitting in on the planning, recruiting, and strategy meetings. Much of it is dark and slow.

But you couldn’t go to war at night in those days. Any kind of trap, or ambush, or booby trap had to happen in the light of day, when the large Naritsugu column was on the move.

The 13 assassins were led by Shinzaemon Shimada played with a flair by Koji Yakusho. Naritsusgu’s role was performed by Goro Inagaki, who is generally cast in romantic, or sympathetic roles. He has the looks of a leading man, so this was a departure for him.

While you may not know most of the all Japanese cast, or you might not be well versed about Samurai codes and ethics, there’s no doubt that if you appreciate a good sword fight movie, also known as slice and dice, then you’ll revel in this one.

The strategies employed by Shimada and his men, are clever in their concept, and well executed on film by Director Takashi Miike.

As such, the second half of the movie moves at a pace vastly accelerated as compared to the first half. If you are thinking that this film will play in similar fashion to Kurasawa’s Seven Samurai you’d be more right than wrong. On the other hand, if you go in expecting something like the Tom Cruise vehicle, The Last Samurai, you’d definitely be
be wrong.

There’s humor, there’s clever wit that strides side by side with the savagery and death. This isn’t a film for you if you abhor violence. But mainly, what you’ll notice and appreciate most is that this isn’t a film with comic book violence. Miike is in no rush, and that means his shot composition, editing, and pacing are all done so well that you come away thinking how stylish and successful this film is.

This film isn’t for everyone. There’s no doubt that it didn’t set any records at the box office. But never assume that a good box office guarantees you will like a film. Just as a poor box office showing is no guarantee that the film is substandard.

Next time, make a different choice. Give a film with guns and car chases a pass for this one. Roll the dice on Takashi Miike’s 13 Assassins. You’ll still have your head after watching it which is more than we say about some of the bad guys in this film. Enjoy the trailer  below:

Next Review: The Salt of Life