Thursday, 28 February 2013

13 Assassins (2010)

A depraved warlord in feudal Japan has taken to causing wanton mayhem through indulgence of his own, selfish desires. Those around him are reticent to take action due to his relationship with the current shogun. Fed up, a man named Shinzaemon is hired to assemble a team of assassins and mortally depose the warlord from his office.

13 Assassins (十三人の刺客) is a 2010 film by director Takashi Miike, based on the original 1963 version by Eiichi Kudo. Like most films set in this time period, referred to as jidai-geki (period dramas) or chambara (sword-fighting movies), 13 Assassins maintains many of the motifs that represented samurai while struggling to incorporate them into our modern-day sensibilities.

One theme of the film is the oft-touted samurai ethic of "dying for your master." Hanbei, the warlord's bodyguard, is well aware of how cruel his master is. Still, he puts his life on the line time and time again to uphold his pride as a samurai. Another theme is the concept of bushido (the way of the warrior). The thirteen assassins face overwhelming odds, but they are prepared to put their lives on the line and refuse to rely on trickery to defeat their enemies.

Both of these themes are challenged in the film. The idea of the shogun's retainers hiring assassins flies in the face of their loyalty, and many of them are forced to commit ritual suicide to atone for their betrayals. Even as the assassins nobly clash blade-to-blade with their enemies, they do in fact rely on a large number of sneak attacks such as bombs, arrows, and traps. These subversions of the accepted social order make the film more relatable to a modern audience that may not emphasize with the idea of total loyalty to an evil man, or sacrificing superior position in favor of preserving honor. Perhaps it is a commentary on the changing aesthetics of Japanese culture.

Finally, I'd like to mention how pleased I was to see Kōji Yakusho in the lead role as Shinzaemon. I've enjoyed his previous works, such as Shall We Dance? and Cure. He is a well-known Japanese actor and it is evident from his library of works that he has not been type-cast. His portrayal of the emotionally conflicted leader of the assassins helped make what would normally have been an average jidai-geki piece into something more.

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