13 Assassins (2010)
★★★★ / ★★★★
The era of the samurai was about to end and an unknown member of the government recruited assassins to kill Lord Naritsugu Matsudaira (Gorô Inagaki) while on his annual journey to his village. The leader of the assassins, Shinzaemon (Kôji Yakusho), gathered twelve others, finest in their craft, who would be willing to put their lives on the line to battle the lord’s expected seventy guards. However, Naritsugu’s right-hand samurai, Hanbei (Masachika Ichimura), after coming across a roadblock, suspected foul play and ordered more protection. The bloodbath turned out to be thirteen against well over two hundred men. Based on the screenplay by Kaneo Ikegami and Daisuke Tengan, “Jûsan-nin no shikaku,” was expertly divided into two parts–opposite in pacing and tone yet the extremes complemented each other. The first half involved the gathering of the brave samurais. Each had something personal at stake. The flashbacks were interesting because we learned about each assassin and Lord Naritsugu’s cruelty to his countrymen. The theme of the leader’s thirst for power and entertainment through violence began to take shape. With a young face and a proud stature, he was like a child that loved to station his toy cars into head-on collision. Only in this case, his playground was the entire country and his disposable toys were his people. The set-up was black-and-white: the tyrant needed to die. The second half contained breathtaking action scenes. It gave us wonderful examples of how cinematography could enhance an action picture. Notice that shaky camerawork was at a minimum. Unlike American action movies, it didn’t need to shake the camera relentlessly to make us feel like we were in the middle of chaos. It relied on the sounds of swords bouncing off each other, screams of agony due to severed limbs, and wooden structures collapsing on themselves. Yet, despite the intense images, there was a sense of poetry in the way the action sequences unfolded. It didn’t glorify violence. In fact, as the body count began to pile up, there was a sadness in the fatigue of the samurais, the reluctance of the guards to attack their enemies, and the writhing bodies’ last gasp of air. A stream once filled with clear water was now blood red. “13 Assassins,” directed by Takashi Miike, was a creative and sensitive meditation of what it meant to fight not only for honor but also for what was right. The climactic one-on-one battle between Hanbei and Shinzaemon, who trained together when they were young, had gravity because they were about to become remnants of the new era. The former stuck to tradition while the other wasn’t afraid to step outside of his title to fight for what he deemed was right. The action and drama effortlessly fell into place and it allowed us to think and be entertained. Long after hundreds of men fell silent, their battle cries reverberated in my eardrums.