Some People Should Die: 13 Assassins (2011)

Posted by Charles Reece, May 8, 2011 10:05pm | Post a Comment

We want to glorify war -- the only cure for the world -- militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of the anarchists, the beautiful ideas which kill, and contempt for woman.
-- Filippo T. Marinetti, from The Futurist Manifesto

Takashi Miike
's 13 Assassins is a remake of Eiichi Kodo's 1963 jidaigeki of the same name, and bears the same relation to real people and events that The Exorcist does. I haven't seen the earlier version, but in addition to Miike's style, the previous work of scenarist Daisuke Tengan (e.g., Audition for Miike and Dr. Akagi for Shôhei Imamura, the writer's father) suggests that the film probably has its own unique qualities to offer. The story is simple, perfectly rendered and universal. At the tail end of the Edo period, when peace more or less prevailed and the samurai didn't have much to do, Lord Naritsugu, the despotic younger brother of the Shogun, is about to be promoted to a higher position that sets a path to his eventual rule. Not wishing to undermine the shogunate and bring chaos to the land by openly challenging the selection of Naritsugu, Sir Doi brings examples of the Lord's malevolent nature to the samurai Shinzaemon to convince him of the necessity of assassination.

Depicting evil as erotic brutality is where Miike really shines: An emaciated woman, missing all of her limbs after being kept as Naritsugu's play thing, explains what happened to her family by writing with a pen in her mouth -- for he removed her tongue, too. Miike shows her writhing and humming in pain while she cries blood and mucus just to get two words down, "total massacre." The other example is told in flashback by a man who's lost his son and daughter-in-law due to the Lord beheading the former in front of the latter just after he's raped her, which results in her slitting her own throat in anguish. Shinzaemon is convinced, trembling with the possibility of facing a noble death that he thought would be denied him. With eleven other cohorts (the titular thirteenth will join them on the road), he plans their suicide mission to stop Naritsugu from returning home to assume his new position.

Unlike most current swordfighting films, Miike uses the classic roughhousing style of the samurai genre where sword play is just part of a general mêlée that also includes clumsily falling over obstacles and through walls, throwing dirt in another's face and picking up the nearest blunt object to bash in his head when the blade isn't available. In what's surely the most memorable scene, the director turns his camera sideways to horizontally fill the widescreen with a samurai making his last kill by bludgeoning an opponent with a rock. There's also clever use of livestock that I won't ruin for you.

Standing in Shinzaemon's way is his old sparring partner and friend, Hanbei, who's sworn to protect Lord Naritsugu, no matter his tyranny, thereby upholding the samurai code (the samurai's purpose is to serve his lord, Hanbei keeps repeating). Naritsugu is something like the embodiment of futurism as a villain. He sees cruelty and violence as aesthetic, performs them for their own sake, which, as Walter Benjamin once argued, is the core of fascism ("'let art flourish -- and the world pass away' says fascism [...] such is the aestheticizing of politics [...]" in the second version of his "The Work of Art in the Age of Technological Reproducibility"). In a similar manner to how this violent aesthetic gave ideological support to the Italian fascists, Naritsugu promises to provide the samurai with purpose by beginning a new era of bloodshed. Thus, Shinzaemon is willingly bringing an end to his way of life with the assassination, which is possible only after he strikes down Hanbei, the defender of the samurai tradition. This should be an easily recognizable theme to any fan of the Western, which often deals with the ironic necessity of violence to repress violence in order to establish a new era of civilization (cf., most notably, John Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance).