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Michael Jones

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13 Assassins: Review

Posted: 05/31/11 01:23 PM ET

I saw 13 Assassins two weeks ago in London. It's playing at the Music Box.

If you have ever faked grunting laconic Japanese phrases while sipping sake at a sushi bar, you must see this movie. If you've ever imagined the feel of a Hattori Hanzo blade in your hand, you must see this movie. If you remember Toshiro Mifune cutting his way out of his traveling box with a sword to face two dozen brigands expecting to intercept a weak provincial governor only to be confronted by the most feared swordsman in Japan, you must see this movie. If the phrase "the most feared swordsman in Japan" sends a thrill up your leg, you must see this movie.

The director, Takashi Miike, famous in Japan for cult films of violence and sex, pays attention to the classic forms of samurai movies: older warriors of fearsome tradecraft imparting wisdom to younger acolytes; the assembling of a team of heroes to live and die with honor; superb costuming; footwork during sword fights rivaling Roger Federer on clay; a lower caste disreputable wannabe becoming one with the true samurai spirit.

13 Assassins follows classical samurai movie symmetry as well: the first half the assembling of a group of samurai to do battle, each with his own story; the second half the battle.

The third half, drinks at Cullen's, reenacting sword thrusts and parries using rolled up Tribunes.

There is little subtlety in samurai movies. Bad guys are really bad. They are awful. Even Mother Theresa, given the chance, would disembowel one with a clean mayoko giri. They travel and fight in packs. Battle scenes are done on a grand scale. In 13 Assassins, the proud and the few take on two hundred retainers, swordsmen, archers, and pike men. They convert an entire village into an abattoir. The arch villain, whose death is the Holy Grail of the movie, makes Muammar Gaddafi seem like Pee Wee Herman rather than an insane brute. The lord's vile crimes are shown to us in graphic sickening detail. By the third reel several in the audience were clamoring to join the thirteen. I, realizing that it was only a movie, did shift my katana to an upright position, between the seats, just in case I was needed.

Of course, samurai movies display great delicacy and beauty as well, think of the fight scene in the snow in Kill Bill. They are filled with stunning visuals whether filmed in black and white or color. 13 Assassins opens with a tranquil scene of men fishing, motionless on chairs high above water, a striking peaceful image before honor compels one of the fishermen to act. Or how the evil lord's minions travel through the forest, seen from above, their round flat hats swaying in unison, their costumes perfect.

And, samurai film directors love using close ups for dramatic emphasis. The screen in 13 Assassins is filled with images of mature men, capable of delicacy and violence, their faces seen in candlelight or half hidden in shadow. Miike shows the audience a samurai looking directly at the camera after a decision is made, his face hardening with purpose and resolve. Then a scene of young samurai, waiting to fulfill their destinies, wanting to be given a chance to fight for honor, to be honorable men, to die if they must.

Their young unlined faces, profoundly different than the older wiser samurai, faces still excited by the prospect of battle, uncertain what it all means, but, determined unto death. One face, with the smooth softness of inexperience, taking on a new character, becoming a samurai before our eyes, responsible, committed.

Miike observes all the forms. He expertly choreographs the mixture of delicacy and violence of a sword fight: the loser, not realizing what has happened at first, pausing in disbelief, frozen for a moment on the screen, before collapsing, usually in a cloud of dust or puddled mud.

He lets the camera linger on the front foot of a samurai, delicately seeking a foothold that can be trusted in a fight, then up to the classic positioning of arm and sword as the technique for the thrust is selected and displayed.

He allows no grey in the black and white of moral positions.

American westerns were a major influence on samurai movies and samurai movies became major influences on American westerns. You can tick off the cultural cross seeding while watching the movie. Certainly Clint Eastwood's Man With No Name would fit comfortably as a fourteenth assassin.

There are also threads running through 13 Assassins that will give pause in a post-WWII and 9/11 world too familiar with how the Code of the Bushido was perverted and how perverse the willingness to commit suicide can be. But, it is a thrilling movie. A good introduction to the Southport crowd of a movie tradition worth exploring through Netflix.

Sword of Doom, Yojimbo, The Samurai Trilogy, and the Zatoichi series would be a great start.

While in London, the day after seeing the movie, I went to the Victoria and Albert Museum for the new wonderful exhibit The Cult of Beauty. Walking out, I came upon a side gallery devoted to Japanese culture that included a display of samurai swords and armor. What story could each blade tell, I thought? One sword was notched by some cruel stroke, perhaps done in battle. When, by whom, why?

I leaned in to the glass to look more closely...I would swear, like in Kill Bill, the ancient katana began to hum.