13 Assassins and Honor

The 13 AssassinsI’ve not really been able to indulge my movie addiction much since the birth of my daughters.  Being a parent certainly changes your priorities, and living many hours away from your closest relative limits your babysitting opportunities.  The price of babysitters these days is mindboggling, not to mention drinks and treats at the theater!  This year for my birthday I asked that all tribute be rendered in the form of iTunes gift cards so that I could make use of the ultimate frequent flier gadget, the iPad 2, on the many flights I take per month to catch up on all of the movies I’ve missed these last seven years.  The first one on my list was 13 Assassins, a real masterpiece directed by Takashi Miike.  I’ve always enjoyed Samurai movies, like most red-blooded, idealistic men, and this one is a real gem, lots of action and an interesting treatise on honor, a concept often derided in today’s culture.

The movie certainly reflects a lot of the themes mined in other great Samurai films recalling a lot from Akira Kurosawa‘s 7 Samurai.  The violence, while at times over the top as to be expected from the director of Ichi the Killer, really underlines a few of the movie’s key themes around honor and justice.  The film opens with a rather subdued seppuku by Miike’s standards that acts as a clarion call for justice to the Shogun and his chief minister, Sir Doi.  The movie starts a little slow, but man does it ever accelerate!  Shinzaemon, the leader of the group of assassins sent out to kill the utterly evil Lord Naritsugu, is a great character, a true professional who longs to not just fade away into oblivion but to do something important.  Naritsugu reminds me of other chaotic bad guys like The Joker from The Dark Knight, a real sadistic nihilist, his downfall is very satisfying to say the least.

The movie is very well acted, the photography is beautiful and the choreography is quite good, but at times it does seem like the actors aren’t all that comfortable with their weapons.  The staging of the battle is incredible and manages to keep you on the edge for a long, long time, and it had several surprises that really does set it apart.  I haven’t seen the original movie directed by Eiichi Kudo from the 1960s, it’d be interesting to compare the two.  I do have a feeling that should we ever see a new Quentin Tarantino film he’ll crib a shot or two from 13 Assassins much in the way he did from Zatoichi on the Road from about the same time as the original 13 Assassins.  Watch Zatoichi on the Road and you’ll see a number of scenes and shots that have been regurgitated in more popular movies over the last 20 years.

There are a few compelling character contrasts in the movie, the central one being between Shinzaemon and Naritsugu, but more subtle contrasts are set up between Shinzaemon and Sir Doi.  Naritsugu has spent his life essentially dishonoring himself and the entire feudal system by killing and raping those beneath him.  He talks of adhering to the code of honor by requiring those around him to do so, e.g. killing the families of his enemies because that is how they should serve their husbands and fathers.  A very twisted view of honor to say the least.  His luck at being born the son of the Shogun sets him as one without peer by his logic.  His duty as one with power is to use that power to further subdue those around him.  This stands in stark contrast to Shinzaemon who continually looks to use the power that he’s been granted or has earned to do what is right.  Shinzaemon would prefer to never fight someone beneath him, instead looking for an equal, or even someone better than himself to match up against.  He does not have the fancy armor, attendants, and trappings that Naritsugu’s birth has afforded him, but his skill and the position he has earned wins him 12 lives dedicated to his cause that he can spend as he must to achieve his goal.  Shinzaemon has experienced war, killing and true honor, something that Naritsugu at one point wistfully laments not having.

A more interesting contrast in my opinion is between Shinzaemon and Sir Doi.  Sir Doi realizes that something must be done to stop Lord Naritsugu and as one of the Shogun’s chief advisors is in a position to do something about it.  His sense of honor prohibits him from acting directly to deal with it, it would bring shame on the Shogun if he were to speak against Naritsugu and demand the justice that he knows is required.  He has spent several days in torment over the decision, trying to determine what is right, and eventually summons Shinzaemon.  Shinzaemon immediately sees what must be done, Naritsugu must be killed and to be the one to do this would bring Shinzaemon the highest honor, solving a problem for the people of his country.  Shinzaemon thinks only of the citizens, Sir Doi is fixated on the Shogun.  There are many parallels for this contrast in life, business, politics, etc.

There is a very timely article in The Philosophers’ Magazine about Kwame Anthony Appiah’s new book The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen related to some of these questions of honor.  Appiah looks at several outmoded honor based systems and how they were finally replaced:  Chinese footbinding; duelling; and the Atlantic slave trade.  He concludes that the absurdity of the outmoded tradition in and of itself isn’t reason enough for change, that something within the community must shift to force it to move past that behavior.  The Chinese realized that footbinding harmed their national honor and that led to the death of the tradition, the aristocrats saw that duelling was no longer confined to the gentlemanly ranks and had become polluted and the practice was abandoned.  The Shogunate and the role of the Samurai were abandoned not long after the incident portrayed in the 13 Assassins, perhaps it was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

In summary, 13 Assassins is an engaging movie, the visuals, fights and pacing are great, you’ll have a lot of fun watching it, and it’ll leave you with several things to think about.  Definitely worth the price of a babysitter and a wheelbarrow of popcorn or an iTunes rental.  I’d give it three and a half sliderules on a five sliderule scale.

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