May 5, 2011

SFIFF54: 13 Assassins Journeys into the Mind of a Maniac

8:29 AM

It slices! It dices! 13 Assassins is a post-millennium samurai film and, like any such film worth its weight in celluloid (or bandwidth, since it's currently available on demand from your cable company), it has plenty of severed limbs and splatters of blood. But what sets iconic director Takashi Miike's take apart from the rest (and the looming shadow of Kurusawa) is a really mean villain.

Seriously, this guy is one hugely demented asshole.

More about him later. First, the pretty straight-forward plot: Set in 19th Century Japan, peace reigns and the country's samurai are either rusty or inexperienced in real combat. One character even comments that "Swords are only good for cutting radishes." Of course there's one guy who can't be happy with all this peace and happiness, the aforementioned villain Lord Naritsugu (Gorô Inagaki). His whole life is a one-man campaign to make enemies and bring back an era of war. Unfortunately, as the Shogun's adopted brother, no one is in a position to challenge him.
Seeing disaster in the country's future, one of the shogun's advisors secretly hires bad-ass old samurai Shinzaemon (Kôji Yakusho) to assassinate the rogue lord. Shinzaemon finds 12 other warriors to join him and sets a trap for Lord Naritsugu and his 200-guard traveling party for a Seven Samurai-like grand finale.

There are a lot of cool things going on here, like the strategic chess match between Shinzaemon and Naritsugu's right-hand man Hanbei and the principled battle between protecting the greater good and protecting one's master. But what makes this film memorable is the unflinching treachery of Naritsugu. Free to do as he pleases, all his actions are based on one-upping the heinousness of his previous act. A guest at a wealthy man's home, Naritsugu decides to rape his hosts daughter-in-law then murder her husband, hacking away at his neck until the head chops off. Later we find out that he murdered a woman's entire family, then turned her into his personal plaything. I'll avoid the spoiler here, but let's just say that "cruel" doesn't do him justice. As viewers, we're clearly supposed to hate this guy, but deep down you have to appreciate that level of evil.

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