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Laramie Movie Scope:
13 Assassins (Jûsan-nin no shikaku)

Traditional, bloody samurai battle film

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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November 16, 2011 -- I had heard of this film before I saw it, but was a little surprised to find it a fairly traditional, and well made, Japanese samurai movie, along the lines of “Seven Samurai.” This is a remake of a 1963 black and white film of the same name, “13 Assassins,” which tells a story, loosely based on a true incident, of a small band of heroic samurai warriors who battle a much larger force of armed men for the sake of social justice.

The film takes place in 1844, near the end of the Shogun and samurai period in Japan. A very evil man, Lord Naritsugu Matsudaira (played by Gorô Inagaki) is about to ascend to power in Japan, where he can cause a lot of suffering. He rapes and kills with impunity because he is of noble birth. He must be killed for the good of the people. Because of law and custom, the assassination cannot be openly sanctioned. It must be done in secret by a small number of trusted men. Government official Sir Doi (Mikijiro Hira) is assigned to deal with the problem of Naritsugu. He arranges for a noble samurai warrior, Shinzaemon Shimada (Kôji Yakusho), to assassinate Naritsugu. Shinzaemon is a romantic. He wants a chance to die a hero's death for a noble cause. This cause is tailor made for him.

Shinzaemon gathers a small force of trusted samurai friends and relatives and other volunteers to help overcome the large number of guards who will be traveling with Naritsugu. The most fearsome of these guards is a noble samurai warrior, Hanbei Kitou (Masachika Ichimura). He is an old friend of Shinzaemon, who confronts him when he learns of the assassination plot. The two men are unable to persuade each other to avoid the upcoming conflict. Shinzaemon and his 12 followers plot an ambush in a small village along Naritsugu's route back home. They bribe village officials and arrange for Naritsugu's path along another route to be blocked by a sympathetic government official who has personally suffered from atrocities committed by Naritsugu.

As planned, Naritsugu walks into the trap set by the assassins, but Hanbei has gathered many more soldiers than anticipated. Instead of fighting past 70 guards to get to Naritsugu, the 13 warriors must battle through 200 guards, including the fearsome Hanbei himself. This extended bloody battle lasts more than half and hour of the film's running time of a little more than two hours, and it isn't the only fight scene in the movie. The battle includes many ingenious traps that the assassins have set for the guards. The battle goes pretty much as you would expect it to go, but there are a couple of little surprises at the end.

Japanese samurai films are the equivalent of the American western. In fact, there have been successful mixtures of the two genres. “The Magnificent Seven” was a western remake of “Seven Samurai.” Carrying this analogy a bit farther, one can compare “13 Assassins” to the western “Ride the High Country” and other tales about the end of the Old West. This film takes place at a time when few samurai still live, when gunpowder, explosives and a changing culture threaten to end the reign of the sword and the honor of the samurai code. Several samurai in the movie choose to commit suicide by seppuku or other means, rather than live in a world where the once mighty and honored samurai are becoming relics of the past. This feeling of doom, this fatalism and the sense of traditions passing away is similar to the literary theme of ubi sunt. The most familiar example of this is found in “The Lord of the Rings” books and films and in “Beowulf.”

The film is elegantly staged with top-notch production values, impressive cinematography, great stunt work, and some seamless digital effects, including a decapitation (there are at least four decapitations in the film, all by swords). The acting is also solid with those typical strong, gritty performances you expect in this type of film. There is even a bit of humor in the film in the form of a man who may not be a human being at all, but a kind of forest spirit, Kiga Koyata (Yûsuke Iseya) who thinks that samurai are overrated and too self-important. To him, all of life seems to be a game and he finds combat amusing. As with many samurai films, unfamiliarity with some of the history, traditions, laws and customs of Japan may make this hard to understand for some outsiders. This film rates a B+. That being said, I've seen enough of these samurai films to be in a position to say this one could be a considered a classic of the genre. Time will tell. This film rates a B+.

Click here for links to places to buy or rent this movie in digital formats, or to buy the soundtrack, posters, books, even used videos, games, electronics and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

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Copyright © 2011 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at my last name at lariat dot org. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

(If you e-mail me with a question about this or any other movie or review, please mention the name of the movie you are asking the question about, otherwise I may have no way of knowing which film you are referring to)