Artsy Ultra-violence: 13 Assassins Movie Review

It seems the main complaint voiced from cinema-goers about 13 Assassins is “how could 13 guys manage to fight around 200 guys?”  Phrased that way, it does sound an awful lot like The Charge of the Light Brigade (the poem is even quoted briefly in the film).  I’ve seen loads of samurai films, and even I thought the premise was over the top when I first saw the previews.  In samurai films–and a lot of people don’t get this–it’s not about the violence, and despite what you might have heard, most classic samurai films have very little actual fighting (try watching The 7 Samurai and you’ll see what I mean).  Samurai films are about weighing out the violence–making each fight significant.  The strange thing is, the more I thought of it, the less ridiculous it seemed.  For instance, one of my favorite classic samurai films is Samurai Rebellion, with Toshiro Mifune as a devoted Samurai who decides he must confront his feudal lord.  That movie involves Toshiro taking on about twenty other samurai, some of whom even have guns.  So if there’s thirteen guys like Toshiro, why couldn’t they go up against a giant horde?

When I got over my skepticism, I watched the movie and realized it was actually a fitting homage to the spirit of the samurai films I love, like those made by Kurosawa and Kobayashi.  It’s not a pop-culture pastiche of samurai films, like the Kill Bill films were.  It’s a controlled, well-orchestrated movie.

screen shot from 13 Assassins

One other misgiving about the preview: my first impression was that 13 Assassins was going to be slow until they engage in the giant fight at the end.  To my surprise, I found the movie had the opposite effect.  For, me the first half, with only short outbursts of violence, was more engaging and exciting than the enormous battle that goes on for a long time.  It was during the battle, of all times, that I sometimes felt ennui, which probably says something about American film goers being desensitized to violence.

It’s unfortunate that many people will pass up on this movie because of apprehensions about the violence.  The middle act of the film involves the heroes trekking through the overgrowths of forests that go through the mountains of Japan.  Western people tend not to realize just how the geography of Japan is.  All of the urban, highly tecnological cityscapes we usually associate with Japan exist mostly along the coasts, while a large part of the country consists of sparsely inhabited mountains.  This movie, when it shows the valleys and mountains, shows a Japan that really looks like it’s from several hundred years ago.  Watching it, you wouldn’t think there were skyscrapers just beyond the peaks.  I was reminded of Terence Malick‘s work with The New World, where he showcases nature as something ambivalent to time.  I’d recommend to squeamish viewers to rent 13 Assassins, fast forward through some of the initial acts of villainy, then watch the scenes of the journey, and shut it off when the confrontation happens.

The violence in the movie is definitely not for the faint of heart.  You’ve probably seen movies like The Magnificent Seven or even dreck like Commando or Total Recall where a lot of people are killed in a single action scene.  Unlike those movies, 13 Assassins doesn’t utilize a sleek or flashy style that neutralizes the mortality content of the violence, rather, it immerses you in the violence.  Even action-movie buffs will be shaken by this movie.  A ton of realistic details are thrown in, for instance, in many scenes involving swords cutting into some poor schmuck, you can hear sound effects of the blade hitting cartilege.  Also, in some of the starkest scenes, the heroes will jab a sword into someone and then have a hard time wrenching it back out.  In just about every samurai film I’ve seen, the blades go in and out with surgical precisio1

13 Assassins is in second run theaters now, so this is your chance to see it at a reduced price.  I’m planning to rent it whenever it comes out on DVD because I heard the original Japanese version was a whole 14 minutes longer, and I’m hoping the DVD will include whatever was excised.  There are a few scenes in 13 Assassins where you can tell footage was cut out for American viewers.

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