Title: 13 Assassins (2011)
Director: Takashi Miike
A while back I wrote an article called Totalitarian Futures, Big Brother is Watching You! in which I listed a group of subversive films, that is to say, films that speak up against governmental oppression and abuse. These films have many things in common amongst them. For example, films like 1984, Equilibrium, The Island, THX-1138, and Fahrenheit 451 are all about someone from within the system who can’t take it anymore and decides to fight it or escape it. One of the things that distinguishes these films from others is the emergence of a leader, a rebel. This rebel often times comes from within the ranks of the government itself; a government official or a cop as is the case with Equilibrium, a film in which Christian Bale plays a ‘Cleric’; a top ranking government official responsible for eliminating those who resist the system. At one point, this cleric realizes the beauty of art and the pleasures of reading a book and so he decides to defend the people and their right to feel and express themselves as opposed to everyone being lifeless, drone like, the same. These are my favorite kind of subversive films because they show how someone from within can also realize that there is something wrong, and that that someone can take matters into his or her own hands and actually do something about it.
This is the case with 13 Assassins, Takashi Miike's new Samurai film in which a group of 13 Samurais decide to go up against a particularly abusive government official called Lord Naritsugu, a cruel and sadistic man who is well on his way to becoming the next Shogun. How evil is this man? Well, his own Samurais are committing suicide out of hatred towards him. They are so against his way of doing things that they kill themselves at his own door step. Lord Naritsugu does many evil deeds and then kills as many people as he has to in order to cover everything up the vile things he does. The 13 Samurai of this film realize that they cannot let this evil man become the ruler of the land, so they organize an attack to go up against him and his ever growing army. Will they succeed in their assassination attempt? Are 13 Samurai enough to go up against an entire army of more than 200 soldiers?
In some countries human rights don’t mean a thing, especially when the government wants to stomp on its people for whatever reason they might have up their sleeves. Let’s say for example they don’t want people going to college so much, because they want people to remain stupid and controllable. Well, then they send a whole army of armed policemen to the campus to beat the hell out any student they come across with, effectively scaring students from ever wanting to go back to college. Of course the government makes sure they stir up the students revolutionary sensibilities first, so students will revolt and the government will then have an excuse to go in there and stomp the crap out of them. Or let’s say the government is interested in a particular piece of land that they find profitable for tourism purposes, but the land is filled with poor people living in it. What will they do then? Well, they send in more heavily armored cops in there to terrorize the people, then they bring up the prices for utilities like water and light, then the people have no choice but to leave. Then they can build their hotels and condo’s. When the powers that be want something, they will find a way to achieve their purposes. What I always ask myself is, how can these police officers not realize that what they are doing is wrong? That they are being used to abuse the very people they are supposed to be protecting?
This is why I love films like 13 Assassins, because they address the issue of the government official realizing their government isn’t doing what is right. I remember a video of a riot that occurred on the University of where a student is standing in front of a cop, who is heavily armored. The cops were heavily armored, with helmets and bullet proof vests and clubs and pepper spray. The policeman had a blank stare on their faces, looking into nothingness, while the student was trying to connect with the police officers human side. The student couldn’t connect, because their was no one there. The officer was on auto pilot, he wasn’t even listening to the girl. He was ignoring her pleas for humanity; his brain had been washed in more ways than one. Things like that make me so sad, they are not upholding the law they are being used to break it. Governments like these should not exist. And the question inevitably arrizes: who watches the Watchmen? Who makes sure that these governments don’t abuse their people? Shouldn’t their be some sort of world police making sure governments are in line doing what they ought to be doing instead of abusing their people?
This is where the 13 Assassins come in, in Takashi Miike’s wonderfully subversive film. Back in those days, the Samurai served as the government’s personal police force. They were especially trained in the ways of the sword and in the Bushido mentality. They were taught not to show any emotions and to follow the Shogun’s orders without question, no matter what the request might be. But the Samurai’s also lived by a personal code of ethics. They had a deep sense of what was right and what was wrong, which was often times in contras with their Shogun’s orders. This is what happens in 13 Assassins. Though the Samurai work for the Shogun, they realize that one of his officials is pure evil, and needs to be eradicated before he becomes a Shogun himself. And so this film can be divided into two parts: the first half in which the 13 Assassins gather and prepare for their upcoming confrontation and the second half which presents us with the actual confrontation itself. The first half is actually very interesting because we get to know each individual Samurai and their reasons for agreeing to go up against Lord Naritsugu. I loved this part because we get to see these men getting together for the greater good, they tell themselves “let’s see if there are any good Samurai’s left”. They know they are going up against incredible odds, yet they go for it anyways accentuating the common theme in all subversive or rebellious minded films: the willingness to die for what you believe in; the idea that you’d rather die then live as a slave.
Films dealing with rebellion have to be realistic as well. One cannot make a film like this one and make it look as if everything will be fine and dandy if you go up against an evil powerful government. In many movies where a character goes up against the proverbial ‘system’, things don’t usually end up well for the rebel. In many of these types of films, the rebel usually ends up dead. If you want to read more about this subject matter check out a series of articles I wrote a while back during my VIVA LA REVOLUTION! three day event where Neil from The Agitation of the Mind and I celebrated and explored Revolution on film. It was a pretty nifty collaboration, highly recommend checking it out. I think 13 Assassins displayed the idea of revolution realistically, I mean the second half of the movie is a 50 minute long battle sequence where a lot of people die! Takashi Miike really out did himself with this whole sequence. Literally, its slicing and dicing for almost a whole hour! One thing is made clear, going up against a despotic powerful government is not a clean wholesome affair. Lot ’s of blood is spilled, lots of death takes place, and many good people die.
I loved the confrontation between the 13 Samurais and Lord Naritsugu’s army. These Samurai’s display such bravery, cunning and smarts! And the dialog during these sequences really captures the outrage and indignation of the rebel mentality, special attention should be paid to the dialog in the last confrontation between a Samurai and Lord Naritsugu. During these sequences, the Samurai practically tells it like it is to the evil dictator. I loved that about the last half of the film, the honesty in the dialog. Also, I loved this sequence where the rebels don’t identify themselves with any political group or mentality; they call themselves “nobodies” because they are not siding with anyone but man. The are not fighting for a political ideology but for the basic human rights that we are all entitled too: the right to freedom and happiness. That’s what really matters in this world and that’s what we should all be willing to die for if need be. This could quite literally be Takashi Miike’s masterpiece. I do believe it is one of his best films, one of his most profound and relevant ones. It stands proudly next to other great Samurai films like Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954), one of the most obvious influences over this picture.