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Tuesday, July 19, 2016

13 Assassins (1963)

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 We all have things about us that we want to keep hidden. These things can be small (chronic flatulence) or large (an arrest). To hide those things, whatever they may be, we create stories or other ways to hide or obscure them. The hiding is also something done by cultures and countries, to cover less flattering things about their history. In Japan, they have specific words for this: Honne and Tatemae.

Honne is what is true, or what actually happened, while Tatemae is what others need to see, or the official story. While, in modern times, the Honne has been difficult to hide, it appears that the Tatemae runs rampant in the history of Feudal Japan, where the honor of the Samurai and other castes, and their ingrained need to protect their masters' honor was used as a tool to facilitate Tatemae. Supposedly, the story of the 13 Assassins is supposedly based on actual events that fell victim to Tatemae**.

My reason for that assertion is that I've read that the story is actually part of Japanese lore, but there is no official record.***  The story has been filmed at least twice, in 1963, and again in 2011. I have previously reviews the remake, but just recently got around to this version.

13 Assassins (Juzan-nin no Shikaku)  is set during the Japan's feudal period. Lord Naritsuga, brother of the Shogun is cruel, and terrorizes the citizens under his rule, and is allowed to, because of his familial connection. Even worse, he is soon to be elevated to a loftier position, where he will gain even more authority, with much less accountability.

The elder council decided that they must stop his ascent. In order to do this, they approach Shinzaemon (Shinza), who is something of a Marshall. He is reluctant to take up the mission, until a villager, whose son and daughter-in-law (after she was raped) were murdered by Narigatsu. 
Shinza's moment of decision
After Shinza accepts the task, which of course the elders will disavow any knowledge of, he sets out to assemble his group of assassins. They consist of various ronin, other Marshals, and a country samurai.

Assassins assemble!

Hanbei, Narigatsu's head of security, gets wind of the plot, and after failed attempts by spies to gain evidence, confronts Shinza, but is unable to get him to admit to anything. As a result, he is unable to take any direct action, and is left to plan for any traps the assassins may set.

This all leads to Narigatsu eventually embarking on a tour of his domain, and Shinza seeing an opportunity to complete his mission. Through various machinations, the assassins are able to end Narigatsu's reign of terror.

One of Hanbei and Shinza's confrontations

 This is a truly great film. The story is engaging, the cast is magnificent, and the requisite battle is appropriately climactic.

One of the things that I like about the Samurai-era period films is how politics and various codes can drive the story. An example of this is how while Hanbei clearly loathes Narigatsu, and is clearly an honorable man, he is bound by duty to serve his master.

To further illustrate this, he knows that Shinza is clearly up to something, but will not act on the knowledge, because he is unable to find any proof. However, an unfortunate aspect of Hanbei being duty-bound is that in spite of his loathing of Narigatsu, his duty prevents him from taking action himself.

The Assassins' war council

I have read that this film, and many of the period pieces of the era, is supposed to be a parody of sorts of the Bushido. I guess the parody is supposed to be of the characters being bound to their duties out of a sense of honor, even though they know what's required of them is wrong (in Hanbei's case), or almost certain to fail (the assassins). Personally, I didn't see it that way. I saw it as a story of loyalty, honor, and courage, much like films like Platoon and Full Metal Jacket were supposed to be anti-war have been embraced by people who aren't anti-war as great war movies.
Hanbei and Shinza's final showdown

The scenes between Shimza and Hanbei, of two different generations of warriors, one weary, and the other brash, are particularly tense, with two actors in fine form. As well as those, the tactics each uses to try to get the upper-hand on the other are quite fascinating, as is the way a village is transformed into a killing ground for the finale.
The action sequences are well-done, the acting is fantastic, and intentionally or not, the film does a good job of explaining the Japanese feudal system, which can be confusing. The only drawback, go me, not necessarily the film's, is that it was sometimes difficult to keep with characters' names. As a Westerner and English speaker, I sometimes got a little lost with names, especially since some characters were often referred to several different ways. Also, I would often get lost in thought, trying to determine what a certain title was equivalent to in Western systems, and would have to rewind, to catch parts that I'd missed.

 I give it four out of five, and highly recommend it. I also recommend Takishi Miike's remake^, which was very faithfully made. 

13 Assassins is available on Amazon Video, Hoopla, and other streaming services, as well as on DVD.
Oddly absent from this version, as well as the remake

* This is a hobby for me, so if I'm wrong, give me a break. You get what you pay for with me.

** Seriously, see the first note.

*** See above.

^ Seriously, go read that post.