13 Assassins, by Albert W. Vogt III

How far are you willing to go to do what is right?  There are some cultures, or even sub-cultures, who ponder this question with deadly seriousness.  Of course, civilizations have pondered the difference between right and wrong since time immemorial, and the answers have varied between time and place.  I believe within the depths of my being that it is God is the final arbiter of our actions, and I pray that what I do in this life will help me simply to be near Him in the next.  If I thought otherwise, I would not be writing this at the moment.  We also know that Christianity has been contended with at different points since Jesus ascended into Heaven, leaving the growth of His Church up to St. Peter and the rest of the Disciples.  You might be surprised some time to learn what Catholicism actually teaches about the way God works through people who do not have the Word.  Look it up sometime.  Regardless, not all people have always adhered to the notion of loving your enemy.  This some can be said for many Christians, sad as it is to say.  Take feudal Japan, for example.  If you want a treatise on the way Catholic missionaries were treated there, then check out my review of Silence (2016).  13 Assassins (2010), on the other hand, deals with a much different subject, and yet still takes a moral stance.  Find out how by reading the rest of this review.

Dealing with a period in Japanese history when there is about to be drastic change, 13 Assassins begins with a ritual suicide, called hara-kiri, of the leader of the Namiya clan.  He is taking his own life because the sadistic half-brother of the current shogun, the title for the ruler of Japan at the time, Lord Matsudaira Naritsugu (Goro Inagaki), has murdered the leader’s entire family.  Lord Naritsugu is just getting started.  Next, he goes to stay in the home of the Makino family, and brutally kills the eldest son and his wife.  He gets away with this behavior due to his close standing with the shogun.  However, there are those who feel that when he takes his place on the shogun’s council that civil war will break out with the aggrieved clans.  This is the take of the justice minister, Sir Doi Toshitsura (Mikijirô Hira), who seeks solutions to prevent national calamity.  The person he turns to is Shinzaemon Shimada (Kôji Yakusho), a seasoned samurai who had served the previous shogun.  In presenting the case for assassinating Lord Noritsugu, Sir Doi brings with him a woman (Sakurako Moteki) who Lord Noritsugu had mutilated, cutting off all her limbs and her tongue.  When Shinzaemon asks what happened to the rest of her family, she is given paper and brush, and with her mouth scrawls out the words “total massacre.”  This, along with Sir Doi’s fears of the dangers ahead, are enough to convince Shinzaemon that something must be done.  He then sets about gathering eleven other trusted samurai besides himself, who take it as their duty to protect Japan as a whole.  It would be tedious to describe each one, but the individual that must be mentioned is Shinzaemon’s nephew, the bored and philandering Shinrokuro Shamada (Takayuki Yamada).  He agrees to what appears to be a death wish of a mission because it gives him a sense of purpose he had been missing (more on this later).  Together, they head off to their planned ambush point, the village of Ochiai.  Once there, they buy off the town with the generous sum of money given them by Sir Doi, and set about turning it into a killing zone.  Look, ultimately this is the point of the entire movie, right?  Everything that happens up until the moment that Lord Noritsugu and his entourage wander into Ochiai, which is the result of careful planning by Shinzaemon, is simply an excuse to get to the action.  Thus, twelve samurai, and some other random dude who appears to be immortal named Koyata Kiga (Yûsuke Iseya) who decides to join them, are left to take on over 200 retainers.  Skillfully, they manage to divide up the crowd and take them on in chunks, which works for the most part.  However, it comes down to Shinzaemon and his nephew facing Lord Noritsugu, his chief lieutenant Hanbei Kito (Masachika Ichimura), and a few others who managed to survive the carnage.  While Shinrokuro takes on the left overs, former friends Hanbei and Shinzaemon face-off with one another.  Shinzaemon wins, leaving Lord Noritsugu alone.  Not leaving anything to chance, Shinzaemon essentially throws himself onto the nobleman’s sword, which also gives him the opportunity to run his own blade through his enemy’s abdomen.  He then finishes the job by cutting off Lord Noritsugu’s head before he also falls dead.  This leaves Shinrokuro alone to wander through the shattered village, giving the miraculously still alive Koyata (last we saw him was with a sword through his neck, but it does not seem to do him harm) advice on living life.

You might read the above synopsis of 13 Assassins and think it farfetched.  Even with the traps set, thirteen taking on over 200 seems like ridiculous odds.  This is where history plays a role.  By 1844, when the film is set, Japan had enjoyed a long period internally of relative piece.  I say “internally” because for hundreds of years up until roughly nine years from then, the country had been closed to the outside world.  They had some knowledge of what went on outside their borders, but for the most part they lived as they had for centuries.  The peace, though, meant that there was a dearth of people skilled in battle.  Shinzaemon is one of those few, and he goes about recruiting as many other experienced samurai as he could find.  This is what gave him confidence that he could complete the mission as agreed.  Still, they were a little surprised by the amount of men Lord Noritsugu brought with him, which probably accounts for the fact that they all died, save for Shinrokuro.

Before the final battle takes place in 13 Assassins, Shinzaemon unfurls the “total massacre” scroll written by the mutilated woman.  It is a stunning reminder of what he and his men intended.  It is almost so obvious as to not be worth saying, but the Bible does teach us to turn the other cheek.  That is not the samurai way.  History, though, has presented mankind with moments when there is someone who represents a clear danger to so many.  Hitler comes to mind.  It is difficult, to say the least, to infer that all of mankind should have simply laid down and let him conquer wherever he sent his tanks.  Christianity does not condone such behavior, either.  Being complacent in the face of evil is its own sin.  There is an eternal battle between violence and non-violence as a solution to societal problems.  Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. endured beatings and assassinations dedicated to the principle of not meeting blows with blows.  The notion is that by doing so, you shame the powerful for their crimes.  As I mentioned at the beginning, God is the final arbiter for any of us, you and me, Hitler and Lord Noritsugu.  Gandhi and King practiced non-violence, but it was not without action.  They did something about evil.  God, who sees the heart of things, will judge everyone accordingly, whether you take up arms or give your life to a higher purpose.

To say that 13 Assassins is violent and gory would be an understatement.  Still, it is not random, purposeless violence for the sake of being destructive.  There is too much of that out there right now.  I am looking at you, Squid Game.  Hence, if you do not have the stomach for such content, then please avoid this movie.  On the other hand, if you do see it, understand that the title characters are fighting for a nobler purpose than what you might initially think.

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