by Eric Messinger
13 Assassins (2010) (Spoilers)
I would probably have seen 13 Assassins before reading the phrase “45-minute fight sequence,” but that made it certain. While it was somewhat of a spoiler, these things can have their benefits, and one is that you really can’t watch a movie called 13 Assassins with the words “45-minute fight sequence” in your head and not feel giddy the whole way through. As the team assembled, as the samurai described their plans and made their preparations, I knew exactly where the film was headed. And I was so pleased to be on the way there that every frame and every scene up to that point I viewed with all possible good will.
Beyond the scenes of the samurai working their way up to their attack, 13 Assassins has only one other major pre-fight priority: introducing their target, Lord Naritsugu (Goro Inogaki.) He is, appropriately, a complete bastard. He cuts off the arms and legs of a woman, he kills a man after violating his wife, and he shoots arrows at close range, one by one, into an entire group of peasants. Yet what’s most effective about his scenes is that he is not simply a wanton murderer and torturer. Amid the macabre strangeness of the horrors he inflicts, and the way he goes about inflicting them, he is curiously detached. His actions suggests a sociopath, but his calm manner, and his evident boredom, more clearly establish him as an aesthete. He’s wreaking horror in search of something that will interest him.
Once the fight sequence began and the violence of the samurai commenced, what replaced anticipation was the consciousness that I was watching Odysseus slay the suitors in his hall, all over again. So many of the key rhythms are identical: the same implacable bad-assery on the part of the heroes, the same assured reveal of intentions to the condemned, the same announcement of arrows transitioning to the up-close finishing with swords, the same blood-soaked slaughter, the same methodical pursuit of all available targets. The power, the great primal power of violence and justice merged together, flows through the veins of both.
Except, of course, they’re different. The Odyssey is so old and so strange that there’s a tendency to ignore the real nature of events or rewrite them in your mind, in order to better fit what you would like and expect of something so essential. Book XXII of The Odyssey may have the same basic setup—a small group of noble men executing a larger group of decadents—yet in Homer the circumstances are very different. The men put to the arrow and the blade are almost defenseless; Odysseus has locked away their weapons. Unlike Naritsugu and his men, they plead for mercy. Their crimes are arguably less serious: they have dishonored Odysseus’ home and taken much of his wealth, but they have not killed anyone and Penelope hasn’t been harmed. Last of all, Odysseus brings his wrath upon other collaborators in a particularly brutal fashion: he hangs his own housemaids for having slept with the suitors. The death and revenge and punishment is both exact and terribly excessive.
The Odyssey is a rollicking adventure where quite a lot of terrible things happen, and the suitors aren’t exactly sympathetic, but this is still a very disturbing section. The hero of the book murders dozens of people in cold blood. And while the Homeric epics might have the best descriptions of combat in the history of literature, these passages aren’t a “fight sequence,” they’re a description of an execution.
You just wouldn’t write a scene like Book XXII anymore. Nowadays causes remain righteous but the victory is indeterminate. There needs to be a struggle. Audiences don’t want might to make right, at least not “the stronger” putting an end to the weak; they expect a test of wills, and for fate (or the artist) to grant the good guys the final triumph only after it has been earned.
Cinema goes to this effort because violence is, after sex, the most eye-catching and compelling thing we can see on screen. We pay attention to blood and danger and death for basic, instinctual reasons. Yet while we’re drawn in to violence, and it excites us, you can rarely see someone hurt or killed—even a fictional person—without some unease. That’s why films align situations to make violence unavoidable or morally acceptable: self-defense, violence on behalf of the downtrodden, long odds in pursuit of a worthy goal.
Stakes and tension, in other words, and while the samurai in 13 Assassins may be leading two hundred men to an enclosed space in order to kill them, it’s possible to sit back and watch the violence without much in the way of discomfort. They’re up against an overwhelming challenge of opponents ready to fight to the death, and there’s no argument that bringing Naritsugu to a permanent end would be a great cause. The samurai planning the operation concern themselves with feasibility and how the killing would fit with codes of duty and honor, not the sanctity of Naritsugu’s life or any belief that his death would not be desirable. And as they deliberate, the film makes the case to the audience on their behalf. The circumstances have been made just right.
13 Assassins makes the necessary adjustments without leaving behind the mythic power that infuses The Odyssey: the sense of predetermined, certain death carried out without remorse. The suitors exist as a wrong to be righted, their conduct introduced even before Odysseus shows up in the story. They have a target on their backs from the opening stanzas. And that sense of profound wrong, of discord in need of correction, is no less present from the first scene of 13 Assassins, where a man takes his own life in a grisly fashion solely to bring attention to Naritsugu’s evil. Something so off cannot persist without being made right.
With this kind of groundwork, the confrontations take on an air of inevitability. And 13 Assassins understands how powerful this is. Once the movie has set up all it needs to, and the time for violence is at hand—when the words that got me in the theater were about to be realized—the leader of the assassins, Shinzaemon, looking down at Naritsugu and his 200 bodyguards, unfurls a banner. It reads: “Total Massacre.”
Greek audiences must have gasped when the poet sang that Odysseus drew his bow and shot the arrow through the axe-heads, when they heard the King of Ithaka declare himself to the suitors and and inform them that their time was up. The same electricity shot through the movie theater, thousands of years later. There’s nothing quite like the audacious promise of violent justice.
“It’s magnificent. With death comes gratitude for life. If a man has lived his life in vain, then how trivial his life is. Oh Hanbei. Something wonderful has come to my mind… Once I’m on the Shogun’s council, let’s bring back the age of war.”
Naritsugu says this halfway through the fight, and it’s clear he feels the same excitement. He has finally found something that fascinates him. The lines themselves elevate the stakes of the film—if the assassins fail, Naritsugu’s reign will mean a ruined Japan—but their greatest impact is in how they define the character. He sees hundreds of men dying and believes they are acting out a great performance, that they are making something far more beautiful of themselves than they ever were as living human beings.
Is he wrong, though? After all, 13 Assassins is about warriors who need combat to find meaning in their own lives and have found confidence in this larger purpose. No one, least of all the viewer, is in any disagreement that the fighting depicted in the film is exactly how he describes it, “magnificent.” Naritsugu’s only mistake appears to be his belief that violence unmoored from such circumstances could retain this power, that bringing war to the countryside would achieve a similar glory. But Naritsugu is an aesthete, after all, and he’s reached an artistic conclusion. And because this is the first time he’s observed violence carried out by others, who can blame him? He’s watching 13 Assassins. It would blow my mind, too.
There’s something deep within us that wants to see great feats achieved in noble, decisive action. The power of violence in art is precisely that many aims can find some satisfactory expression in the pull of the trigger or the swing of the sword. Violence may not be everything in art, but because it is so captivating and, yes, beautiful, it can stand for everything—and once introduced, it must. Much of the peculiar power of the early promise of a great, bloody reckoning lies in this obligation. The constant challenge for trying to wring some meaning out of this violence, however, is acknowledging this power while negotiating the extent to which it has something to say about our actual lives.
It’s telling, in light of this, that 13 Assassins indicts Naritsugu not only for his casual and grievous sins but also for an attitude that views violence purely as an aesthetic phenomenon or a moral instrument. The film stages the greatest and most spectacular fight you would ever want to see while making its purpose the elimination of someone who believes violence could be purifying. And the effect of this is cathartic for both the noble samurai and the audience watching. The fundamental contradictions of violence in cinema and the ethical use of force are all there, exquisitely realized.
Violence can never be this way, and no one should never try to make it this way, yet there’s something to the artistic expression of force that can’t be matched. You can’t stop believing it might well be like that, and we’ll always head back to stories with that aspiration. I’ve never, ever seen a film that better understands this or has a firmer sense of what violence in art is and is not. And all that meaning aside, there’s a 45-minute fight sequence.