Mindless Action Mondays: A deep discussion of philosophy. And massacre.

By Drew Parton

This week, I’m swamped by schoolwork, but I still have time to review the Takashi Miike period piece 13 Assassins, another foreign film- but much better than the last one (See: The Raid review).
Don’t say I never did anything for you mooks.

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The era of the Samurai is coming to an end; an old Samurai, Shinzaemon Shimada (Koji Yakusho), is drawn out of retirement to gather a band of warriors for a secret mission from the Shogun: assassinate the Shogun’s sadistic brother-in-law who rapes and kills for fun.

Now, I’m going to be honest, this movie is not really mindless action.

I’m breaking contract, so sue me. But this is one of the best films I have ever seen.

As I stated before (again, See: The Raid review), I like watching foreign films in their natural audio with subtitles on, especially to hear Koji’s deep, gruff timbre.

I should note that I first saw Koji Yakusho in Shall We Dance, where he played a white-collar businessman secretly learning to tango, so to see him go from that to this is quite a whiplash:

Magnolia Home Entertainment

Magnolia Home Entertainment
Took a level in badass

Magnolia Home Entertainment

The visuals are astounding, the action intense and visceral.
This is not really a fun movie per se. The film begins with a suicide–one of the Shogun’s retainers commits hara-kiri as a protest. It’s not every movie that begins with gruesome disembowelment.

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And you KNOW that stain is never coming out of those clothes.

Shinzaemon’s mission is set off when he meets one of Lord Naritsugu’s many victims, who has been tortured had her arms and legs cut off.

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Hey, don’t interrupt.

When Shinzaemon asks about her family, she painfully grasps a paintbrush in her mouth and scrawls out the movie’s arc words:

Magnolia Home Entertainment

Magnolia Home Entertainment

This same banner is then shown to Hanbei and Lord Naritsugu’s posse of 180 men when Hanbei asks “What is this?”

Magnolia Home Entertainment

Now, the central conflict of the movie (besides the LITERALLY 45 minute-long battle scene that is the third act of the movie), is “What is the way of the samurai?” This philosophical argument is the heart of the film. Two former friends, Shinzaemon and Hanbei Onigashira, the sociopathic Lord Naritsugu’s retainer, represent the two sides of this much-discussed debate in bushido: where does one’s duty reside, with his lord or with his ethics?

Before I discuss this, I’d like to give a little bit of a primer on Bushido philosophy. You see, I’m a bit of scholar of such and it’s usually misrepresented or misunderstood in popular culture:

First off, I hesitate to use the word Bushido. The term, literally meaning “way of the warrior” is an anachronistic word. It was never used to describe the samurai life or way- “way,”
as adapted from daoist philosophy was used instead. The term Bushido started being used in the mid 1800’s, long after the Meiji restoration and the end of the Samurai era, so it’s a little inappropriate to use as a designation. Secondly, it wasn’t some kind of strict code or set of rules. It was ambiguous, it was a pursuit with a whole lot of variation depending on the time, place, and people pursuing it.
Generally speaking, there were two approaches to the duty of the Samurai: serving the path of the righteous and doing what is right, and utmost loyalty in dying for one’s master.

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Hey, that’s what I just said!

The two philosophies can be exemplified by two of the most influential Samurai of the Edo period (AKA: Tokugawa Shogunate): Miyamoto Musashi and Yamamoto Tsunetomo. Miyamoto Musashi is perhaps the most famous Samurai of all time, he was absolutely devoted to his principles and to the pursuit of martial perfection, as such he never took a master and spent his whole life wandering around as a ronin (or master-less Samurai) and generally being a badass:

“From youth my heart has been inclined toward the Way of strategy. My first duel was when I was thirteen, I struck down a strategist of the Shinto school, one Arima Kihei. When I was sixteen I struck down an able strategist, Tadashima Akiyama. When I was twenty-one I went up to the capital and met all manner of strategists, never once failing to win in many contests. After that I went from province to province dueling with strategists of various schools, and not once failed to win even though I had as many as sixty encounters. This was between the ages of thirteen and twenty-eight or twenty-nine.”-Miyamoto Musashi, The Book of Five Rings)

Tsunetomo, author of The Hagakure, saw that the duty of a Samurai lie in its literal meaning: one who serves. The Way of the Warrior was one of absolute fealty to his lord.

Now, Yagyu Munenori eventually sought to reconcile this difference in opinion by committing to only serve a worthy and righteous lord (he was sword-master and BFF to two shoguns) and thus would be true to his lord and his morality.

In the movie, Shinzaemon represents the moral Samurai as exemplified by Miyamoto Musashi and Yagyu Munenori:

“It is missing the point to think that the martial art is solely in cutting a man down. It is not in cutting people down; it is in killing evil. It is the stratagem of killing the evil of one man and giving life to ten thousand.”-Yagyu Munenori, The Life-Giving Sword

Hanbei represents the Samurai who unquestioningly serves his lord, as exemplified by Yamamoto Tsunetomo:

“If one were to say in a word what the condition of being a Samurai is, its basis lies first in seriously devoting one’s body and soul to his master.”-Yamamoto Tsunetomo, The Hagakure

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This is the real drive behind Hanbei: “We were both born Samurai, ours is not to wonder why. Ours is to serve our destiny and die.” Still, when your lord is a ruthless bastard who does target-practice on women and children, you really should rethink your way.

Magnolia Home Entertainment

Magnolia Home Entertainment

By far the coolest moment of action in the film is the alley of swords

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Pretty much exactly what it says on the tin.

Naritsugu’s column comes upon a dead-end, an alleyway full of swords and at the end is badass ronin Hirayama.

Magnolia Home Entertainment

Magnolia Home Entertainment

Hirayama then sets to work embedding each one of the swords into Naritsugu’s men, tearing through a group of roughly 40 men.

Now, I feel that it is important to say, this is not a happy film. The 13 samurai (well, 12 plus one bandit) are basically running a suicide mission. Shinzaemon only joins the mission because he sees it as a way to die honorably on the battlefield in this time of peace.

Magnolia Home Entertainment

Magnolia Home Entertainment

There is ONLY one problem I have with the movie and it is a minute and almost infinitesimal one. As a chaotic tactic, the group lights a bunch of bulls on fire and sets them stampeding through Naritsugu’s column of soldiers. The bulls are CGI (easy, PETA) and they are very obviously bad CGI. But it is an indie film and they’re only there for roughly 10 seconds so it’s not something that I should really complain about.

Overall, I’d HIGHLY recommend the movie, for this reason I have not given away any real spoilers, be warned, it is very bloody and gory. But it is AB.SO.LU.TELL.LEE. INCREDIBLE
It gave me a throbbing action erection. An ERACTION

(eraction copyright Rooster Illusion Reivews 2012)

I don’t know what I am going to review for next week. Feel free to recommend movies or send me hate(or love) mail: dmpart10@stlawu.edu or comment on this post

6 thoughts on “Mindless Action Mondays: A deep discussion of philosophy. And massacre.

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