13 Assassins

Netflix Instant Classic: 13 Assassins

Genre: Foreign, Action, Samurai Western

What’s it about? A ragtag group of samurais launch a suicide attack on an evil nobleman and his retinue  of armed guards.

Who’s in it? Bunch of crazy Japanese dudes.

You’ll like it if… You like Westerns, Japanese culture, and bloody sword fights. Compares to Seven Samurai/Magnificent Seven.

I’m gonna be straight up with you here: This movie is badass.

It’s a typical guy movie in that it’s dark, violent, and deals with the highfalutin concept of honor.

The latter is most important, as this movie is about samurai warriors – which are pretty much honor personified.

In fact, the movie opens with a dude committing seppuku/harakiri right on the steps of a palace courtyard. He does this as a form of protest against the shogun’s half-brother Lord Naritsugu – an absolutely grotesque individual born with a “vicious nature.”

And so the question of honor is raised right from the start.

Principally, we are asked to contemplate exactly what it is to be honorable.

To hear Lord Naritsugu tell it, honor means a strict adherence to tradition. When his top advisor, Handbei, finds him torturing a family, Naritsugu reminds him that the samurai code stresses honor and duty above all, and that it is a master’s duty to punish his servants.

“Dying for one’s master is the way of the samurai,” he says. “Dying for one’s husband is the way of women. “

Of course, it’s not clear that Naritsugu actually believes this. It looks more like he’s using “duty” as transparent and cynical cover to legitimize his brutality.

In fact, Naritsugu’s misdeeds actually threaten to upset the peace that’s reigned for many years prior to his ascendance. And that seems to be exactly what he wants.

Hanbei, on the other hand, does believe in honor and duty. For better or worse, he has pledged fealty to Naritsugu, and he will die before he disavows that pledge.

Shimada Shinzaemon, the assassin enlisted to deal with Naritsugu, is also pledged to service. But for him honor is something more than strict adherence to the social order.

Shinza isn’t just interested in doing his master’s bidding. He’s looking to mete out some samurai justice.

Dude was just chillin’ out fishing before being summoned to his task. But when he sees the results of Naritsugu’s handiwork firsthand, his mission morphs into a personal quest.

“As a samurai, I’ll do what must be done for the people,” he tells Hanbei.

Hanbei’s reply: “A samurai must do but one thing: Serve his master.”

And so the stage is set.  Shimada Shinzaemon and ragtag group of assassins set out to kill Naritsugu, even if it means dying themselves.

In fact, their own deaths are almost pre-requisite. The only death for a samurai is an honorable death – either by your enemy’s hand, or by your own.

And so death comes to dominate the story. The last 45 minutes (out of a total 2 hours) are devoted to a wild battle scene, in which the confrontation plays out to its bloody conclusion.

It’s thirteen versus two-hundred. Elaborate traps are set and sprung. Hails of arrows are launched. Swords are swung in the samurai ballet.  And heads roll. Literally.

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