In one of the most oft-quoted cinematic maxims, François Truffaut once said that you could never truly make an anti-war film because no matter how hard you try, you can't help but make war look exciting in a movie. He said this as a filmmaker with a moral vision, a firm belief that there was something inherently wrong with making a film that was pro-war. But director Takashi Miike, in "13 Assassins," has no such qualms, in a way that both undermines his film and makes it exhilarating. "13 Assassins" is a film that decries the end of a time of war while still showing how pointless war is. It is a film that is an argument for war for war's sake, for the raw thrill of it. It also wants to argue that fighting itself is pointless and destructive to the soul. It makes both contrasting points splendidly, and I suspect Miike doesn't mind the contradiction one bit. I know I sure didn't.
2. At its core -- and in its earlier incarnation -- "13 Assassins" is a lament for an age gone by, but a lament that's turned on its head. It takes place at the end of the Japanese Feudal Era, when the samurai who once kept the law, relying on honor and devotion, are near extinction. Most "samurai," in a time of relative peace, are posers living off the supposed honor the name conveys but not truly honorable or skilled in the way of their forefathers. A few true samurai, those who hark back to olden days, idle in the shadows, waiting for some sort of reason to exist. Some are gamblers, some are womanizers, some are family men, but most seem to just sit in dark rooms and wait for someone to come in and turn the light on. There is no reason for them to keep living.
3. Then, they find one, in the evil Lord Naritsugu Matsudaira, who is the brother of the Shogun and therefore not only untouchable, but also commanding of the loyalty of the few samurai left in practice. This is a problem, because Lord Naritsugu Matsudaira is one evil mothereffer. Miike, in a perfect example of the conflicted way he directs this film, stages Naritsugu's atrocities with a vigor and relish that both shows us how truly awful he is and how truly awesome he is. He murders the family (including a small child) of an enemy by shooting arrows into their brain at close distance; he ravages a woman and then chops off her arms and legs and murders her whole family; he rips off the tag from the mattress when it explicitly states that its forbidden. Bad dude. As chillingly played by Gorô Inagaki, he's a smirking nihilist brat who cares nothing for the honor of the men who protect him, but relies on it anyway. The exiled samurai, understanding that Naritsugu is an affront to all they have stood for for generations, plan his assassination. His guard, led by a one true samurai, must protect him, 200 strong. There are not 200 assassins. There are 13.
4. Thus, the stage is set for battle, but I was confused when the battle was about to begin, considering the movie is 130 minutes long, but we were only 80 minutes in. My confusion soon turned to mirth: 50 minute battle sequence! The last 50 minutes are a bloody, endless, glorious mess, with the assassins carrying out their sisyphean task of taking out Naritsugu. For all his moral relativism in showing a time gone by and eroding honor, this is why Miike is here, and boy, does he deliver. The last 50 minutes go by in a flash of disembowlments, beheadings, splattered blood and flaming cattle. (There is flaming cattle, people.) The scene could have gone on for another half an hour -- and in the original, uncut version, it does -- and I wouldn't have minded. Miike, an absurdly prolific filmmaker who makes about three or four films a year, is comfortably in his element here, and he hits all the right notes of gore, action, passion and bathos you'd want from a 50-minute samurai scene. The payoff is more than worth the buildup.
5. There's a quiet (as much as anything in this film can be "quiet") irony though in the end of the samurai, the battle that's being waged. It is a battle during a time of peace, involving warriors who just want to fight, to feel useful as the era of their usefulness ends. And the movie makes the argument that, well, that era should end. Sure, there's something to be said for honor and destiny and fate, but there's also something to free will and human choice and a life in which, you know, people aren't constantly swinging at each other with swords. Toward the end of the battle sequence, the combatants start to realize that, well, this whole thing is kind of stupid. To quote Woody Allen in "Love and Death:" "We kill a few Frenchmen, they kill a few Russians and before you know it, it's Easter." In a strange way, Miike shows us the absurdity of war by showing us the thrill of war. Sure, I could have watched another half hour of the fight scene, but after a while, there wouldn't be anybody left to fight. That's what I think Miike is saying. But he is also saying violence can be awesome ... and, like the evil Naritsugu, he's pretty happy to be the one to watch it from a distance, titillated but safe. In a strange way, that's human progress.