Recently I watched the Takashi Miike film 13 Assassins. I definitely recommend it for those of you who are fans of samurai movies. It’s structured something like a heist movie, where the first half consists of assembling a team (the eponymous assassins) for a big job, and the second half is one big action set piece. (It occurs to me that Seven Samurai had a similar structure. This is actually a remake of a much older film, and it makes me wonder if the original was actually a shameless knockoff of Seven Samurai that Miike decided to rescue from the dustbin of history. I can’t find much information on the original though, maybe it was actually a great movie in its own right.)
There’s a clear parallel between samurai movies in Japan and Western movies in the U.S. So clear, in fact, that some of the most famous Westerns are adaptations of jidaigeki films: e.g. The Magnificent Seven, A Fistful of Dollars. Beyond that, in both genres you have a romanticization of an earlier period in history. And in response there are films which push back against the romantic view, whether it’s Unforgiven taking apart the myth of the heroic gunfighter, or Blazing Saddles foregrounding the racism of the period.
13 Assassins is clearly in the latter tradition, using the format of the samurai movie to reject nostalgia for the samurai era. The plot follows an attempt to assassinate a corrupt samurai lord, but metaphorically represents an attack on the corruption inherent in the feudal social order. (Alternate title: “Now you see the violence inherent in the system!”) Although the main characters are (almost) all samurai themselves, it’s clear that they represent different aspects:
- Lord Naritsugu is the sadistic villain of the piece, who tortures and kills for pleasure and with impunity (since he’s the shogun’s brother). Not coincidentally, he’s also the movie’s advocate for the samurai way of life, explicitly justifying his random violence as necessary to maintain order. He expresses nostalgia for the “age of war” (presumably the Sengoku period, a popular setting for samurai movies), and vows to bring it back.
- Hanbei is Naritsugu’s lieutenant, and a model samurai: he sees Naritsugu’s evil for what it is, but is nevertheless completely loyal. His adherence to the bushido code applies in combat as well, where he’s shown to play by the rules. Hanbei’s role is to show how a flawed system can lead good men astray.
- Shinzaemon is the hero, the leader of the team of assassins, and a former classmate of Hanbei. The clear difference between him and Hanbei is that Shinzaemon is willing to go outside the system when moral principles demand it. Early in the film he is reluctant to carry out the assassination plot, until he hears testimony of Naritsugu’s atrocities. Like Hanbei, his attitude is reflected in his combat tactics: he instructs his team that there are no rules in a fight to the death.
The end of the movie emphasizes each of these aspects further. Spoilers below:
I walked down to Columbus Circle today to shop at Borders for the last time; their going-out-of-business sale was in full swing. This is the second chain bookstore to close in my neighborhood this year, following the Lincoln Center Barnes and Noble in January. I went to that liquidation sale, too.
But I didn’t buy much at either sale. These days if I’m going to read a book I buy an electronic copy, because I always have it with me and it doesn’t take up any space. I saw a hardcover copy of A Dance with Dragons at Borders and almost laughed. Why carry around such an inconveniently huge tome? I imagined struggling to hold it in one hand on a rush hour subway while hanging on to a pole. (I’ll probably see someone doing this before the summer is over, but still…) If I buy physical books it’s because they have diagrams or maps that won’t render well on a Kindle, or because I’ll want to page through them quickly. At Borders today I bought a travel guide for an upcoming vacation, and a kanji dictionary.
I suspect that e-reader adoption isn’t widespread enough nationwide to account for the collapse of the chain bookstores. (The Upper West Side may be a different story–I see a lot of Kindles on the 1 train.) There’s the fact that books have a lot more competition for attention in the age of DVR, Netflix Instant, MMORPGs, and endless other digital diversions. And when people do buy physical books, they can still go to Amazon and save the sales tax.
I have fond memories of the Borders I used to frequent in Connecticut growing up. When I was young “the bookstore” often just meant the crappy Waldenbooks at the mall, so the huge, well-stocked Borders was a definite improvement. It wasn’t until I got to Berkeley that I gained an appreciation for the kind of expertly-curated specialty bookstore whose loss people lamented with the arrival of the chains. The Barnes and Noble in Berkeley closed while I was there; I’d like to say it was because of the vibrant independent bookstore culture, but several of the indie shops were closing too. (Anyone know if The Other Change of Hobbit is still open?)
Meanwhile, here on the Upper West Side we still have the 82nd St Barnes and Noble. If it closes too, I’ll definitely miss it, but that’s mostly nostalgia. I still shop there on occasion, but even if I find something I might want to read, I usually won’t take it to the checkout line. Instead I just pull up the title in the Kindle Store using my phone and send myself the sample chapter. The big bookstores might be going away, but I feel like I’ve already left them behind.
Previously, on Arcane Gazebo… Almost two years ago, I took a strong position against buying George R. R. Martin’s A Dance with Dragons until the entire series is complete. Then, I inadvertently made my commitment even stronger by leaving the post at the top of this blog since then.
Last week, the book finally came out. The reviews are reporting that it’s terrific, and (importantly) gets the story going again after the narrative sprawl of A Feast for Crows. And so I find myself wanting to read it after all! But how can I repudiate my earlier position without looking like a Romney-esque unprincipled flip-flopper?
The answer will be revealed… below the fold: