Review: Eleven Samurai

Well, I forgot that today was Easter Sunday until it was too late to make any solid plans, so instead of treating myself to a fancy dinner, I decided to finally watch Eleven Samurai—an appropriate choice, considering it’s all about giving up one’s life for a noble cause.



Despite receiving an excellent (albeit belated) localization courtesy of AnimEigo, this jidaigeki classic from director Eiichi Kudo (who also helmed the original 1963 version of the similarly-themed Thirteen Assassins) remains criminally underappreciated in the West, and currently holds an infuriatingly low score of three stars on Kanopy. It contains all of my favorite genre ingredients: a hero that “abandons” his clan and masquerades as a drunken lout and adulterer, sacrificing his honor and social standing in order to lower his enemy’s guard; a petulant, psychopathic, and ultimately cowardly villain supported by a corrupt government and protected by a chief retainer that’s loyal to a fault; and a climactic battle in which the participants are hindered by the elements (in this case: lashing rain, billowing fog, and dense foliage).


Amid these familiar elements, however, are flashes of originality. The eponymous ragtag crew, for example, counts among its members: a timid accountant (who’s mostly just there to manage their funds, but still wields a blade when the chips are down), a bitter and vengeful anarchist (who specializes in the construction of durable bamboo cannons that sadly don’t see much action), and a badass warrior woman (who announces her presence by apologizing for her recently-deceased brother’s absence and pledging to fight in his stead). Kudo’s depiction of violence is absolutely sublime, unrelentingly realistic in its brutality; there’s no graceful choreography here—just frightened men clumsily flailing around in the mud, hacking away at each other with swords, kitchen knives, and broken branches. Most importantly, the conflict is not driven solely by bloodshed; equal screen time is allotted to the behind-the-scenes maneuvering and manipulation, with one particularly devious double-cross nearly thwarting our protagonists’ assassination plot at its most critical juncture.



The film even offers a small glimmer of hope to offset its typically bleak conclusion: although the majority of the characters perish and the few survivors are traumatized to the point of insanity, their efforts do inspire reform, ensuring that the legacy of their secret rebellion endures. So while it may lack pastel-colored eggs and fuzzy woodland critters, I maintain that Eleven Samurai perfectly encapsulates the spirit of the holiday.


[Originally written April 1, 2018.]

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