13 Assassins, directed by prolific Japanese filmmaker Takashi Miike, is based on an actual historical event. Set in the peaceful Edo period (1600 – 1868), the sadistic Lord Naritsugu rapes, kills and tortures at will. Being the half-brother of the Shogun, the head of the ruling Tokugawa government, the young sociopath cannot be touched. However, dissent grows among the honorable samurai forced to endure his unchecked brutality. And the film begins with one such protestation, as a wronged man commits seppuku, or ritual suicide, outside the gates of the Shogun’s head minister, Sir Doi. Doi and the shogun cannot legally arrest or kill Naritsugu; however, both need his tyranny to stop and Doi secretly employs an aged, but sharp samurai, Shinzaemon.
Shinzaemon is the perfect candidate for this clandestine assassination and Miike shows most of the film through his determined gaze. A humble samurai, Shinzaemon has devoted his life to skill in the martial arts and his wish has long been to die honorably in battle. This suicidal mission against the cruel lord, his honor-bound samurai bodyguard and the cohort of warriors that accompanies them presents Shinzaemon with an excellent opportunity for the violent and glorious death he seeks.
After displaying the gruesome and vicious acts Naritsugu has committed on his subjects and other, lower clans and the secret plot Sir Doi hatches to kill the beastly lord, Miike moves into the decidedly calmer second act. Here, we watch as Shinzaemon assembles the most loyal and fearsome samurai he can fin. This is no easy task considering that there has not been a major war in Japan for almost 250 years. Like all films where a band of characters is assembled to accomplish a common task, some of the samurai meld together and others stand apart. Obviously, Shinzaemon and his equally grizzled right-hand man play major roles in the collection of the group and the planning of the attack. However, Shinzaemon’s old disciple Hirayama, who has devoted himself to ‘the way of the sword’ and become a wandering, masterless samurai, or ronin, also stands out because of his calm and intense demeanor coupled with incredible fighting ability.
Incredibly, and almost without explanation, each of the samurai chosen to fight have no qualms about the extreme likelihood that they shall be killed on their mission. Perhaps this is on account of the ‘black-and-white’ nature of the characters that Miike paints for us. Lord Naritsugu is without doubt, evil. We witness him rape and murder with delight. And Shinzaemon is shown a cast-out peasant girl whose arms, legs and tongue were severed by Naritsugu so he could keep her as his “play-thing”. Miike presents all of these things with graphic fascination that reminds those who know his work of such violent and tortuous films as Ichi the Killer and Audition.
In contrast, Shinzaemon’s purity, humility and goodness are beyond reproach. We feel sympathy for the old warrior without children and a dead wife. He spends his days fishing in the river and practicing in his dojo (gym for martial arts). We never quite learn about the character of the other members, except for his estranged nephew. As Shinzaemon has no other living relatives, his nephew is the only person with whom the old man has any true earthly attachments. Indeed, the film’s single moment of significant character development comes after Shinzaemon has tea with his womanizing relation at a gambling house. The disillusioned young man returns home to contemplate the long-shot ‘gamble’ his uncle has taken. His attractive wife comes through the door, expecting him to be half-drunk and playful as usual. Instead, he is brooding in the corner of the room. He picks up his obviously unused swords and leaves, telling his wife he will either be back soon or to wait for him at the gates of hell.
Again, the most interesting aspect of this movie may be the motivations of the thirteen assassins. The last member to join the group is not even a samurai. He is a mountain man whom they save from a bear trap, yet oddly, he continues to fight after guiding them through the forest. Perhaps the emotional intensity of this bloody picture comes from the characters’ unwavering determination to vanquish evil, even if it costs them their lives. Instead of showing fear or trepidation, all of the samurai are eager to fight and possibly die. While it may be difficult for Western audiences to understand, this ‘death-drive’ comes from the samurai ethical code called bushido. Bushido, or the way of the warrior, was an un-written ethos that governed the values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors of the samurai. It promoted service to one’s master and self-sacrifice, and it exalted violent death. However, as pointed out earlier, at the time of these events Japan was enjoying centuries of peace, with little need for such gruesome displays of loyalty and honor.
But the desire for honor, glory and sacrifice may be exactly what drives these men. Besides the eccentric bear hunter, all of the assassins know full well that the odds are stacked against them. But they also know that their mission comes from the heads of their country and will, if successful, provide justice for the people of Japan. Although grotesque at times, Miike justifies the horrific violence by painting a classic battle of good vs. evil. Ironically, order and peace can only be attained through the mass slaughter of Naritsugu and all 200 of his guards.