Three historical periods in Japan are among the most interesting and compelling in the annals of human civilization. The Sengoku period, also known as the Warring States period, comprised the height of feudal conflict from the 15th century to the early 17th century, culminating in the unification of Japan under the Tokugawa Shogunate in 1603. The new era of peace which followed, the Edo period, lasted until the Shogunate collapsed in the wake of internal and external pressures for Japan to end its forced isolation and open its shores to the modern world in the 1860s. What followed was the Meiji period, when the emperor was restored to power, and Japan, through numerous fits and starts, became the empire that was finally defeated by the Allies in World War II.
The legacy of the past, particularly the rigid caste structure that used to exist in Japanese society, is still very much in the public consciousness there, owing to the mythologies surrounding the samurai. A privileged class of warriors, the samurai rose alongside the violent and prolonged wars that typified feudal Japan. One could not seem to exist without the other. Once the wars ended with unification, however, the samurai were without their core purpose, relegated either to roles as bureaucrats, or as restless vagabonds, the laws of the time barring the honored warrior classes from making a living in so-called menial positions as laborers, merchants, or artisans. Yet the samurai were never weaned properly off their warrior ethos. The erosion of the samurai’s self-worth was one of the driving factors behind the collapse of the Shogunate.
Before one feels sorry for the samurai, however, it is important to remember that life in feudal Japan was not easy. Members of the lower castes had little in the way of rights (even the right to live, at times). Things only got worse during the Edo period, when the successive Shoguns established brutal dictatorships. But the legend of the samurai is one of high morality, honor, stoicism, and, quite frankly, flashy violence, which makes it ideal as a genre in film.
The peak of samurai films was decades ago, paralleled in the western world by the rise and fall of cowboy films. The two genres go hand in hand, in fact, at one time feeding off of each other in a unique exchange of ideas and concepts that is unheard of elsewhere in cinema. Today, these two genres are not as busy as they used to be, but this also means there is far less chaff to throw overboard.
13 Assassins, from 2010, is a remake of an earlier film of the same name from the 1960s. Directed by Takashi Miike, 13 Assassins tells the story of a small group of wayward samurai that have been tasked with killing the brother of the Shogun, whose tyrannical ways could threaten the Shogunate and the peace that has reigned in Japan for over 200 years.
The film takes place late in the Edo period, only a couple of decades before the restoration of the emperor and the end of the samurai. The restlessness of the samurai is explored in depth, as none of the assassins, both young and old, have ever experienced war. They long to fight and die for a cause they believe is just, and are abhorred by the idea of a peaceful death in old age. There is, of course, an inherent contradiction in their willingness to protect the peace of Japan by killing the Shogun’s brother. In so doing, they realize their dream of entering battle, but they do so in an effort to forestall future chaos that would throw Japan once again into war, where the samurai would regain their very reason for being. Never mind that, however. The Shogun’s brother, Lord Naritsugu (Goro Inagaki), is a real sonafabitch, a sadistic individual who rapes, tortures, and kills with abandon, safe behind his status to inflict whatever amounts of pain he sees fit.
The samurai in 13 Assassins, despite hungering for war, also embrace the age-old concept of honor, and Lord Naritsugu, in their judgment, has none, so he must die. In fact, there doesn’t seem to be a single samurai, including those among Naritsugu’s retainers, who feel this man is worth a damn. But, Naritsugu’s retainers are pledged to defend his life to the death, if necessary. So the stage is set.
The group of assassins is led by Shinzaemon Shimada (Koji Yakusho), a middle-aged samurai and former retainer of the Shogun who has no remaining obligations in this life and who is looking to enter the next with honor. Upon learning of Naritsugu’s horrible transgressions, in visual details that will leave the audience cringing, Shimada knows he can now end his life with purpose. He assembles his samurai and lays a trap in a small village for Naritsugu and his men. It is here that the niceties of form in this period piece end.
The battle in the village between Shimada’s 13 and Naritsugu’s 200 is overwhelming in its level of violence and outlandishness. It represents a level of brutality that many in the audience will find hard to embrace, and not just for its horror. The idea that 13 men could inflict so much damage on 200 men requires quite a bit of suspension of disbelief. But Miike pulls it off. The battle sequence is long, about forty-five minutes, and is among the best action scenes ever in a samurai film. Current action flicks would have the audience believe that its heroes are untouchable, almost omnipotent killing machines, dealing death to their opponents with cold smirks and deadpan humor. None of that here. The 13 don’t deal with any realistic odds, to be sure, but they always seem to be walking the razor’s edge between success and defeat. It isn’t until the end that the audience finds out which side won. That ending could have gone either way with an equal amount of success, I feel. That is credit enough for Miike’s handling of the sequence.
Battling against insurmountable odds is a common theme in many samurai films, especially those dealing with small groups of men rather than the thousands-strong war epics such as Kagemusha or Heaven and Earth. These smaller-scale films tend to be better, as well. But one failing they have is their derivative nature. Any audience member who is familiar with the genre has probably seen Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, in which a small group of samurai take on the seemingly hopeless task of defeating a larger force in a small village that has been fortified for the purposes of war. Even the colorful cast of characters will be familiar to viewers of 13 Assassins. The similarities are such that if one were to watch both films without subtitles, or on mute, one could be forgiven for thinking 13 Assassins was a remake of the earlier film. That aside, not very many samurai flicks make it over to these shores. The ones that do tend to be worth the effort to seek out. 13 Assassins is one of those. Miike is a skilled filmmaker who tells a lively and compelling story in 13 Assassins, and he doesn’t spare any of the details.