It is a matter of honour – the young Lord Naritsugu (Goro Inagaki) has a terrible reputation for rape, murder and unspeakable cruelty. But he is a relative of the Shogun, and hence beyond the reach of the law. Behind the scenes, twelve loyal samurai assemble to mete out justice off the books. They are led by Shinzaemon (Koji Yakusho), an aging samurai who knows there is little chance that he will return alive from his mission. But he still accepts his fate, in a gleefully suicidal rush for glory that sees his dirty dozen plotting a fiendish ambush, ending with an explosive 45-minute battle scene.
Twelve…? There might be twelve samurai, but there is a bonus extra to make up the baker’s dozen – mountain man Kiga (Yusuke Iseya), a grubby force of nature who offers to lead the men on a decisive short-cut, as long as there is money it for him.
In a refreshing change from the norm, these samurai are the masters of their own fate. They willingly embrace dirty tricks and battlefield engineering, and never stoop to blaming their deceptions on non-existent ninja. There are sly nods to earlier samurai stories – not merely the rain-soaked struggles of Kurosawa, but the flame-maddened cattle of the Tale of the Heike, and mid-air arrow cutting of many a Japanese fireside saga. Miike plays to unexpected strengths, including a marvellous score by his long-term collaborator Koji Endo, and punchy sound design, not just on swords and arrows, but on horse’s hooves on muddy roads and the thump of socked feet on mansion floorboards.
13 Assassins is not based on a true story, although it is inspired by true events – not the least the infamous misbehaviour of the historical Lord Naritsugu, who became lord of a feudal domain while still a teenager, and seems to have let the power go to his head. There is also a suspicion among some Japanese historians that the sudden, unexplained death of the historical Naritsugu smelled of a Shogunal cover-up. But 13 Assassins is also steeped in unquestionably real issues from the twilight years of the samurai. This is not a fairytale Japan of geisha and cherry blossoms; it’s an unfamiliar, alien place where a smile means distress and the triple hollyhock emblem of the Shogun is a sign of fearsome repression. Takashi Miike’s samurai throw dice in the company of tattooed gangsters and rheumy-eyed, pockmarked whores. It has been two centuries since Japan’s last full-scale war, leaving many of the samurai class swordsmen in name only. As one of the assassins notes: they have had nothing but books and plays to tell them how battle really was, and the reality comes as an exhilarating, deathly shock.
With nobody for the samurai to fight but each other, stern codes of honour and obligation are supposed to keep them in check, but have instead led to scheming and corruption. Miike’s film, like the 1963 original directed by Eiichi Kudo and indeed like Mamoru Oshii’s Sky Crawlers, is a film made for a generation that has grown up without war or danger, repulsed but also oddly hypnotised by the spectacle of violence.
Miike’s samurai are trapped in a poisonous system that kills all attempts at reform. It confines its characters in the traditional stand-offs between duty and honour, and in the endless arguments about loyalty that define every period of samurai history. In doing so, 13 Assassins can be seen as a Japanese variant on Apocalypto: a glimpse of the last, rotten days of a dying regime, shortly before unwelcome Europeans toppled the old order for better or worse. It is set in 1844, the year that the King of the Netherlands wrote an ominous letter to his unseen Japanese allies, warning them that the world was changing fast. Japan was no longer a year away by sailing ship; it was within reach of ever-faster, coal-fired steamships. In 1851, Herman Melville would predict in Moby Dick that the American demand for coaling stations and markets would smash open the gates to that “double-bolted land” of Japan.
The Shogun Ieyoshi, whose honour the 13 Assassins give their lives to preserve, would lay dying in 1853 as the infamous “Black Ships” of Commodore Matthew Perry dropped anchor in Japanese waters and demanded an end to Japan’s centuries of isolation. The Shogunate fell soon afterwards.
Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of the Samurai. This article first appeared on the now-defunct Manga Entertainment website in April 2011.