13 figures step forward, dark shapes emerging against the early morning mist. They have spent days turning an abandoned village into a death trap, crafting spiked barriers, piling dry straw on bulls and creating a small forest of spare swords in a nearby square. The thunder of hooves announce the arrival of 200 horsemen and their sadistic leader, ready to rush through and usher in a new age of bloodshed unless these 13 men can stop them here. One by one, the 13 assassins drift back into the fog ready to deal death and in turn be dealt it.
The average Takashi Miike movie takes about two weeks to shoot. Three if it’s a masterpiece like Audition. There are exceptions of course and 13 Assassins, with its two-month shooting schedule, is one of the longest exceptions. Miike used to churn out roughly six films or more a year in his prime and although he has slowed down after crossing the hundred-film mark a few years ago, he still averages two to three annually. He’s directed everything from yakuza gore fests like Ichi the Killer to video game adaptations such as Ace Attorney as well as elegiac fantasy comedies like The Bird People in China. Some of his best, most dedicated work goes into his samurai films.
It is 1844 in Japan and Lord Matsudaira Naritsugu (Goro Inagaki) is considered a psychotic embarrassment by everyone but the ruling Shogun, his half-brother. Despairing, one of the Shogun’s top advisors asks veteran samurai Shimada Shinzaemon (Koji Yakusho) to secretly dispose of the bloodthirsty Lord Naritsugu. Knowing that in such an era of peace he will never have a chance at a glorious death in battle again Shinzaemon agrees and gathers 12 others to help him complete his task. Among them are Shinzaemon’s nephew Shimada Shinrokuro (Takayuki Yamada), fellow veteran Kuranaga Saheita (Hiroki Matsukata), the master swordsman Tsuyoshi Ihara (Hirayama Kujuro) and the hunter-guide (also possibly a mischievous demon) Kiga Koyata (Yusuke Iseya).
13 Assassins opens with a samurai, dressed in snow-white robes, kneeling before a castle gate and committing ritual suicide as a protest against the atrocities of Lord Naritsugu. Miike shoots everything but the short tanto blade actually carving a line through the samurai’s stomach wall. The man’s face is a contorted mask of barely concealed pain. Ripping and tearing sounds accompany the passage of the knife as it opens the once noble samurai’s guts. After about two agonizing minutes, he collapses not quite dead yet but his message of protest made clear. 13 Assassins maintains the torturous energy of this first scene before exploding into an orgy of violence in its third act.
It takes a while to get to the famously christened ‘Village of Death’ sequence that forms the film’s 45 minute climax but Miike hints at what’s to come throughout the film. There is of course the opening seppuku ritual. Later Shinzaemon hears two stories of Naritsugu’s atrocities that convince him to take the job. First, a feudal lord tells him of the beheading of his son as well as the rape and eventual suicide of his son’s wife by Naritsugu. The advisor that hires Shinzaemon shows him a peasant woman made a quadruple amputee and mute by Lord Naritsugu. When Shinzaemon asks her what happened to the rest of her village she writes, in block kanji, using an ink brush clamped in her teeth: “TOTAL MASSACRE”.
What is important about the limbless woman brought naked before Shinzaemon is that it’s the moment he’s convinced that killing Lord Naritsugu is both morally justified and a guaranteed path to personal glory. Initially stricken by the sight of the crippled woman his horror turns to joy as the enormity of both his task and the potential honor it will bring him stretches out before him. The Emperor and the peasants will never know of his sacrifice but it’s enough for Shinzaemon and the men he recruits that by killing one monster they will prevent an army of them rising up.
Good samurai characters are those like Yojimbo or Zatoichi who affect a disinterest in the plight of the common man before going to work with their heart of gold and sharp katana. Great samurai characters are those like Shinzaemon in 13 Assassins or Ogami Itto of the Lone Wolf and Cub series that work towards improving the lives of those weaker than they are but often for their own personal gain as well. Once Shinzaemon knows of the glory – either in life or in death – he will shower himself and his men in he prepares an elaborate death trap that barely anyone will walk away from.
The build up to this death trap is long and there is little actual action unless you count a brief skirmish with bandits and Naritsugu’s archery execution of an entire family. Miike invests this time in exploring some but not all of the samurai heading to their deaths. Many seek something all samurai are taught to crave: a glorious death in battle. Others, like Shinzaemon’s nephew, Shimada, are bored and ashamed with their lot as essentially warriors with no war to fight. They are some of the best-trained soldiers in the country with no one to test and hone their skills against and eventually they will cast all notions of feudal obedience that bushido – the samurai code – demands away in order to kill Naritsugu and find the death they seek. There is no honour on the battlefield but the only two who really seem to understand this are Lord Naritsugu and the mysterious, irreverent Kiga Koyata.
After an attack by bandits on the road the 12 samurai forgo the roads in favour of a stealthy hike through thick foliage and leech-filled rivers. Well and truly lost they stumble upon a bold and filthy hunter trapped in a wooden cage hung from a tree. Kiga Koyata adds some much-needed levity to a very dour-humoured film. His cheek and hyperactive energy is a great foil against even the best humoured of the samurai. He constantly complains that, as a group, samurai are dull and boring, even useless. Still, he sticks with them to the end and beyond, smashing in skulls using his sling and rock club with the best of them. His mystical nature is only properly explored in the longer Japanese cut of the film but his interactions with Lord Naritsugu and Shimada near the end tie neat bows on all three characters’ arcs.
The preparation for luring Lord Naritsugu towards the empty village of Ochiai involves redirecting Naritsugu’s massive entourage of samurai, buying out the village itself and then pressganging the villagers into turning their town into a narrow, booby trap filled maze. When all is done and Shinzaemon finally comes face-to-face with the enemy his second-in-command, Kuranaga Saheita, issues the challenge “By the order of His Shogun’s subject Shinzaemon, we commemorate your passage with arrows!” Battles lines are drawn; the village of Ochiai becomes the village of death. Arrows begin to fly and men begin to die.
The action scenes, which took Miike three weeks to shoot on an open-air set, are fast, kinetic, and bloody. It’s clear that Miike is channeling the fast-paced energy of Kurosawa’s greatest epics mixed with the gory pulp of the gnarliest samurai B movies. The two together, even with flaming bulls and a forest of swords, enhance the realism of the sequence. Every decision made by the 12 samurai and their jokey, horny goblin ally feels like a tactical choice made in desperation that would never work in a conventional battle. However, this battle is anything but conventional and the village’s narrow alleys, cramped interiors and high roofs work to the assassins’ advantage.
The action in 13 Assassins is far from the balletic swordplay we see in the likes of Sanjuro and Sword of Doom. It’s close, ugly fighting in dirty, mud-slicked streets and on thatched roofs. Bows and arrows, spears, swords, slings and a rock-tipped club are brought to bear against Lord Naritsugu’s 200 swordsmen. It would be easy for characters to get lost in the shuffle but the costume design separates the assassins, in mostly dark colours, from Lord Naritsugu and his elite guard, in nearly all white, from the grunts they hire to bolster their numbers, in duller earthy colours.
Choreographing 213 people is not an easy job and it’s to Miike’s credit that the viewer is always aware of where one character is in relation to another. Saheita hacks his way through the enemy as if he’s cutting down trees. Shinzaemon and Shimada slaughter their way through 70 elite guards towards Naritsugu. Meanwhile in a distant part of the village the master swordsman Hirayama Kujuro whirls like a dervish leaving swords plucked from the earth in between the ribs of his foes.
13 Assassins ends as it begins, in death. The town of Ochiai is destroyed and over 200 corpses are spread throughout it. A lone samurai looks out at all the chaos as a light rain begins to fall, dispelling the thick stench of blood. He does not ask himself if it was worth it, he knows it was. Still, he thinks: “Fuck this”. As he tosses away his sword and staggers off towards a new life a demon skips and leaps over corpses, content in the knowledge that samurai are no longer boring because they are all dead. The words “TOTAL MASSACRE” may float in certain viewers minds.