It’s easy to see why Japanese samurai are so fascinating to Western audiences, with their singular devotion to duty, backstopped by an even deeper sense of honor, their mastery of the skills of war, and their willingness to die at any time, without warning. There’s something superhuman about it all, especially to a culture that doesn’t always place much value on serving another over oneself. And it’s especially easy to be seduced into that vision by the vast catalog of chanbara (“swordfight movies”) produced by Japan’s post-war film industry. That genre produced many incredible tales of masterless samurai wandering the countryside looking for one last battle to fight, one last opportunity to prove one’s honor. Some of these movies are immortal, but a lot are merely disposable fun. Either way, they largely faded from view by the 1970s and cinematically speaking, became just another bygone relic of a bygone time. That is, until 2010, when Japanese auteur Takashi Miike crafted a stunning and compelling tale of of blood and honor that not only hearkens to the finest of the samurai genre’s predecessors, but claims a rightful place of its own among the most unforgettable chanbara one is ever likely to see. That movie is 13 Assassins.
The story takes place in 1844, during the waning days of Japan’s Edo-period and the Tokugawa shogunate. Is also the last days of the samurai, most of whom have become bureaucrats or are staring bleakly towards a life where their devotion and battlefield skills are no longer needed. Meanwhile, one of the highest-ranking officials in the land is the wicked Lord Naritsugu, a sadist who regularly rapes, tortures and kills whomever he likes with impunity because he is the Shogun’s half-brother. Naritsugu is soon to be receive a top-level government appointment, and when that happens, the many feudal lords Naritsugu has already victimized will surely revolt, prompting all-out civil war. The Shogun’s justice minister, Doi, knows that Naritsugu will never be brought to heel, so he does the unthinkable: he hires a stalwart old samurai named Shinzaemon to come out of retirement and lead a suicide mission to assassinate Naritsugu. The stakes could not be higher, for all of Japan is at stake. But for Shinzaemon, the reward is priceless: an opportunity to wear his swords one final time, to distinguish himself in battle, and to die the kind of death that samurai dream of. He will gather another dozen like-minded warriors to do the impossible and remind everyone that to a true samurai, dying isn’t the end of life. Dying is the point of it.
By the standards of its peers, 13 Assassins does a fine job of exploring some of the samurai genre’s most long-standing themes: the stoic willingness to subsume the individual into the abstract. The futility of good men beholden by duty to serve the wicked and the corrupt. The wretched existence of a servant with no master. The glory of dying properly, and the nobility of a worthy defeat. And yet, while 13 Assassins holds all of these themes up, it does so in a way that looks upon a revered era with more than a little modern criticism.
After all, what good is duty if it binds honest and true officials like Shinzaemon’s contemporary, Hanbei, to a truly evil master? What good is tradition if the world it serves can so casually cast it all aside? What good is there to having warriors who can so easily lose sight of the common folk they ultimately serve? Shinzaemon’s world is one of fatal contradiction, where everyone is trained to look up to their superior, mainly because it makes it impossible to focus on the mud that swallows their feet. And in a world such as this, the greatest crime is to see it for what it is.
13 Assassins is a movie of two halves: the first sets up the villainy of Naritsugu, the plot to kill him, the humble nobility of Shinzaemon, and the introduction 12 other assassins (11 samurai and one rural hunter who may very well be some kind of demon or forest spirit). All of whom are all players in a confrontation that seems to be over what vision of Japan shall lead the country along an uncertain path. Shinzaemon and his allies fight for a future that no longer needs them. Naritsugu fights for a past drowned in blood. There are no happy endings here, but there is an honorable one. And in this story, honor is enough.
The second half, then, is the story’s titanic payoff. Shinzaemon and his company arrange for an elaborate ambush of Naritusugu’s procession as it travels across the country. But just before the trap is sprung, our heroes learn that Naritsugu is accompanied by some 200 soldiers. Outnumbered nearly 15:1, Shinzaemon attacks anyway, and what follows is a 45-minute battle sequence that is astonishing in its scope, pacing, clever camera work and ability to keep us on the edge of our seats. Most movies sprinkle action scenes along the way to maintain interest. This one just gives a single battle, really, but what a battle it is.
One by one, we see each of Shinzaemon’s samurai confront their opportunity to earn the proper death they were promised. When we finally get to the end, after so much carnage, we see Shinzaemon clean his blade against his blood-soaked tunic one last time, and his stern courage shows us our moment of truth: We don’t live our lives. We spend them.
Most people don’t realize that until their final seconds slip through their fingers. But those who embrace death know most what they stand to lose, and make sure it does not go wasted. Ironic that we’d see that proven by those who are best at dying, but if nothing else, 13 Assassins teaches us that dying well is a skill unto itself. Too bad so few have the heart to pursue it.