“As feudal Japan enjoys peace, the Samurai era is waning. But this fragile calm is threatened by the growing power of Lord Naritsugu (Inagaki), the Shogun’s sadistic younger brother. Sir Doi (Hira) realizes Naritsugu will ruin the Shogunate if he gains higher political standing. As Naritsugu’s evil deeds are quickly hushed up, Sir Doi must act.”
In 1844 Japan, an era of peace prevails. The warring past of the Samurai has long past its peak. However, a rival rests within their ranks. Where an extreme and malicious abuse of power threatens the Shogunate’s normalcy–where it is a tradition for the Samurai to forsake their lives for the survival of their serving Lord. However, when Lord Naritsugu becomes an overlord and abuses his power to become a threat to his society, then comes the time for retribution. Where the slave must overcome his master for the sake of order and humanity.
In the film’s opening scene, a Samurai, provoked by the murdering and relentless brutality of Lord Naritsugu, commits Harakiri (or Seppuku) in protest. Naritsugu’s cruelty is depicted in detail: he rapes Chise, the wife of Shinzaemon’s (Yakusho) son, then brutally murders him in front of her by driving his sword through to his chest. In another display of Naritsugu’s mercilessness, he kills an entire family of servants, only because he believed they were lazy and abused the leniency of their master. Armed with bow and arrow, Naritsugu murders the family of servants, one by one, in execution style, leaving only the last victim, a small child, to watch as his family is murdered in front of him—later pierced by an arrow.
In a final example of brutality delivered by Lord Naritsugu, enslaved the daughter of a village leader, severed arms, and legs, cut out her tongue and used her for his twisted desires. When Naritsugu grew bored of her, he threw her limbless, naked body in the street. During the meeting between Sir Doi (Hira) and Shinzaemon, the woman was presented to show the extent of Naritsugu’s cruelty. Shinzaemon, still bearing the grief of his only son and his wife, asks for an insurrection against Naritsugu. But to do this, he needs warriors.
Shinzaemon was not able to establish a legion of soldiers. Instead, he, and with the assistance of Sir Doi, was able to recruit an elite and potent group of 11 warriors, with the addition to Doi, totaling 12. The 13th warrior, Koyata (Iseya), not of the Samurai, was recruited haphazardly while the group of 12 lost their way to the village to stage the battle and adds the much needed comedic break from the rigid group of Samurai warriors, he even proves to be a deadly addition to the now total of 13 Assassins. Yes, only 13 Assassins against Lord Naritsugu’s army of 200–each with their personalities and history. They are united in the assassination attempt of Lord Naritsugu, even with daunting odds–13 against 200. What they lacked in numbers is made up for in talent and skill. Their political strengths and tactical intelligence gave the edge in the ambush.
Samurai films feature elaborate battles between two ancient warriors of honor and Miike’s directorial brilliance in depicting this seemingly disadvantaged group of assassins as a force to be reckoned with. He did this seemingly without the use of CGI or special effects–or at least, produced so well that the viewer does not notice it. The brutal battles that ensued was carefully choreographed brilliance, in addition to the film’s keen detail of the time: the wardrobes of the Samurai were accurate and impeccable; the married women of the Samurai in the movie had shaved eyebrows and blackened teeth (a practice known as Ohagura*), which most married women, mostly the aristocratic women and even in the imperial, would blacken their teeth. This practice ended in the late 1870’s Meiji** period, as the Japanese government banned the practice. The aesthetic appeal of the towns, villages, and rituals of the Samurai are as if you were watching an actual event in history unfold on screen.
The battle was bloody, brutal, and merciless. Each of Lord Naritsugu’s 200 men, sworn to give their lives to protect him, did just that. As the 13 Assassins numbers began to dwindle, set the stage for the final confrontation between Lord Naritsugu and Shinzaemon. Who will win? Well, no one, honestly, wins. However, the ending will prove to be nothing you quite expected. As it should be. In fact, expect anything less from prolific and controversial Japanese filmmaker, Takashi Miike. This film delivers a bravado period of action and acting performances, set at the end of Japan’s feudal era.
“I shall accomplish your task…with magnificence.”
*Ohaguro (お歯黒) is a custom of dyeing one’s teeth black. It was most popular in Japan until the Meiji era, as well as in the southeastern parts of China and Southeast Asia. Dyeing was mainly done by married women though occasionally men did it as well. It was also beneficial, as it prevented tooth decay, in a similar fashion to modern dental sealants.
* The Meiji period, also known as the Meiji era (明治時代 (Meiji-jidai)), is a Japanese era which extended from September 1868 through July 1912. This period represents the first half of the Empire of Japan.