For Christmas I was fortunate to receive a DVD of the movie ’13 Assassins’ (2010). Whilst it is an action movie, I found it surprisingly moving. It also has some alarming scenes. It is rated 15 for the UK but 18 for Eire and I would go with the latter level, not because of the combat but because of what the assassins’ target: Lord Matsudaira Naritsugu carries out. Matsudaira is a brother of the Shogun which effectively makes him untouchable by the law and allows him to behave sadistically. He rapes the wife of one of the noblemen of the Akashi clan into which he has been adopted hosting his visit leading to the suicide of her and her husband. He slaughters an entire village of peasants who rose up leaving only one woman alive who he mutilates. The scene featuring her is one of the most alarming I have seen outside a horror movie. He shoots arrows into bound members of a family including women and children simply as a pastime. At the end of the movie when Matsudaira is dying he revels in the excitement he has had in battling his would-be assassins and considers reinstating the Age of War almost as a source of entertainment. To some degree this ensures that we continue to hate him as even at his end he appears as a spoilt child whose games lead to misery for others. Japanese audiences will know how much damage the Age of War did to their country; it is equivalent to the English Civil War for Britain, the Hundred Years War for France and the Thirty Years War for Germany.
Despite his behaviour and attitudes, Matsudaira is in line to become part of the government, a step which alarms a senior civil servant, Doi Toshitsura. It is he who commissions retired samurai Shimada Shinzaemon to assassinate Matsudaira. Through the movie he assembles twelve other samurai, ronin and a bandit descended from a samurai clan to be the assassins. They trap Matsudaira in a village and proceed to kill him and all his retainers. There is a decent review of ’13 Assassins’ (2010) at: http://aheroneverdies.blogspot.com/2011/04/takashi-miikes-13-assassins-review.html
This version of '13 Assassins' ( running time 2 hours 6 minutes on UK version; 2 hours 21 minutes in Japan) is a remake of the 1963 'Thirteen Assassins' [Jûsan-nin no shikaku] directed by Eiichi Kudo two hours five minutes written by Kaneo Ikegami. The remake was written by Daisuke Tengan, based on Kaneo Ikegami's screenplay and directed by Takashi Miike. I hope one of the terrestrial television channels shows the 1963 version. The movie is very well made and moving. It shows other countries how effective an action movie can be in both exciting and intellectually engage the audience. Unsurprisingly it has been compared to ‘Seven Samurai’ [Shichinin no Samurai] (1954) co-written, edited, and directed by Akira Kurosawa (running time 3 hours, 27 minutes) which remains the best known Japanese-made [‘13 Assassins’ is an Anglo-Japanese collaboration anyway] samurai movie. Given that I spent much of the Christmas period battling through ‘Total War: Shogun 2’ I thought it might be interesting to compare and contrast the two movies.
‘13 Assassins’ is set in 1844, just 23 years before the end of the Shogunate period with the Meiji Restoration which led to the modernisation of Japan. The only reference to the modern world is when one character talks of possibly moving to live in America. The only firearms visible are the barrels of gunpowder and matchlock muskets which had been used in Japan since the 16th century anyway. In contrast ‘Seven Samurai’ is set in 1587 during the so-called Age of War [Sengoku jidai] of Japanese history which ultimately led to the establishment of the Tokugawa Shogunate which was to rule Japan unbroken from 1603 until 1867. Thus, the movies are set at either end of the last great period of the samurai. The fact that both sets of characters would precisely recognise the clothing, equipment and values of the other shows the degree to which Japanese society was ossified for three centuries if not longer.
In ’13 Samurai’ we see a unit of ashigaru (i.e. non-samurai) soldiers armed with matchlock-firing arquebuses; the bandits in ‘Seven Samurai’ also possess three of these. Arquebuses had been adopted extensively by Japanese forces when introduced by Europeans first in 1543 and within ten years Japan had the highest per capita ownership of such weapons in the world. Once Japan was closed to Europeans after 1635 the technology did not advance until the mid-19th century. However, use of these guns was uncommon in the 1840s and there were few soldiers trained in them, so for them to be used at this time would be very uncommon. Throughout the movie, though, there are references back to the past in Japanese history.
The motives for the action is different. In ‘Seven Samurai’ it is peasants being persecuted by bandits who come looking for samurais to defend their village from repeated attack. The samurai recruited become involved for various reasons, but to some degree it is a question of ‘noblesse oblige’, the obligation of knightly if not noble men to defend those who could not do so. The ‘sword hunt’ which seized weaponry held by non-samurai was not introduced until 1588, the year after the movie is set. In one scene we see all the swords and armour that the peasants have looted from samurai, probably ronin (literally ‘wave man’, samurai without a lord usually due to death; the often became bandits or were ‘hired swords’). Despite the arms and armour which only the possibly fake samurai, Kikuchiyo, makes use of, the peasants are untrained in their usage. The production and delivery of food in exchange for military protection was the basis of feudal society whether in Japan or in Europe. Though not mentioned the role the seven samurai take on should be being filled by the samurai of their overlord, but either he is negligent or his forces are being used in the ongoing conflicts of the period.
The issue of ‘noblesse oblige’ is a more central debate in ’13 Samurai’. Matsudaira and his chief retainer Hanbei emphasise that the heart of the samurai code is loyalty to one’s lord and effectively blind to his behaviour. However, Shimada and his colleagues and effectively Doi argue that the samurai works on behalf of the people. A similar discussion could have been held in medieval Europe though the codes of chivalry were more for stories than for everyday life the way the principles that guided samurai were. Of course, in contrast to ‘Seven Samurai’ it is not simply peasants who are suffering, it is the samurai class itself which is being put under pressure by Matsudaira and there is a fear that any samurai or noble might lose his daughter or son to the man’s behaviour.
These debates bring us back to the nature of the times in which the movies are set. In the Age of War the time shown in ‘Seven Samurai’, whilst samurai fell in their thousands in battles, many peasants and townspeople were caught up in the battles between the different clans, either serving as ashigaru troops, as a result of being caught in sieges or due to rape and looting by soldiers and ronin even when peace had come to an area. By the 1840s, samurai culture had become stylised and one aspect of those recruited is that they keep to the ‘old ways’ and are skilled in the use of swords and in one case, spear. Matsudaira and those around him may preen with their swords but many are no good at using them. Throughout the extended battle scene you often see members of Matsudaira’s entourage screaming in fear or a kind of insanity often batting ineffectually with their swords. This contrasts sharply with the one-blow kills of the assassins, even of the bandit Kiga Koyata using rocks and a sling.
The formation of the group differs between the two movies. As is noted in commentary on ‘Seven Samurai’ the approach in that movie set the pattern for numerous westerns and war movies that followed in the 1960s and 1970s in particular of assembling a disparate group of men typically with different skills. It is unsurprising that the western remake, ‘The Magnificent Seven’ (1960) and its sequels 1966-72 adopted this approach as did ‘The Professionals’ (1966) but you can see it in ‘The Dirty Dozen’ (1967), ‘The Guns of Navarone’ (1961) and even more so in the far weaker ‘Force Ten from Navarone’ (1978) and ‘Where Eagles Dare’ (1968). In ‘Seven Samurai’ the first fighter commissioned recruits the others and while has some acquaintance with them does not know them well. In ’13 Assassins’ the group includes students of the veteran samurai who volunteer and the nephew of Shimada. They have a narrower range of fighting styles than seen in the westerns and war movies. In ’13 Assassins’ veteran widower ronin, Sahara Heizō uses a spear and one of the others uses his wakizashi (short sword) in his left hand and his katana (long sword) in his right in the style of Miyamoto Musashi of the 16th century. In ‘Seven Samurai’ whilst the bulk fight with the katana, Katayama Gorōbei, the lieutenant to the leader Shimada Kanbei, is an expert archer, interestingly the art that samurai were first renowned for before the subsequent development of the cult of the sword. Both movies have a young, untested samurai; a cool, almost clinical expert fighter (though Hirayama Kujūrō is far happier to sign up immediately for the mission in ’13 Assassins’ than Kyūzō is in ‘Seven Samurai’) and a jolly round-faced warrior.
In both movies there is also a ‘mercurial’ outsider. In ‘Seven Samurai’ this is Kikuchiyo not from the samurai class though he is a good sword fighter. He is like the conduit to the peasants that the samurai are supporting though he is uneasy about reminders of his heritage. He may actually be the son of a ronin or a jizamurai also known as a kokujin, poor rural samurai who was closer to the peasantry than they were to their samurai class. In ’13 Assassins’ there is the aforementioned Kiga who also claims samurai lineage. It is not certain if Kiga is actually human as he appears immortal and may be a spirit, something like a Kitsune (fox spirit) or Mujina (badger spirit). Kiga is asked if he is a ‘coyote spirit’ though I assume this is an American translation of Kitsune as there are similarities between this creature and the coyote trickster spirit of traditional American folklore. In Japanese stories these spirits can assume human form. The Shinto religion also worships Kami, eighty million local gods. He may also be some form of mountain demon such as a Tengu, a bird-like humanoid of Japanese legends. In both movies the role of this character is to show that whilst the band is elite there is a kind of approval for their actions from natural law whether the wider sense of society or literally from nature or the spirit world.
In both movies there is a vital role for the village. This levels up the odds between the samurai and their opponents. Of course, in ‘Seven Samurai’ protecting the village is at the heart of the mission. In ’13 Samurai’ with government funds, the assassins buy out the population of the village and only a few remain briefly to reduce the suspicions of Matsudaira’s entourage that they are walking into a trap. In both movies gates are used to corral small units of opponents and to pick them off with the samurai making use of roof tops and buildings to provide an advantage. In ’13 Samurai’ the preparations are taken to a far greater extent with a whole series of booby traps and false routes injure and disorientate Matsudaira’s men. There are a lot of swords for the assassins to use and though not shown I did wonder if, as in ‘Seven Samurai’, there was a stockpile in the village despite the sword hunts.
Both of these samurai movies are primarily about action. However, they also provide more that simple combat including the development of different characters and also discussion about both ‘correct’ and ‘right’ behaviour in Japanese society in the samurai era. It is these other elements which I believe continues to draw back viewers. After all, how many other non-English language movies released in 1954 can you name. I trust that ’13 Samurai’ will be seen in such a light in 2060. I am also looking forward to seeing the movie of ‘The 47 Ronin’ being released in 2012, based on a classic samurai story from Japanese literature.