Takashi Miike’s “13 Assassins:” Beyond the Blood and Battles

Recently, I rewatched a number of my favorite films from the “Jidaigeki,” or Japanese period drama, genre. One film, 2010’s “13 Assassins,” caught my eye. I wanted to share few thoughts on the film, and its addition to the genre. I cannot recommend this film enough for those who have not seen it.

The Japanese samurai epic can be considered a genre all on its own, much like the American western film. It captures a time and a place and a culture, all while taking the viewer to a world that could not possibly exist. Stories of honor, sacrifice, and swordsmanship have come to define the Japanese people and their culture. However, these films can become quite tiresome; once you’ve seen one hack-and-slash-Samurai-film, you can say you’ve seen them all.

However, the 2010 film “13 Assassins,” as much as it is does have elements of the typical Samurai-slasher, offers something beyond the blood and the battles. “13 Assassins” is a samurai film that focuses on characters, rather than solely the story. It is, at its core, the story of 13 men, each with their own reasons and struggles, that exemplify the larger qualities embodied in the samurai. It is this film’s subtle characterization of these men that truly sets it apart in my own mind as one of the better Samurai films I’ve seen in quite some time.

The third scene of the film immediately introduces the viewer to the main character of the film, and does it in such a way that tells the history of the character solely through visuals. The main character, a samurai named Shinzaemon, is seen perched atop a pier, fishing on a hazy river. The director purposely has Shinzaemon blend in with the other fisherman, giving the impression that this character is an every-man. However, the viewer is also clued into this character’s high-standing through the director’s use of depth of focus. Shinzaemon is in the foreground, given the appearance that his perch is taller than the rest.

As a viewer, we begin to get the impression that this is a samurai who was once of high-regard, who has now chosen to live a simpler life. It is this immediate characterization that makes this movie so enthralling. It takes the time to give these clues, and allows the viewer to draw conclusions about each character. Another character, Shinrokuro, is first introduced to the audience as a drunk womanizer, but later shown in counsel with his wife before battle. These two juxtaposed scenes inform the viewer that this character has a long, difficult past, and also informs us of his motives for taking on this quest: redemption.

What I love about this film is that it capitalizes on the viewer’s imagination to fill in the lives of its characters, in a sense it uses the notion of what is off-screen to make the viewer sympathize with the sacrifice of the characters. The viewer creates a life, and a soul for the characters, and sees them as more than honor-bound killing machines. “13 Assassins” is a blood bath, for sure. In certain scenes, blood actually flows down the street like a river. However, when I look past just the blood and the “historical” story, there is the deep and dramatic lives of 13 fascinating men. This is what is so great about this film. It really digs deep into these characters, and makes you care about their struggle.