Takeshi Miike is a prodigious and protean talent, with a 20-year career spanning nearly 50 films and multiple genres, often bending and blurring them along the way. His Audition appeared to be a restrained romantic drama until it suddenly turned horrific. On paper, Gozu sounds like a typical gangster flick, but it plays out as an intricate and nearly incomprehensible art-house experiment. 13 Assassins (Jûsan-nin no shikaku), however, hews very closely to the conventions of the samurai epic. It’s a taut, slow-burning movie with an explosive conclusion.
A remake of the 1963 film of the same name, 13 Assassins takes place in Edo-era Japan, a time and place of relative peace and prosperity. The shogunate rules through a military dictatorship, but outright war has become a thing of the past. “These days, swords are only good for cutting radishes,” as a merchant says early in the film.
In this world, the sword-wielders are anachronistic. They live by a code of honor that seems increasingly irrelevant and serve masters who are rarely threatened, at least not physically. But these appearances are deceiving: the outwardly sedate shogunate is a place of subterranean intrigue, until the Shogun’s senior adviser, Sir Doi (Mikijiro Hira), recruits a middle-aged samurai named Shinzaemon (Kôji Yakusho). Sir Doi is planning an assassination: the Shogun’s half-brother, Lord Naritsugu (Gorô Inagaki), has become a bloodthirsty political liability. If he gains real power, he’ll usher in a new time of war.
Miike presents these developments with measured, highly formal shots of torch-lit, claustrophobic interiors. The light is always wavering, casting uncertain shadows across the actors’ faces and leaving corners drenched in darkness. These early scenes make great use of the glow’s weak warmth and feeble reach to create a brooding, melancholic atmosphere.
The atmosphere suits Shinzaemon. When he’s first recruited by Sir Doi, he responds, “As a samurai in this era of peace, I have wished for a noble death. Now fate has called to me. See, my hands are trembling. It’s a warrior’s battle shakes.” As he declares his desire for that noble death, he’s describing a past ordered by obedience and dedication. The film demonstrates such desire in a beautifully composed opening scene of harakiri, one of several ritual killings in the film.
The formality of harakiri seems to contrast with Lord Naritsugu’s wanton violence, yet the two also share an underlying connection. Sir Doi presents to Shinzaemon a peasant woman whose father dared oppose Naritsugu. She appears in a candlelit room, wearing only a robe and crying and drooling. The Shogun’s adviser explains that Naritsugu cut off her arms and limbs. He then has her robe removed: the flickering candle renders her mutilated body a grotesque canvas that might have been painted by Caravaggio, light and shadow vying over its surfaces.
The scene makes painfully obvious Naritsugu’s cruelty, but also illustrates an aesthetic dimension of violence. In the harikari scene, pain and suffering are also offered for aesthetic appreciation. The ritual of harikari ennobles the death by placing formal strictures upon it; adherence to these elevates dying to an art. Similarly, but not identically, the woman’s ruined body becomes an object to be contemplated in the moment the light strikes it in a certain way. It is made brilliantly appalling, underscoring the tension between an audience’s desires to look and to look away.
That it’s a female body so objectified fits Naritsugu’s villainy as well. He’s a rapist who’s caused the death of one woman and her disgraced husband. He takes joy in shooting arrows into an entire family, delivering a speech as he does: “Dying for one’s master is the duty of a samurai. Dying for one’s husband is the way of women.” Thus samurai and women are united under this militant, patriarchal political system.
Unsurprisingly, the samurai have greater potential for freedom. As they begin to rebel against their ostensible masters (though in service of other masters), Miike’s camera likewise evidences breathing room. There are fewer interiors, more daylight, and more apparent improvisation as the battles change shape. The shogunate would fall only two decades after the events of 13 Assassins, and the film’s movement from rigid structure to chaotic free-for-all signifies this tumultuous historical transition.