By Andrew Hamlin
Northwest Asian Weekly
When director Eiichi Kudo went into pre-production for his 1963 samurai film “13 Assassins,” he had no way of knowing that he would help pioneer a new age in samurai cinema. Kudo worked with screenwriter Kaneo Ikegami, who’d written another film, “Seventeen Ninja,” released earlier that same year, and Ikegami had come up with the idea of focusing on a team of warriors, instead of a single swordsman.
The result following the completion of Kudo’s trilogy of films — “13 Assassins,” plus “The Great Killing” and “Eleven Samurai” — was a new genre of film known as “Shudan Jidaigeki,” in which groups of samurai came together, sometimes from disparate origins, for a common cause. The approach proved popular amongst both audiences and critics.
The influential “Kinema Jumpo” Japanese film magazine published a list in 2004 of its picks for the finest samurai films of all time. Kudo’s “13 Assassins” came in second, surpassed only by a film much better known in the West, Akira Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai.” With the trilogy now available on DVD in North America for the first time, contemporary American audiences can see for themselves.
“13 Assassins” opens with a samurai prostrated on the ground before a castle gate, dead by his own hand.
Narration, combined with onscreen action, explains the backstory.
The fighter’s suicide is related to the evil Lord Naritsugu Matsudaira (played by Kantaro Suga). The Lord sexually attacked a woman, driving her to suicide. Shame and seppuku surround Lord Naritsugu. He refuses to take responsibility for his own actions, and those around him often feel shamed into suicide, for sullied honor.
A respected warrior named Shinzaemon (Chiezo Kataoka) receives an assignment to eliminate the Lord. This is no easy task. Naritsugu is a son of the current Shogun, with power, connections, and plenty of bodyguards. He also has an intelligent, seasoned head of security in Hanbei (Ryohei Uchida).
One of the film’s many subtle points is the respectful rivalry between Shinzamon and Hanbei. Each understands the other’s position, even as each works to defeat the other. Deeply ingrained codes of honor keep Hanbei loyal to Lord Naritsugu, although his face and even his body at times show the strains of serving the Lord — a spoiled brat who’s degenerated into a bully, and from that, into an authentic human monster.
Kudo and Ikegami felt no need to fill the film with continuous action. This is a narrative about a growing outrage, and the need to construct a meticulous response to that outrage. The political details and the recruitment of the men in small clumps pass by calmly.
But director and cinematographer Jubei Suzuki keep things interesting with camera angles and artful framing of the samurai within each shot. The fighters appear and disappear through sliding doors and into shadows, creating ever-shifting compositions across the screen.
The black-and-white film, and the somewhat more conservative mores in those days regarding violence, means that the film does not count as a gorefest, but it does not need to. The tension skillfully builds until we can see the men starting to crack under it. When the black blood does spill — out of the mouth, down the hand — it’s all the more shocking . The slashed back of a staggering man, showing all his layers of clothing sliced clean with a katana, takes the place of a hundred gushing cuts.
Takashi Miike remade “13 Assassins” in 2010, with great style and considerably more gore. The original, though, retains its place in cinema history. It’s an abiding blend of tension, snap, strategy, and history. (end)
“13 Assassins” and its companion movies, “The Great Killing,” and “Eleven Samurai,” are available on DVD from your local video store. You can also visit http://www.animeigo.com.
Andrew Hamlin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.