Lord Naritsugu Matsudaira (Gorô Inagaki) is a bad man. He needs to be stopped. Unfortunately, he is the Shogun’s half-brother and a man of powerful means in feudal Japan. During the waning time of the Samurai (mid 19th century) who can oppose him? The Shogun himself detests his brother but loyalty must prevail otherwise the years of peace, which incidentally, is making the Samurai obsolete, will return.
If Lord Naritsugu must be killed, and because of his cruel, murderous and raping ways towards the servants under his care and the care of others, it is necessary, then it needs to be done covertly. Otherwise open war might occur.
The Shogun assigns this task to Sir Doi (Mikijiro Hira), his chief adviser. Sir Doi, who must also stay away from direct involvement in the undertaking, otherwise shame for killing the Shogun’s brother will also taint the Shogunate. Sir Dio enlists a man he feels is up to the task. Shinzaemon Shimada (Kôji Yakusho) is one of the few true Samurai left in Japan. He spends his days fishing as his services are in rare demand.
When Sir Dio assigns Shinza the task, Shinza sees it as a glorious mission sent from God. He can now die in a manner fit for a Samurai. Shinza is a widow with no children and his self-worth will be regained in this undertaking.
Shinza brings together 12 assassins, who like himself are trained in the arts of Samurai and have not forgone their training and skill for the new ways. The twelve head off to a village to ensnare the Lord and his entourage picking up a 13th man along the way who guides them through the forest to their destination.
The thirteen must now fight 200 warriors loyal to the Lord which makes one remember the classic film Seven Samurai by Japanese legendary director Akira Kurosawa. Using the village itself as a weapon, with explosives, gate-traps and snares throughout, the men reduce their enemy significantly (to 130) before engaging in hand-to-hand combat.
With their superior skill the thirteen reduce further the numbers of the enemy but not without losses. Men are killed in brutal fashion. The interaction is quick, you will see no fancy five minute duels here, it’s a slash and kill style that makes each encounter that much more realistic.
By the end only two assassins remain against the Lord, and three of his henchman. Included in the three is Hanbei Kitou (Masachika Ichimura), Lord Naritsugu head Samurai and main rival to Shinza. The two were classmates at Samurai training school and Hanbei has been jealous of the more prosperous Shinza ever since.
Of the two assassins, one is Shinza leading to the inevitable confrontation between the two. When Shinza removes Hanbei’s head, the other two guards attack. Shinza allows Shinrouko (Takayuki Yamada), the other remaining assassin and nephew to Shimada, to dispatch the men.
Now Lord Naritsugu is alone and must face the wrath of Shinza. We learn in the exchange, where both men are mortally wounded receiving blades to the abdomen, the reasons for Lord Naritsugu’s cruelty. He is a privileged and spoiled man. Everything is pointless to him. There is never excitement only the boredom that comes with a title and a peaceful society. He kills innocent servants and rapes other men’s wives because he is empty inside. Before Shinza decapitates the Lord, Naritsugu thanks the Samurai for the most exciting day of his life.
Shinza falls to the ground and dies, but not before giving his nephew a piece of advice. Shinza tells the younger man that being a Samurai is such a burden and he should leave the service and do what he wants with his life. Director Takashi Miike then has the camera scan the village showing the dead bodies of each assassin, but one is missing.
Shinrouko while walking through the carnage meets up with the 13th, the bear-hunter turned guide to the group who we thought had died earlier. He had received the sharp end of Naritsugu’s short sword while boasting that Samurai were merely a nuisance and nothing to be afraid of.
Miike’s final shot is a close up of Shinrouko’s face as he smiles knowing he is free to do as he chooses. It’s Miike’s way of showing us that indeed the Samurai and the Shogunate are in their death throws. He furthers this by writing in the final credits that the Shogunate would be abolished 23 years later.
Takashi Miike’s is one of Japan’s greatest directors. He has shown this in innumerable films. Whether involving humor, the grotesque or dramatic, Miike always tells a story both verbally and especially visually that is hard to put out of your mind after experiencing it. Although 13 Assassins is one of his tamer and mainstream films (watch something like Ichi the Killer or Audition to see him at his greatest and most disturbing), it still is a masterful film. The man just knows how to put brilliance up on the big screen.