In the tradition of great Japanese cinema, Roshomon, Throne of Blood and Seven Samurai, 13 Assassins was hailed by critics as an “old school” approach to amazing fight scenes without unnecessary special effects. But that isn’t the reason to watch it (on Netflix Instant Play this month). In the character of Lord N. is the resurrection of the Japanese Imperialist impulse which resulted in the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
Initially, the atrocities of Lord N. led me to view him as a symbol of the Allied armies who defeated Japan and forced Japan’s unconditional surrender ending World War II: Lord N., then, seemed to be a figure wanting revenge for the World War II. The most powerful image in the film is of a devastated young girl with arms and legs reduced to stubs; her family massacred, she was a “play thing” for Lord N. who not only cut out her tongue, but levied such heavy taxes, the once fruitful home land of the girl became barren. The amputated arms of the girl represent the end of the Japanese army (arms are a symbol of strength) according to the treaty with the Allied forces, and the girl’s cut off legs symbolizes the spiritual death of the Japanese will. The barren land under heavy taxation signifies the price Japan paid for bombing Pearl Harbor when America dropped the devastating atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The tongue being cut out is the silence of Japan accepting their circumstances as a result of the War.
Although the story takes place during a time of peace, the atrocities Lord N. wages against the people threatens to plunge them back into a time of war. No one wants this and no one wants Lord N. to ascend to a position of power he has been given by being the half brother of the reigning shogun. Fearful of the results of Lord N. having power, Shinzaemon (a "retired" samurai) agrees to gather a small group to assassinate him.
|Original movie poster in Japanese.|
|Within the fortified town, the attack on Lord N.'s entourage.|
It is very possible to see 13 Assassins as a call to nationalism, a rising to prepare for another Imperialist war “righting the wrongs”; it would be the same, for example, if Neo-Nazis in Germany started gaining power again, or if the Ku Klux Klan called for a new Civil War in America.
|The wild spirit and "no rules" member of the 13 assassins.|
There is, however, one moment demonstrating that Lord N. is not a symbol of the Allied Forces, rather, a ghost, buried deep within the history and culture of Japan: the group of assassins have taken over a town and transformed it into a fortified death trap; Lord N.’s 200 bodyguards are falling dead around their brutal Lord who, witnessing the massacre, tells his chief samurai that he intends to bring back the days of war because it will be exciting and people will value their lives more. This dedication to war definitely makes Lord N. the symbol of Japanese Imperialism itself and not a symbol of the Allied Forces.
His death is imperative because it’s the destruction to that movement within Japanese society and culture that would try to achieve the goals of World War II once more; further, it’s not just that he dies, he’s beheaded (which, granted, happens frequently in this violent movie) but the cutting off of his head symbolizes that what he stands for will no longer “govern” the Japanese people (the head always symbolizes a governing function, please see “The Body” in How To Eat Art).
A history film is never about something historical: it always has to be translated into contemporary terms for a modern audience to identify with it and be willing to invest their time. In this case, even as the film opens with the most traditional Harikari or Seppuku (ritual suicide by disembowelment), it's a very modern film examining the most traditional code of conduct in Japanese society: the samurai. Traditionally, the Samurai owed total allegiance to their lord and master and would die for him; in 13 Assassins, this is true, for the servants of Lord N.; however, the 13 are willing to give their lives for "the people," which didn't amount to much then. 13 Assassins is a significant re-writing of the basics of Japanese culture and tradition.
The way contemporary Japanese peace is supported by the film is the two assassins who are left living: one who didn’t like being a samurai (but who had fought well and with great skill and courage) and the other the “wild spirit of the samurai” (for those who have seen it, you know which one I am talking about; for those who haven’t, you will). That one will stay and enjoy what he longs for, and the other will go to America, clearly establishes the peace between Japan and the United States, and that it will continue to the benefit of both countries.
The deep film of Japan’s psyche reveals a violent purgation of shogun ghosts trying to extend their influence to a new generation of Japanese from beyond the grave. The genius of the film is the recognition of the imperialist psychology being the reason Japan endured such horrors, and not the Allied Forces. The courage of the film lies in its call to discredit that facet of their culture which would plunge Japan—and the world—once more into war, while recognizing the value of the peace they enjoy today.
|The bloody--and awesome--battle over which side will prevail.|
|Samurai preparing to commit Seppuku for losing a battle.|
|The honor of the samurai in dying for a cause greater than themselves.|
|Samurai fighting in a battle in 1561, the Battle of Kawanakajima.|