Ever since John Sturges remade Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954) as The Magnificent Seven (1960) and Sergio Leone ‘borrowed’ the plot of Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961) to make A Fistful of Dollars (1964), there has been a profound sense of kinship between the American Western and the Japanese Chanbara.
This connection can be explained in purely historical terms. For example, one of the side effects of America’s post-War occupation of Japan was a flush of Americanophilia amongst young Japanese people. Young Japanese people who would grow up to be filmmakers, filmmakers who might have been tempted to interrogate their own history using the iconography and genre conventions of American popular cinema. Alternately, we could point to the fact that Japanese cinema began to reach an international audience just as the Western entered its revisionist phase, prompting Western filmmakers to look at the Western with a sensibility informed by a newfound awareness of the tragic character of many Japanese films. However, while one could argue that the link between the Western and the Chanbara Samurai film is due to the winds of cultural history and political chance, this is not the story that people want to hear…
The popular (and somewhat more poetic) view of the link between the Chanbara and the Western makes use of the idea of the creation myth. Indeed, while both America and Japan reached the height of their historical powers in the 20th Century, both cultures like to see themselves as products of an anterior historical period characterised by violence and conflict. According to this view, contemporary America was forged in the ashes of the Wild West just as modern Japan can trace its cultural roots to the Edo period in which a warlord known as the Shogun ruled over a feudal order controlled by a class of sword-wielding nobles known as Samurai. While the reinvention of an anterior historical period into a sort of mythic creative age is common in both Japanese and American cultures, contemporary attitudes towards these mythic ages are varied enough that neither the Chanbara nor the Western could ever be accused of simple-minded nostalgia. Indeed, for every scene in which an ersatz Butch and Sundance romantically throw themselves beneath the mechanised wheels of modernity knowing well that there is no place for them in the new world, there is a scene in which a more-or-less ‘wild bunch’ show us that the only thing to have changed between now and then is the efficiency of the weapons that we use to murder each other.
Steeped in traditional iconography and fully intent upon revisiting this same set of ambivalent attitudes towards modernity, Jusan-nin No Shikaku resembles much of Takashi Miike’s recent output in so far as it combines a strict adherence to genre conventions with an eye for human perversity and a desire to celebrate that perversity in as horrific a manner as possible.
Set in the final decades of Edo period Japan, the action takes place against a backdrop of decadence and decline. Indeed, while the Shogun may once have presided over a political system in which capable politicians and fearless warriors vied for power and influence, he is now nothing more than a distant authority figure reigning over an ossified class system made up of decadent courtiers who hark back to a heroic age of war and glory whilst swanning about in expensive kimonos and never setting foot on the battlefield. The decadence of the age is embodied in the person of Lord Naritsugu Matsudaira (Goro Inagaki), a psychopathic relative of the Shogun who is poised to ascend to the country’s governing council despite a fondness for subjecting the people beneath him to systematic rape, murder and mutilation. Horrified by the prospect of this monster gaining any real power, the revered Samurai Shinzaemon Shimada (Koji Yakusho) sets about recruiting a small band of warriors willing to sacrifice their lives in order to keep Lord Naritsugu from the ruling council.
Aside from the immense size of Lord Naritsugu’s personal retinue, Shinzaemon’s task is complicated by the presence of Hanbei Kitou (Masachika Ichimura) on Naritsugu’s staff. Unlike his lord, Hanbei is just as experienced and widely revered a Samurai as Shinzaemon himself. In fact, Shinzaemon and Hanbei are life-long rivals who have clashed repeatedly in politics and swordplay alike without either one ever managing to win a decisive victory of the other. With Shinzaemon’s team assembled and Hanbei aware of the plot against his lord, the two men begin by probing each other’s weaknesses and attempting to manoeuver the other into a trap. In these initial skirmishes, Hanbei reveals himself the most skilled as he sees through Shinzaemon’s attempt to drive Lord Naritsugu towards an isolated village. However, with typical perversity, Naritsugu ignores Hanbei’s advice to avoid the village and chooses instead to arrive at the village with an entire army at his back.
There then follows a flawlessly paced, exquisitely directed and ludicrously extended battle sequence. For forty-five minutes, Shinzaemon and his followers hack, stab, maim, trample and detonate wave after wave of hapless extras as they painstakingly work their way through Naritsugu’s entire bodyguard until only four men are left. Despite the pornographic glee with which Miike depicts the battle, it is clear that the mission (and indeed, the entire film) boils down to this final confrontation. For forty-five minutes, Miike has showered us with blood, limbs and entrails as hundreds of soldiers have died and the film has slogged through eleven melodramatic ‘final stands’ in which Shinzaemon’s followers have heroically surrendered their lives in the name of justice and honour. However, as the ground lies littered with bodies and our stomachs churn from the unceasing carnage, we might very well feel justified in asking what this confrontation is really all about. What is honourable about mass slaughter? Where is the justice in having people throw their lives away? What are the real stakes behind this confrontation? Miike offers us a couple of possible answers.
True to the conventions of the genre, Miike begins by suggesting that this battle is nothing less than the death rattle of the Edo period and that Lord Naritsugu’s individualistic indifference to honour marks him out as a truly modern man. Indeed, one of the film’s sub-plots involves one of Shinzaemon’s relatives who spends all of his days gambling instead of conforming to social expectations and behaving in the ways that Samurai are expected to act. This somewhat less shocking rejection of traditional Samurai values suggests that, far from being some singular affront to the social system, Naritsugu’s individualism is in fact merely one instance of a much wider social trend. According to this interpretation, Hanbei and Shinzaemon are analogous to the Butch and Sundance in that they both remain romantically wedded to the old ways even though they realise that their time has passed. However, this reading of the film is complicated by a number of factors.
While Naritsugu’s decision to walk into Shinzaemon’s trap is initially presented as a manifestation of his fickle and perverse nature, he later explains his decision in terms of a desire to use his power to return Japan to the state of perpetual war and internecine conflict that ended with the rise of the Shogunate. Far from being a Man of Tomorrow, Naritsugu’s actions harken back to a romanticised by-gone age of violence and heroism. Far from wanting to protect Japan from the likes of Naritsugu, Hanbei and Shinzaemon’s brutal actions reveal them to be men cut from the exact same cloth. The only difference between the ‘monstrous’ Lord Naritsugu and the ‘honourable’ Shinzaemon is that Naritsugu is not a hypocrite. Much like the different factions involved in the Wild Bunch’s final shoot-out, the characters in 13 Assassins differ from modern men only in so far as their political rhetoric differs and they use less efficient weapons. As the final credits begin to roll, Miike presses home his point: the deaths of the assassins seem significant because we associate them with the end of a historical age. Much like Butch and Sundance, the deaths of the 13 assassins are seen as symbolic of a turning of the page and the beginning of a new moment in Japanese culture. However, drawing upon our genre expectations as to the significance of his characters’ deaths, Miike ends the film by puncturing the myth of the significant death. Far from being the death rattle of the Edo period, the confrontation between Naritsugu and Shinzaemon took place nearly thirty years before the end of the Edo period. For all the heroism of their actions and the tragedy of their ends, the film’s characters ended nothing. History marched on for an entire generation, utterly oblivious to their pointless deaths.
By deftly entertaining both a romantic and a revisionist conception of his nation’s founding myth, Miike displays a level of ambivalence that helps situate 13 Assassins well within the boundaries of its genre. However, beneath the traditional rhetoric of Modernity vs. Tradition and beneath the classical allusions to a conflict between communal morality and personal ethics, 13 Assassins hides a beautifully misanthropic conception of human nature.
When Miike reveals the fact that Hanbei and Shinzaemon are life-long rivals, he does so with an economy of exposition that is all too easily mistaken for half-arsed storytelling. Indeed, one might read the revelation as a desperate attempt to ground a decidedly abstract political conflict in some ill-defined personal animus between the two characters. While there is some basis for this accusation (Miike did not, after all, write either the screenplay or the story on which it is based) the relationship between Hanbei and Shinzaemon does stand up to considerable critical scrutiny.
Aside from both being products of the same class system, Hanbei and Shinzaemon are also the products of the same set of social institutions. Not merely rivals in the general sense that all of Japan’s political players are in competition with each other, Hanbei and Shinzaemon have been competing directly against each other since childhood. Indeed, even though Shinzaemon begins the film out of favour with the ruling elites, the suggestion is that the pair routinely meet-up in order to play Go against each other. This competitive history does not simply add a personal element to the film’s primary plot, it also explains why it is that Hanbei and Shinzaemon are so similar.
In his ground breaking work of literary criticism Deceit, Desire and The Novel (1961), Rene Girard introduced the concept of mimetic desire as an alternative to the individualistic vision of human nature put forward by Nietzsche and the Existentialists. According to Girard, humans are not isolated entities seeking meaning in a meaningless universe but rather creatures defined by their desires and whose desires are always determined through their relationships with other people. Girard’s model of mimetic desire states that we (the subjects) desire things (the objects) not because of any inherent value that the objects might possess but rather because the objects are desired by someone else (the models). Through the object, the subject is drawn to the model; what we desire is not the object itself but rather the model. When the model and the subject are on the same social level then the desire is said to be internal and the desire manifests itself as a rivalry.
Shinzaemon and Hanbei are social equals who seem to be rivals for political power but, in truth, their desire is for each other, a desire that is expressed as a life-long competition to excel in the traditional Samurai values. As part of this desirous rivalry, the pair project onto each other the characteristics of a god whilst systematically downplaying their own capacities thereby attempting the transition from an internally mediated desire to one that is mediated externally. The result is a hideously masochistic and homoerotic relationship that manifests itself as a brutally sadistic rivalry that consumes not just them but hundreds of other people. Like De Renal and Valenod in Stendhal’s The Red and The Black (1830) or Emma and Leon on Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1857), Hanbei and Shinzaemon spiral around each other both hating and desiring what the other represents.
Over the course of his long career, Girard developed his theory of mimetic desire by drawing upon anthropological work on the origins of religion. Drawing upon Kenneth Burke’s research into the so-called ‘scapegoat mechanism’, Girard’s second book Violence and the Sacred (1972) suggests that, far from being merely a feature of western literature, mimetic desire also accounts for the creation of religious communities as the sado-masochistic characteristic of mimetic relationships becomes more and more pronounced until someone is forced into the position of a scapegoat, a god-like object seen as possessing the capacity to heal and reconcile the entire community through death.
If we feed Girard’s development of the concept of mimetic desire back into 13 Assassins we find that, aside from deconstructing traditional heroic genre notions of a creative age, Miike is also offering up an alternative. It is Hanbei and Shinzaemon’s confrontation and not their death that marks the end of the Edo period. By allowing their childhood rivalry to spiral out of control to the point where it consumes hundreds of lives, the pair are laying the groundwork for a new social order. An order based not upon honour and justice but upon unceasing irrational desire. Desire for power, desire for victory, desire to possess and control one’s rivals. 13 Assassins suggests that modern Japan was forged not in the tragic and violent end of a historical era, but in a pointless homoerotic squabble between two middle-aged men who really should know better. This bleak vision of politics and human nature is what elevates 13 Assassins above its genre roots and into the realm of true cinematic art.