Near the end of Con Air, opposition leader Cyrus Grissom lets the cops into the bone yard in order to take out the first and last squad cars, creating “an airtight cage filled with lots and lots of dead people”. 13 Assassins takes that simple premise and multiplies it exponentially. By the end, the narrow corridor looks like Watchmen’s New York City. Severed heads, mutilated horses and rivers of blood coarse their way through the narrow streets. Chaos is disorganized and pointless. Every displaced platelet shed here is a brutalized keepsake of a forgotten age where men lived and died by codes of honor larger than themselves. The Samurai wouldn’t have it any other way.
Lord Naritsugu (Goro Inagaki) is the Caligula of his time and place. A vicious and arrogant second in command to his older brother the Shogun, he rapes and murders for sport, abusing his untouchable status and hiding behind his royal escort headed by the duty-bound Hanbei (Masachika Ichimura). Under the law, Lord Naritsugu is untouchable; so, a scorned and disenfranchised public official circumvents the natural order and hires an aging Samurai named Shinzaemon (Koji Yakusho) to assassinate the spoiled tyrant. He chose wisely. Shinzaemon, once a trusted friend of Hanbei’s, has spent his life learning the sword and praying for an honorable death. This plot is his chance.
Calling in old favors and shelling out money, the hardened idealist soon constructs a formidable team of scrappy youngsters, determined twenty-somethings and a few old men eager to kick one last ass. Numbering twelve, they plan to ambush the Lord and seventy of his guards during their travels to a scheduled state visit, but Hanbei has his ear to the ground and senses his old buddy might be up to something. He pleads with Shinzaemon to stand down, but neither man has any inkling to budge, two seasoned warriors keenly aware the other will never surrender.
Failure’s not an option for the twelve assassins, and they take every precaution en route to the ambush. That means traveling through the leech-infested woods. There, they meet a hunter who’s been tied up and left for dead by his boss as punishment for getting a little too familiar with his wife. They cut him down, and he agrees to lead them through the underbrush, provided they give him food and periodic compliments. All thirteen assassins are now in place as the group descends on a local village and outfits it with bombs and booby traps in preparation for the final battle each is sure will end in his death.
In a way, that self-assured, cocky embrace of death is what makes 13 Assassins so mesmerizing. The goal isn’t survival; it’s the fight itself. To protect your own interests is to betray the larger mission, regardless of what side you happen to be on. Hanbei may be shielding a real son of a bitch, but he’s vowed to trade his life in service of the Shogun. At times, he even seethes at the thought of Lord Naritsugu gaining more power, but what’s a Samurai to do when he’s taken an oath? That’s not to say he should be considered a hero or that the split between good and evil isn’t clearly defined, but the film does make an effort to gray the black and white subject matter. Some of the assassins are fighting for money, others out of an obligation not to the cause but to Shinzaemon himself.
The foretold death comes not in waves but in one violent and riveting push for honor. Like the final charge in Glory, each assassin plunges into enemy steel and embraces his preordained fate. I wish I could tell you all perished in highlight reel fashion, but 13 Assassins is too honest for that. Hanbei’s men, now numbering 200, are too resourceful and strong for that. In war, not every main character is slaughtered by the strongest opponent, nor is he always given one last moment to say his goodbyes.
With thirteen assassins plus more than a few imperative main characters on the other side, it’s sometimes difficult to keep everyone straight and get a full sketch of backstories and motivations. At a little over two hours, there’s simply not enough time, especially since much of the early focus is devoted to vilifying Lord Naritsugu. By the end though, these minor qualms are hidden beneath that airtight caged filled with lots and lots of dead people.
13 Assassins isn’t a film for the weak-stomached nor the faint of heart, but it is a whole lot more than just carnage. The Samurai wouldn’t have it any other way and neither would I.