by Andrea Grunert
Miike Takashi’s (1) 13 Assassins (Jūsan-nin no shikaku, Japan, 2010) is a remake of the eponymous film by Kudo Eiichi released in 1963. When I first watched it, I was struck by the number and variety of references to film history. Having stated that and to prevent possible misunderstandings, let me emphasize that Miike’s film is an important work in its own right in which the director develops a clear perspective on loyalty, social justice and individual choice. Moreover, the film’s intertextual dimension – an aspect absent in Kudo’s film as well as in an earlier remake for Fuji Television by Tominaga Takuji in 1990 – contributes to its rich signification. Adding another layer of meaning, it reinforces the director’s critical approach to misinterpretations of bushidō – the way of the warrior – and the values that are commonly associated with it, especially loyalty and honour.
One of the most obvious references to masterpieces of Japanese cinema is established by the figure Kiga Koyata, who shares numerous character traits with Kikuchiyo, the would-be samurai in Kurosawa Akira’s Seven Samurai (Shichinin no samurai, 1954). This article focuses on Koyata in Miike’s 13 Assassins and explores the similarities and differences between Koyata and Kikuchiyo, referring also to the performances by the actors who play Koyata and Kikuchiyo: namely Iseya Yūsuke and Mifune Toshirō respectively.
The action of 13 Assassins is set in 1844, twenty-four years before the end of the shogunate and the rule of the samurai. A group of samurai, led by Shimada Shinzaemon (Yakusho Kōji), is entrusted with a mission to kill the sadistic Lord Matsudaira Naritsugu (Inagaki Gorō) in order to prevent his appointment to the Council of Elders (2), which would make him one of the most powerful men in Japan after the shogun. The ruthless Naritsugu, portrayed as the embodiment of evil, is protected by law and must therefore be eliminated in a clandestine operation. In a small village that they have transformed into a killing field, Shinzaemon and twelve comrades-in-arms face Naritsugu and his escort of 200 samurai (3). Eleven of the men who have joined Shinzaemon’s fight for social justice are samurai or ronin (masterless samurai). When they lose their way in the mountains, they meet the hunter Koyata, who becomes the 13st assassin.
The plot, many of the characters and numerous details in Miike’s 13 Assassins – with a filmscript written by Tengan Daisuke – scrupulously follow Kudo’s original, a film based on a screenplay by Ikegami Kaneo, who was also the scriptwriter for Tominaga’s television film. All three 13 Assassins films start with the seppuku (suicide by disembowelment) of one of Naritsugu’s retainers, and some of the shots in this opening sequence of Miike’s film are almost identical with the first shots in Kudo’s 13 Assassins. The lighting is particularly exquisite in both films, with Miike exploring the contrast between light and shade in a colour film rather than Kudo’s black and white original. Miike’s approach to violence is more realistic, and in the long, final battle scene, the combatants are covered in blood and mud, limbs are cut off, and the burning village is strewn with the dead bodies of men and horses (4).
One main difference between the three films is in the character Kiga Koyata. In Kudo’s film, his first appearance is when Shinzaemon’s nephew meets him in the village in which the fight against Naritsugu is going to take place. Koyata (Yamashiro Shingo) calls himself a “peasant samurai“, a samurai of peasant stock, but the village headman expresses doubts about his samurai ancestry. Koyata has only a minor role in this film, mainly two dialogue sequences, during the second of which he is admitted to Shinzaemon’s group of samurai. In the television film from 1990, Koyata has an even smaller role as a samurai who joins Shinzaemon’s “band of assassins” before their departure from Edo (present-day Tokyo) to the village in the mountains. In this minor supporting role, he has hardly any individual features.
In Miike’s film, Kiga Koyata is a much more complex and even mysterious character and, a key figure in the film’s treatment of individual action. Koyata is a hunter but claims to be the descendant of samurai, which explains why he has a surname. In the strict class system of Japanese society ruled by samurai, only the members of this warrior class had the right to a family name. In Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai however, Kikuchiyo, the seventh samurai, is a peasant who pretends to be a samurai. He stubbornly follows Kanbei, an elderly samurai (Shimura Takashi) who is recruiting fellow samurai to protect a village from a group of bandits. At first rejected by Kanbei, Kikuchiyo is ultimately accepted as a member of the group. Similarly, in Miike’s film Koyata is initially not permitted to join Shinzaemon and his samurai. Shinzaemon’s nephew Shinrokurō (Yamada Takeyuki) in particular continues to treat Koyata as an outcast, advising him to return to the mountains because he does not belong to the warrior class.
Miike and also Kurosawa in Seven Samurai frequently highlight the topic of social class difference. In Seven Samurai, Kikuchiyo catches a fish with his bare hands and shows his catch triumphantly to Kanbei and the six samurai, who watch him from up on a rock. However, he does not join the others, and he eats his fish alone. In Miike’s film, Koyata kills a rabbit with his weapon, which is a kind of sling. Even though they are exhausted after their trek through the unknown and hostile mountain region, the samurai turn up their noses at the food, saying that they have more important things to do than to eat. Koyata’s reply “Is there anything more important?” reveals that he does not understand their attitude, which is based on the samurai ethic of frugality. These samurai are no longer warriors but live as bureaucrats in Edo (5), whereas the young hunter leads a life fraught with danger, as is revealed by the many scars on his body and the fact that one of his ears has been half ripped off by a bear.
Both Kikuchiyo and Koyata are depicted as rather unsophisticated characters and closer to nature than the samurai, who are prisoners of their social class. Kikuchiyo understands the mentality of his fellow peasants and succeeds in persuading them to leave their houses, where they are hiding in fear of Kanbei and the other samurai and unaware that they are not bandits. He also gives a helping hand during the harvest while the samurai, not used to such manual work, are just bystanders. Koyata is familiar with the forest in which Shinzaemon and his men lose their way and is quite at home in such terrain, but the samurai are disgusted by the leeches that cling to their skin and are soon exhausted by their trek through the dense and humid forest of the mountain region.
The unsophisticated aspect of the two characters is also suggested by their undisguised sexuality. Kikuchiyo expresses carnal desire while observing the village’s women arriving for the wheat harvest (“Where the hell have you been hiding these girls?”), his body language clearly revealing his excitement. Kudo’s 13 Assassins has a romantic love element with Koyata eager to join Shinzaemon’s men to prove his manhood and courage in order to win the hand of the village headman’s daughter (6). In Miike’s film, the twelve samurai find Koyata suspended from a tree in a net, put there as punishment for having coveted his boss’s wife. Moreover, Koyata is obsessed by Upashi, the woman he loves. Later in the film, he talks repeatedly about Upashi, in a daydream he has a vision of her, and at the end of the film, his only wish is to be reunited with this woman of his dreams.
Rebelliousness is a key characteristic of both Kikuchiyo and Koyata, and Koyata in Miike’s 13 Assassins is as untamed and rebellious as Kikuchiyo in Seven Samurai. In one scene, Koyata provokes one of the samurai by putting a live insect in his mouth, and although Kikuchiyo has ambitions of becoming a samurai, in one long monologue scene he accuses the warrior class of exploiting the peasantry. Koyata refers to his samurai ancestry, but he nevertheless criticizes the warrior class, calling the samurai arrogant and inefficient. When Naritsugu’s swordsman Kitō Hanbei (Ichimura Masachika) says to him: “You are not a samurai”, Koyata replies that this fight is a fight between good-for-nothings, adding: “Samurai or not. Good-for-nothings stay good-for-nothings.” (7)
Flamboyant characters and extravagant acting style
Koyata and Kikuchiyo are both flamboyant figures, a character trait reinforced by Mifune’s and Iseya’s strong performances. Their acting is highly expressive and entirely appropriate to the rather wild and adventurous characters they play. Mifune’s energetic style contributes significantly to the portrayal of a character who, unlike the samurai, does not hide his emotions. Kikuchiyo’s exuberant gesturing and jumping, and his roaring laughter “present him as a true force of nature displaying life’s most elemental features.” (8). Cynthia Baron and Sharon Marie Carnicke, who explore the potential relationship between Seven Samurai and Japanese theatrical traditions, especially Nō theatre, write: “Kikuchiyo’s performance when interacting with the villagers reminds of a kyōgen figure who belongs to a realm of ‚humorous, stylized, theatrical representation‘ that illuminates ‚truth under the veil of the joke’” (9). Kikuchiyo has sounded the alarm to lure the villagers out of their houses, where they are hiding instead of welcoming the group of samurai who have come to protect them. The panic that his ruse creates delights the would-be samurai, who struts like a peacock, laughing, pulling faces and mimicking the peasants’ fear. His whole body is involved, creating a stark contrast to the restrained behaviour of the samurai.
Koyata, who hops rather than walks, in Miike’s 13 Assassins, gives a performance reminiscent of Mifune’s extravagant acting in Seven Samurai, Iseya’s acting style being an example of the intertext that Miike creates between his film and Kurosawa’s (10). Rather like Mifune’s, Iseya’s acting style is marked by movement. Wild gesturing and loud screaming emphasize that Koyata is a very emotional character, and parallel editing shows Shinzaemon and his eleven comrades discussing their strategy while Koyata moves around restlessly next door, then lies down on a bundle of straw, the expression on his face betraying the inner turmoil stirred up by his wish to join the samurai.
As with Kikuchiyo, Koyata’s body and his body language are constant markers of social class difference. Living in the forest and fighting wild animals, Koyata is presented almost as a savage, even if he is outraged when treated as one. His body is not only covered in scars, his face and chest are also blackened with dirt, making his eyes look even wilder. Make-up and also the way Iseya uses his gaze and his whole body to express feelings contribute to his portrayal of a multifaceted character. Face and body express his concentration – his keen eyes are those of an intelligent man who is curious about the world. In one sequence in the woods, Koyata, sitting on the trunk of a fallen tree, communicates only with his eyes and his body. His face and body language express his disdain for the samurai who, at the end of their tether, are simply unable to see the path in the forest, even though it is right in front of them.
Kikuchiyo develops from a braggart looking for glory and adventure to a valid member of the group of samurai and a man prepared to fight for social justice. He inspires his fellow combatants and the villagers to continue their fight after the death of the first of the “seven samurai”. In the sequence in which he saves a baby, he reveals his own traumatic past. Bursting into tears, he stammers: “This baby. This is me. This is what happened to me.” When he arrives in the village, this peasant turned samurai states: “No way I’m gonna die in that dung heap.” However, it is there that he dies, face down in the mud, a wretched end for this man so full of life.
Kikuchiyo achieves what Kurosawa considered the highest samurai ideal – selflessness. However, Koyata, who like Kikuchiyo is eager to live out an adventure to the full, does not undergo any change. His only wish at the end of the film is to return to his beloved Upashi. The destruction around him – the village in ruins, dead bodies scattered everywhere in the smoking debris – does not affect him at all. He joins Shinzaemon’s group for his own sake, stating with sparkling eyes during the fierce battle: “I did not know that playing samurai is so enjoyable.” When Hanbei tells him a little later that the battle is over, Koyata replies: “How boring”, a sentiment underlined by the sullen look on his face.
Koyata, a superhuman being
Iseya plays Koyata as a carefree young man who enjoys the horrors of the battle. The fact that he does not undergo any emotional change can be explained by his ambivalent narrative status, his closeness to nature implying some kind of connection with the supernatural. On his first screen appearance, the samurai ask Koyata: “Are you a savage or a ghost?”, assumptions that Koyata angrily denies. However, his prowess with the sling he uses rather than a sword is extraordinary (11). Stabbed by Hanbei during the battle and his neck pierced by Naritsugu’s sword, Koyata is apparently dead. However, he reappears after the battle as if nothing has happened, jumping about joyfully in the ruins. “Are you immortal?” asks the surprised Shinrokurō.
The samurai’s journey through the mountains figures neither in Kudo’s nor in Tominaga’s film. The forest, filmed in bird’s-eye shots, is presented as an almost impenetrable natural environment. In other shots, the shroud of mist on the mountain landscape creates a feeling of mystery, and the mountains themselves are described as “full of gifts” for mankind but also as a threatening, haunted place that evokes fears of dangers and gives rise to superstitions about ghosts and demons. The eerie atmosphere makes nature seem like a more-than-human world, a liminal space in which the impish Koyata, his face smeared with dirt, might well be a ghost. His sudden reappearance after the battle implies some kind of reincarnation, supporting the idea that he is not simply human, and this link to a supernatural world is also suggested in a daydream he has about his beloved Upashi in which she is eating a fleshy and bloody substance she has taken out of her body and which could be a foetus.
Koyata’s miraculous reappearance, however, is not devoid of irony and can be seen as a reference to the larger-than-life figure Mifune plays in Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (Yōjinbō, 1961) and to that protagonist’s mock resurrection. Seriously injured, the yojimbo hides in a coffin to escape from his enemies and he is considered dead. However, he heals his wounds and returns to purge the village of crime and corruption. In both films, this resurrection motif is used in an ironic rather than mystical way but in the framework of a realistic tale (12).
The importance of individual choice
In many ways, Koyata is the opposite of the devilish Naritsugu. The contrast is established by their dress and appearance – the lord wearing white or cream-coloured elegant garments, the hunter clad in black rags. Naritsugu is well-groomed, the hunter covered in dirt, and Koyata’s carefree attitude contrasts with the lord’s emotionless behaviour. Both enjoy violence – although in a very different way. Rather like a child, the hunter is looking for adventure, but the samurai kills for some dark pleasure and considers his lethal deeds a privilege of his class and a demonstration of his power. Koyata may perhaps be a demon, but he joins the good cause to destroy evil, his battle skills contributing to the restoration of order.
Koyata is also an important figure in the discourse on individuality in Miike’s film. In Seven Samurai, the conflict between individual and group and between different social classes is represented by Kikuchiyo (13). Kanbei lectures Kikuchiyo on the importance of solidarity after one of his solo actions has failed, and Kikuchiyo inspires the other samurai and the villagers with his courage, but he does not belong to either of these social classes. Only in death does he seem to become a samurai – his burial alongside the three samurai in the group who also died while protecting the village makes him a legitimate member of the group and combines the celebration of action with a strong sense of individual responsibility.
In all three versions of 13 Assassins, the conflict between giri (loyalty) and ninjō (human feeling) is expressed by Shinzaemon and Hanbei, who have been rivals since their youth (14). Hanbei defends the orthodox position, strongly supported by his lord (Naritsugu), that a samurai’s (15) duty is to serve his lord and that he should never question his lord’s intentions. Shinzaemon has chosen a different path, taking action against a lord whose sadistic impulses put human beings in danger and are a threat to society as a whole. Miike emphasizes the theme of individual action by challenging the authoritarian and militaristic interpretation of the concept of bushidō that was advocated by the Japanese military regime in the late 1930s and during World War II. Naritsugu’s vision of bushidō, requiring the blind obedience of his retainers, is close to this perverted bushidō concept of the war years. The psychopath Naritsugu is eager to use his power for warfare (16) and to establish despotic rule. Individuals like Shinzaemon and also Doi Toshitsura (Hira Mikijirō), who devises the assassination scheme in Miike’s film, pursue the idea of loyalty better than Hanbei as they fight for social justice and show that bushidō is a flexible code allowing room for individual choice (17).
Kudo’s and Tominaga’s films both end with a voice-over narration explaining that individuals, in this case Shinzaemon and his men, are excluded from the official records of the shogunate, which do not mention the battle but state that Lord Naritsugu died of illness (18). In the final sequence of Miike’s 13 Assassins, Shinrokurō and Koyata, the only survivors of the horrendous battle, meet in the smoking ruins of the village. Disgusted by the violence to which he contributed, Shinrokurō, now an outcast, is freed from the constraints of his social class that have imprisoned his uncle, who could only be free in death. Eager to choose his own lifestyle, Shinrokurō considers leaving the samurai and becoming a major criminal in America, where he would make love to a woman. In this sequence, the focus is on the young samurai who teamed up with his uncle Shinzaemon in order to leave a life of idleness behind and find a purpose in life. Koyata’s presence at this point in the film is important for Miike’s discourse on individuality. Koyata is both complementary to and the opposite of Shinrokurū. At the beginning of the film, Shinrokurū is as immature as Koyata, whose exuberant movements underline his youthful joy in killing and who seems unconcerned by the chaos around him. This hunter, who could be a yokai – a supernatural being that appears in very different shapes – represents liminality, and this is suggested by his unclear status between human reality and a different world. Despite his obsession with Upashi, he opposes stable codes as represented by Hanbei’s orthodoxy, and is more like a personification of Shinrokurō’s hidden but unfulfilled desires, thereby pointing to the complexity of modern society with its emphasis on a right to individuality.
(1) Japanese names are written according to the Japanese custom, the family name preceding the given name.
(2) The Elders (rōju) were among the highest-ranking government officers during the Tokugawa era (1603-1868).
(3) Only about 70 samurai are confronting Shinzaemon and his men in the original film and in the 1990 remake. However, the discrepancy in numbers between Shinzaemon’s men and Naritsugu’s escort is made very obvious in these two films too.
(4) This does not mean that Kudo’s mise en scène of the battle is – in cinematic terms – less effective than Miike’s. In the 1963 film, the brutality of the battle scene is very evident at every moment.
(5) The Tokugawa period is known as a peaceful era in Japanese history during which the samurai, the members of the ruling warrior class, were turned into bureaucrats. Miike’s film frequently refers to the fact that the samurai lack fighting experience.
(6) In Kudo’s film, the more romantic love element is also represented by the hedonistic Shinrokurō, who has left his beloved in Edo. This young man shows great understanding for Koyata and the daughter of the village headman, a feeling that amuses his uncle, who regards it as an expression of immature romanticism.
(7) Mifune Toshirō played rebels throughout his long career, starting with his screen debut in Snow Trail (Ginrei no hate, 1947, Taniguchi Senkichi). Iseya Yūsuke often plays young men in contemporary Japan who are deviant or rebellious characters – as in After Life (Wandafaru raifu, 1998, Kore-Eda Hirokazu), but also historical figures such as Yoshida Shōin in Burning Flower (Hana moyu, 2015), a taiga drama produced by the public television company NHK that was broadcast in weekly episodes for a whole year.
(9) Cynthia Baron and Sharon Marie Carnicke, Reframing Screen Performance. Ann Arbor, The University of Michigan Press, 2008, p. 148. Kyōgen is a form of traditional Japanese comic theatre. Kyōgen plays are often performed as an interlude between Nō acts.
(10) In the television miniseries Lady Nobunaga (Nobunaga onna, 2013, Takeuchi Hideki), Iseya plays Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537-1598) who has risen from a low-ranking peasant-samurai to Japan’s powerful ruler. His acting in this series – lively facial expressions and exuberant gestures – also evokes Mifune’s performance in Seven Samurai.
(11) Koyata’s almost superhuman capacities extend to his sexual prowess as shown in a deleted scene. The village headman spies on Koyata making love to his daughter. A following shot shows the young woman leaving the hut in which the sexual act took place. She is completely exhausted by the lovemaking while three other women of the village, to whom Koyata has supposedly made love on previous occasions, are agonizing in front of the hut. However, Koyata’s sexual desire has not been satisfied, and when the village headman sees Koyata’s very impressive penis and wants to spare the women, he offers his services to quench the young hunter’s apparently insatiable lust.
(12) Just like Mifune’s ronin in Yojimbo, Koyata observes the village from a bell tower.
(13) The difference between the would-be samurai and the six others is supported by Mifune’s acting as well as by the music. A mambo-like tune is associated with Kikuchiyo and is heard when he acts of his own accord. For the use of music with regard to individualization and group association in Seven Samurai, see my article “The Music of Seven Samurai”, The Big Picture Magazine, 23 May 2020.
(14) In the two other 13 Assassins-films, Shinzaemon and Hanbei are friends but also rival swordmen.
(15) Samurai derives from saburai, the nominal form of the verb saburau, which can roughly be translated as “to be in attendance” or “to serve”.
(16) Excited by bloodshed, Naritsugu dreams of a return to the age of civil war in the 15th and 16th centuries. He states that he intends to use his power to reintroduce war in Japan.
(17) Bushidō is a rather flexible concept as shown by its many interpretations over the last 120 years. The concept originated in the intellectual discourse of the 1880s after the end of the samurai reign and was based on ideas about samurai values and behaviour. Nitobe Inazō’s Bushidō: The Soul of Japan, first published in 1899 in English, is probably the best-known book on bushidō. See Oleg Benesch, Inventing the Way of the Samurai: Nationalism, Internationalism and Bushidō in Modern Japan, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2004.
(18) In Kudo’s film, the voice-over accompanies a shot of the setting sun. In the television production from 1990, the final shots show Doi (played by Tanba Tetsurō, who had also been cast in this role in the 1963 film), the man who devised the plot to murder Naritsugu because it was not possible to take legal action against him for the crimes he had committed.