"He who values his life dies a dog's death."
"A samurai's life isn't measured in length."
A remake of a 1963 movie, 13 Assassins is a story of abuse of power and rebellion set in 1844, towards the end of the samurai era.
The movie starts with Zusho Mumiya, a clan elder, committing seppuku in protest of the behavior of the evil Lord Naritsugu, who is the younger half-brother of the Shogun. He knows that if Naritsugu continues on to a place of greater power the Shogunate will be in trouble. The local officials are ordered by the Shogun to settle the matter quietly. Sir Doi then calls samurai Shinza Shimada and tells him what is going on. Sir Doi tells Shimada that Lord Naritsugu is going to become a senior advisor to the Shogun. As a representative of the Shogun, Sir Doi's hands are tied, but Shinza Shimada's are not.
Shinza Shimada is then told of some of the things Naritsugu had done. As a guest in a house, he rapes a young woman and then tells her husband she is a mountain monkey. He then kills the husband and slices him up. He is obviously psychotic. We also see a young women, the daughter of a peasant leader who protested against Naritsugu relentless land taxes, who Naritsugu mutilated by cutting her arms and legs off and then killed all of her family. Lord Dao says if this continues chaos will ruin the nation and the people will suffer. Shinza Shimada knows that there is only one honorable thing to do: he accepts the challenge placed before him.
Shimada is horrified by what he has been shown, but at the same time he is excited. He lives in a peaceful time for the samurai, and he wishes to have a noble death, and now he sees that he can have it. It's just like the guys in the Wild Bunch, their way of life is going and they want to go out with it. Shinzaemon Shimada says: "I shall accomplish your wish... with magnificence."
Naritsugu responds to Mumiya's seppuku by tying up the man's family and then shooting them all with a bow and arrow. In his world, it is a vassal's duty to just obey his lord, right or wrong. As evil as he is, he is protected by his brother, the Shogun, who has him appointed as his chief adviser. He is also protected by Hanbei, who works for him and feels it his duty as a samurai to protect him, in spite of what he may privately feel. Hanbei and Shinza are long time friends.
Shinza then begins to assemble the group that will bring about the destruction of Lord Naritsugu. The first one to join is a disciple of his, the ronin Hirayama, who is very skilled with the sword. They quickly add some of Lord Doi's men and soon they are up to nine. Most of them seem very excited to have something to fight for.
They make their plans to intercept Lord Naritsuga as he travels through the country. When Hanbei's men stop one of the young samurais to get some information, Hirayama quickly strikes them down. A disciple of Hirayama then joins, followed by Sahara a sword ronin who joins for the money. Now they are eleven and Shimada's nephew, Shinrokuro, who is bored by his life as a samurai in the time of peace, joins even though he know he may never see his wife again. They are now twelve and they begin training for battle.
Hanbei knows that it is his friend Shimada who will act against Naritsugu. Shimada says "As a samurai, I'll do what must be done for the people." Hanbei responds "A samurai must do one thing. Serve his master, correct?" And there you have it. The dichotomy that permeates most samurai movies, and the philosophical dilemma of historical Japan.
Lord Dao, Shimada then come up with a plan. They know they can count on support from a lord whose relatives Naritsugu killed. That way will be blocked. They then decide to buy up the other village he must pass through, so they can get it ready for the battle. They begin their journey and meet up with some of Hanbei's "Akashi henchmen." They quickly dispose of them. Shimada decides that they must continue their journey through the woods to avoid any more attacks.
They then meet a strange fellow in the forest, Koyata, a hunter who joins them and makes the group thirteen. Lord Naritsuga's path is then blocked by a clan who he has wronged and he has been diverted to the other village. The village leader then commit harikiri on the bridge.
The villagers are hired to get it ready for the battle. Lord Naritsuga's entourage approaches and he has hired more men. he now has over 200. Shimada tells the men that is is time to lay down their lives for the greater cause. We again see the dichotomy that these samurai movies point out about Japanese society. It's all about sacrifice, but whether that sacrifice should be for your boss or for the people is the question.
The thirteen take their posts and the long battle sequence takes place. A bridge explodes, and now there in no escape. Bulls with burning wood on their back are driven towards the men. More explosions take place. The scene is reminiscent of the one in Seven Samurai where the invading bandits now look for a way to escape. Saheita Kuranaga tells the troops: "I presume you are the Akashi entourage of Lord Naritsugu. By the order of His Shogun's subject Shinzaemon, we commemorate your passage with arrows!" They then begin shooting the men down. Dozens fall. More explosions. Only 130 left. Now the swords come out. The Akashi fall in great numbers but slowly most of the 13 fall too.
Then the following conversation takes place:
Lord Naritsugu : Hanbei?
Hanbei Kitou: Huh?
Lord Naritsugu : You think the age of war was like this?
Hanbei Kitou: Perhaps
Lord Naritsugu : It's magnificent. With death comes gratitude for life. If a man has lived in vain, then how trivial his life is. Oh, Hanbei. Something wonderful has come to my mind.
Hanbei Kitou: Huh?
Lord Naritsugu : Once I'm on the Shogun's council, let's bring back the age of war.
Hanbei and Shinza meet again.
Hanbei, I have no qualms with you!
You will not pass.
I'll trade my life to protect my Lord. I must do what must be done. Are you so hungry for my Lord's life?
Yes! I gambled my life in this senseless war of power and politics. If he joins the Shogun's council... you know disaster will befall the people! Am I wrong?
So what then? Both you and I were born samurai. Ours is not to wonder why. Ours is... to obey our fate and die. If you were my ally...
if you were not an Akashi retainer...wouldn't our task be easier?
Don't lecture me! No matter how low I go, Hanbei Kito is a samurai! I won't hand over my Lord's head so easily.
Shinza... to pass, you'll have to kill me.
That I shall do.
Shinza wins and then it is Shinza against Lord Naritsugu. Shinza gets cut but quickly cuts Naritsugu down, who dies crying that he is so scared. Shinza then cuts off his head.
The movie can be seen as a homage to Seven Samurai, but also has elements of Seppuku, Chushingura and Samurai Rebellion. It is beautifully filmed but has some very graphic violence. Overall, a really good samurai movie.