Renowned Japanese director Takashi Miike brings us his own version of the samurai movie, and he does not disappoint! The story outline is simple enough: “A group of assassins come together for a suicide mission to kill an evil lord.” This, of course, does not begin to describe the depth Miike takes us to in their quest to stop the sadistic Lord Naritsugu before he ascends to one of the highest positions in the country. Naturally, Takashi Miike is known for his graphically violent films, and it comes as no surprise that this one concludes with a forty minute final battle. However, there is much more to the movie than that; it is not a simple action flick.
The overall point of the movie is really traditional bushido values verses freethinking and personal integrity. Both Hanbei (Lord Naritsugu’s body guard) and Shinzaemon (the head samurai of the thirteen assassins) follow the samurai way in an unwavering way. Neither of them forfeited their honor. Though it seems that Shinzaemon is acting outside the traditional structure and does hold personal views to the contrary, he is not. He still follows the shogun’s orders to kill Lord Naritsugu just as devoutly as Hanbei follows his lord’s--the difference being that Shinzaemon is doing what is best for the people and Hanbei is following the orders of a sadistic sociopath. Asking Hanbei to step aside is equally as impossible as to ask Shinzaemon to just give up and go home; for either of them, to do such a thing would be unimaginable.
Lord Naritsugu embodies the “Devine right of kings” way of thinking. The Devine Right concept was born of Medieval idea that God bestows the earthly rulers with divine power; their rule was to be viewed as being above any reproach from their subjects. Only God could judge a king and the king had absolute authority over his kingdom. Although a European concept, it aptly describes Lord Naritsugu’s views. It is interesting to note that a similar Chinese theory, “The Mandate of Heaven” seems to parallel the concept, at first glance. However, the Mandate of Heaven differed from the Devine Right in that the blessing of heaven is dependant on the conduct of the ruler. Therefore, Lord Naritsugu’s conduct was not in accord with the mandate. The movie shows the flaw of the Devine Right in that if an evil ruler comes to power, then it will only result in suffering and chaos.
In a way, this accentuates the flaw of the samurai system in that they are required to loyally follow whoever they are in the service of, regardless of their conduct. Perhaps that is why their way of life had to change; it was no longer in accord with nature. An evil king should not be obeyed. These problems still arise, just think of the Nuremberg Trials for instance. Most of the war criminals were just following orders, regardless of the ethics if the orders.
For me, however, Kiga the hunter is one of the most interesting characters. I think there should have been more of an explanation of him in the film. In an interview, the director explains that he is a Yōkai, a type of nature spirit from Japanese folklore. This explains his superhuman dexterity and apparent immortality. Many of the scenes were cut from the international version of the film that better explained his character.
We first encounter Kiga when the, at that time twelve, samurai get lost in the forest while taking a short cut to intercept Lord Naritsugu. Deep in the mountains they find Kiga trapped in a net hanging from a tall tree. They free him, and in return he offers to show them the way out of the forest. This reminded me of a story I read in Jung’s “Alchemical Studies” entitled “The Spirit in the Bottle.” In it, a woodcutter’s son wanders deep into the woods, deeper than he’s ever gone, and becomes lost. He then hears a voice calling out from an old oak tree. He dips down to find that the voice is coming from a bottle buried in the roots of the tree. He opens it to find the god Mercurius, who declares that the boy will be a sacrifice to him! Thinking quickly, the boy challenges Mercurius to reenter the bottle, so that he can verify that he is the same spirit that was originally in the bottle. Mercurius does so and the boy quickly reseals the bottle, trapping him inside once again. Mercurius now strikes a deal with the boy. If he is released again, he will not harm the boy and will reward him with a magic cloth that turns metal it touches to silver and cures any wound that it is rubbed on. He opens the bottle again and receives the magic cloth.
In a way, there are quite a few similarities to this story and Kiga. Both he and Mercurius are found trapped in a tree by people lost in the forest and they both reward the people that release them.
Kiga is a wild force of nature. He can’t even imagine what could be more important to them than roasted rabbit! Kiga sees the samurai as they are--blinded by their ideals and arrogant in their self importance. He does choose to aid them, however. One must wonder if he would have aided Lord Naritsugu just the same under different circumstances. I think he would have been too bored with that, though. Perhaps it was the audacity of the twelve samurai to face such impossible odds that intrigued him enough to want to help them.
Being an immortal nature spirit, it could be construed that Kiga represents Japanese folk tradition. This would mean that his allegiance to Shinzaemon and the cause of stopping Lord Naritsugu is representative of Japanese culture itself being on Shinzaemon’s side.
Observations on the end of the movie:
When Shinzaemon and Lord Naritsuga finally meet, I was struck by the implication of Shinzaemon refusing to even defend himself from Lord Naritsugu’s blade. It was clear from earlier in the movie that he wanted to die an honorable in battle, but the fact that he simply walked into the blade, to me, means that he so disrespected the lord that he felt it too much an honor to even cross blades with him. As if he is not even worth pretending to fight.
Ultimately, the deaths of Shinzaemon and Hanbei signaled the end of the samurai and the dawn of a new era. They both realized the flaws of their tradition and both, in essence, committed suicide. Hanbei realized that with Shinzaemon as the opponent he would likely die. I feel that that is implied when he describes him as “a man who wins in the end.” However, he followed his path to the bitter end.
Shinzaemon’s nephew, Shinrouko, is the bridge that transitions away from the old ways to a new way of thinking. He learns from his uncle and grows as a person. He is the only human to survive the massacre. In the Japanese extended version, the film ends with a clip of Shinrouko arriving home and ends with his wife’s smiling face. That scene is perhaps unnecessary, but I do feel that it would have offered more closure to the movie. It, in a way, is the beginning of Shinrouko’s new life; he now continues with the positive lessons of the bushido way, and at the same time is free of the narrow way Hanbei and Shinzaemon lived it.