The film is a remake of Eiichi Kudo’s 1963 black-and-white Japanese film of the same name, Jûsan-nin no shikaku and is based on a true story. The film opens up with a bang as a nobleman commits seppuku to make an appeal to the Shogun (it sure must have been an important appeal) because the younger brother of the current Shogun (the equivalent of a prince) is roaming the country committing atrocities against his own people.
The Shogun’s administration goes to any length to cover up the prince’s behavior to prevent embarrassing the Shogun and his lineage. But the prince goes too far, he rapes a young lady while staying at an inn and when his deed is discovered by her newlywed husband, the prince kills him and out of shame she kills herself. To make matters worse, to protect himself from any revenge and against direct orders from the Shogun, the prince murders all of the victims’ relatives—including women and children—save one, a women whose limbs were cut off and tongue taken out that the prince left alive as a “toy.” The senior advisor to the Shogun shows a friend of his (who was also victimized by the prince) what is left of the prince’s handiwork and gives his tacit behind the scenes directive to kill this maniac.
The samurai begins his mission by recruiting ten men from his own clan to volunteer for what looks like a suicide mission and even convinces his lay about nephew to join the cause (so we are at 11 assassins at this point). After assembling these 11 warriors from within, he hires one ronin for 200 ryo (the currency at that time) and in a rather ballsy move goes to meet with his former classmate who is in charge of protecting the sadistic prince and in a roundabout way says they will soon meet on the road under combat conditions.
The band of assassins begins preparing themselves to carry out their mission. They know that the prince is in transit to his home province and realize that their only chance to kill him is before the prince makes it to his castle. While the prince’s procession is en route, they try to take a different road through the territory of another clan, but the procession is stopped at the border and told to turn around because the lord controlling the province will not have anything to do with the prince and his procession.
So the procession is forced to take the conventional route which passes through a village the assassins had engineered to maximize their chances of killing the sadistic prince. On the way to the village, the samurai get lost and come across a mountain man trapped in a tree. They free the trapped man because they find out the man has been tied up simply for hitting on his lords wife. To thank the samurai the mountain man offers to be their guide and get them back to the village. Once they arrive at the village the mountain man expresses his distaste for samurais and their arrogance as well as their adherence to some abstract outdated code. The procession begins to arrive shortly after the tongue lashing and the samurai tells the mountain man that this is not his fight and he is free to go. The mountain man retorts that the samurai are not god’s gifts to warfare and that he is going to stay and fight to show them a thing or two by using his sling and rocks. Because they have no time to argue, the mountain man becomes the thirteenth assassin.
As the battle begins the prince’s soldiers begin to die left and right, but the odds are still against the assassins as it is thirteen against 200 and they make a tactical mistake by not fully utilizing their own defenses and start to fight hand to hand before they need to. Just watching these guys get through obstacle after obstacle to get to the prince is exciting but exhausting. Eventually, two assassins corner the prince and kill him. Then the mountain man (who has a short sword stuck shear through his throat) shows up and the remaining three of the 13 left leave the scene.
Back at the ranch, word of the prince’s death reaches the castle. The administration needs to save face so they put out the official story explaining that the prince died of an illness rather than being killed by vigilantes.
Over all I think the movie kicks ass and is an all-around excellent film. The movie not only has great martial arts action, but the story engages you to the point of making you wanting to revolt with the 13 assassins as well. On a different level, the film relays problems of the samurai way of life, showing the huge self-imposed burdens samurais carry on their shoulders and does a very good job of depicting the amoral aspects of the samurai code. For instance, the prince’s protector always justifies and rationalizes his conduct by saying it is not his place to question but only to obey. The movie shows how the samurai fall because there is no room for that way of life in the modern age—because the samurai used words like honor and duty to defend the indefensible, their way of life needed to come to a close. The irony really hits home at the end when the slacker nephew is told by his dying uncle to drop the way of the sword and seek a new way of life. The mountain man asks the nephew what he is going to do and the nephew replies that he will become a bandit and take a boat to America.
This movie also distinguishes its self because in today’s typical Hollywood film all of the loose ends would have been tied nice and neatly with the good guys winning over the evil prince and everyone goes home happy. 13 Assassins, however, does not leave you with the typical good triumphed over evil feeling. Instead, it is more of a tragedy because all of the truly righteous samurai have died during the mission while the amoral (even corrupt) samurai depicted by the nephew survives drops the way of the sword and wants to become a bandit outside of homeland Japan. I think the final line of the movie was brief but powerful with lots of layers that comment on the state of Japanese society. What may look like on its face as a simple samurai ninja movie is actually a complex commentary on the inevitable changes in Japanese whether they be for better or worse.