The London billboards are plastered with movie posters right now, advertising the new Japanese film 13 Assassins by the renowned film-maker Toshiaki Nakazawa. Regular readers of this blog will be already familiar with the Japanese history of The Revenge of the Loyal Retainers, or The 47 Ronin and the drama about it known as The Chushingura. Like so much of contemporary Japanese media culture 13 Assassins has its directorial feet firmly in the Tokugawa history of old Japan.
Though the rendering of Edo period Japan is beautifully realised in the movie, I want to look at what may be the actual history behind the plot. When unpicking the events depicted in Japanese prints it is always wise to bear in mind that the actual events, the mythology that surrounds them, the deliberate changes to names, events and places necessary through political censorship and the need to make good plots up for the long stage productions, become conflated and confused. So it is with Japanese films which draw on many different threads in the same narrative.
The film follows the plot and the structure of Eiichi Kudo’s 1963 film of the same title (click here to find it on Youtube). As in the story of The Chushingura, an honourable man commits seppuku because of the actions of an immoral and dishonourable superior. Again as in the tale of the Ronin, his loyal followers conspire through elaborate planning and preparation to assassinate him in the certain knowledge that their actions will nevertheless lead to their own deaths. As in traditional depictions of the Loyal Retainers, equal emphasis is placed on both the planning and the execution of the raid. In the Nakazawa movie the realisation of the final conflict is especially brilliant and it has to be said, bloodthirsty.
There is however another thread in the film that is intriguing given contemporary Japanese enthusiasm for their own cultural identity. It is widely believed that Nakazawa draws heavily upon the notorious Sakuradamon incident in which the Chief Minister of Japan was assassinated by a gang of leaderless samurai (Ronin) outside the Sakuradamon gate of Edo castle in 1860. It was li Naosuke, (the Chief Minister) who signed the 1858 Treaty with the United States, agreeing to reverse traditional Japanese anathema of foreigners and open Japan’s borders to trade. Seventeen Ronin ambushed Naosuke, slicing through his neck before committing seppuku. They carried a manifesto which read:
…while fully aware of the necessity for some change in policy since the coming of the Americans at Uraga it is entirely against the interest of the country and a stain on the national honour to open up commercial relations with foreigners… .
It appears that 13 Assassins draws upon these two great revenge stories from history to represent again the the moral rectitude and steadfastness in character of which the Japanese are proud. Interestingly, Nakazawa is not the first person to conflate the two incidents. It’s maybe fanciful to take the analogy too far but nevertheless it is interesting to see Kuniyoshi’s rendering of one of the 47 Ronin of 1847 alongside Yoshitsuya’s depiction of the moment of li Naosuke’s assassination in the Sakuradamon incident from 1861. Toshidama Gallery has many prints from The Chushingura in our archive section, available here.