How I’ve Missed Crossing Swords With You: Samurai Queerness in 13 Assassins

 

Swords, bushido, honor, moral ambiguity, and dazzling fight scenes dance throughout the film 13 Assassin’s by Takashi Miike. 13 Assassin’s production design is a feast for the eyes with elaborate period costumes and hairstyles, beautiful swords,  incredible set design, excellent visuals, special effects, and editing. Takashi Miike is a controversial Japanese filmmaker whose filmography includes Audition, Ichi the Killer, The Happiness of the Katakuris, and Gozu. His films are known for being bizarre, and graphically violent. Miike transverses through genre and has an eclectic mix of horror, drama, and even musicals in his work. Through many layers and themes, a recurring motif of homosexuality is present within some of his filmography.  13 Assassin’s, while very straight forward story-wise, is no different from his other work regarding this theme.

Many people may not associate samurai with homosexuality, but the fact is homosexuality was a basic part of life and encouraged among the warriors. Shudo, or “The Way of The Young” was the Japanese tradition of older and younger homosexuality that was very common from the medieval period until the end of the 19th century.  This practice was highly encouraged among the samurai class because it was considered valuable for teaching virtue and honesty to young boys.

The older man in the relationship, known as the nenja (念者), and the younger man, known as wakashû (若衆), cultivated deeply strong, intimate, emotional, and sexual relationships with one another.  The nenja mentored the wakashû in the warrior lifestyle and code of bushido.  

Shudo and homosexuality(out homosexuality at least) began to decline during the Meiji Restoration in 1867 when Japan was forced to open its gates and yield to the christian and Western influences.

While homosexuality is not a main theme within 13 Assassin’s, the theme of tradition and what makes a true samurai is a constant motif throughout.  True samurai of that era were engaged in homosexual relationships.  A queer reading of a film according to Alexander Doty in his essay, There’s Something Queer Here, is  “the recognition and articulation of the complex range of queerness that has been in popular culture texts and their audiences all along,”(Doty 84).  The queerness of the samurai in history is something that has been there all along, and the film indicates the queerness among the samurai men cinematically however subtle.

13 Assassin’s is a period drama set in 1844 Japan about thirteen assassins (12 samurai and 1 hunter) who battle 200 soldiers to take out the ruthless lord Matsudaira Naritsugu of the Akashi Clan.  Sir Doi, a justice on the Shogun council, fears that once Lord Naritsugu ascends to a spot on the council, years of peace will end and more suffering will fall onto the people.   Lord Naritsugu  rapes and murder’s his citizens as if they were playthings, Sir Doi’s son and daughter-in-law among them. Sir Doi asks Shinzaemon, an older samurai who served the former shogun, to assassinate this lord.

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Sir Doi, and Shinzaemon

 Hanbei, who is a guardian that protects Lord Naritsugu, learns of the assassination plot by spying on Sir Doi. Hanbei knows Shinzaemon as they went to the same swordsmen dojo. They were competitive classmates. Hanbei remembers and describes Shinzaemon in a wistful way.  To Hanbei, Shinzaemon is someone “not as shrewd, not as strong. But he never gives up. He’s a man who beats you in the end.”

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Hanbei, when he finds out about the assassination plot

Shinzaemon arranges a group of warriors together for this cause.  One of the warriors is Hirayama. Hirayama is a ronin who trained under Shinzaemon.  Shinzaemon finds Hirayama practicing in his dojo. Hirayama apologizes for always using his dojo without permission. Shinzaemon says, “You honor me by using it. Your spirit keeps this dojo alive.”

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Hirayama practicing in Shinzaemon’s dojo

 

Shinzaemon, most likely was the nenja and Hirayama the wakashû. Shinzaemon picks up a training sword and asks Hirayama if he would to do a “round of go” for old times sake. Hirayama says, “Perhaps we should save our energy.”

Hirayama says that he knew that one day he would lay down his life for Shinzaemon. Hirayama confesses that he lives with regret of not being able to repay Shinzaemon, calling him ‘master.’  Shinzaemon says that his appreciation means much to him. Hirayama joins Shinzaemon’s band of assassins.

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Shinzaemon and his warriors

Hirayama introduces Ogura, his only pupil.  Shinzaemon was concerned because of how young the boy was, but Ogura’s dedication and story of losing both parents moved him.  Hirayama, since he is the older warrior and teacher is the nenja whereas Ogura the wakashû.

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Ogura is on the left

After Hanbei’s assassin’s get killed, he goes to confront Shinzaemon.  He calls him, “Shinza”, a nick name.  Shinzaemon said that he expected him. Hanbei says, “glad to see you.” Then looks to the side sensing that they are not alone.  Shinzaemon says if they had time he’d enjoy a round of ‘go’, meaning a round of swordplay.  Hanbei says that he regrets not ever beating him and that he has envied Shinzaemon.   He confesses that he joined to serve Lord Naritsugu in order to get ahead. The two men’s ideologies clash when it comes to what it means to be a samurai.

Shinzaemon believe’s that as a samurai he must do what’s best for the people, whereas Hanbei believes that samurai must only serve their master, no matter how corrupt.

According to Doty, “The queer often operates within the nonqueer, as the nonqueer does within the queer (whether in reception, texts or producers),”(Doty 73) The phallic symbolism of swords and subtext of “a round of go” can be read as a flirtatious invitation to sex, and swordplay between these men is more than just friendly competition but perhaps something more erotic: a swordplay foreplay.  

Shinzaemon and his band of assassin’s use a small village that is in the path of where Lord Naritsugu will be passing through to set elaborate booby traps.  The intense battle between 13 assassin’s versus 200 soldiers is very exciting and action-packed, but also filled with intense emotion.  The assassin’s go after their mission but they also look-out for one another.

The symbolism of the relationship  between Hirayama and Ogura play out in the battle.

Ogura, followed by multiple soldiers,  runs into an alleyway and sets the ground on fire. Hirayama shows up and slashes the men apart.  Ogura stares at Hirayama as he returns his gaze through the flame. The heat of the fire makes the image slightly wavy. The image of Hirayama is through Ogura’s POV.  The camera slowly zooms in as if to say that there was something more burning between them than the fire.

grabberraster-0025After that Ogura follows Hirayama through-out the course of the battle. Hirayama orders Orgura to kill anyone who get’s past him. Orgura replies “yes, master.”  Whenever we see them fighting together, there are patches of multiple fires around them. Symbolism of fire, in a Freudian sense, can be seen as forbidden or unspoken passions.  The passion between Ogura and Hirayama is unspoken, but represented through the fire and fight.

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Ogura gets mortally wounded, and crawls onto a piece of wood.  Hirayama continues to fight, even after losing his sword. He uses rocks and his fists, using everything he’s got. In a POV shot, Ogura, while dying, is watching Hirayama fight. The camera is angled sideways, indicating that it is from Ogura’s viewpoint. Then a slow tracking shot of Ogura as he slowly reaches out his hand to Hirayama as Hirayama continues to fight.  He get’s slashed and falls down. Hirayama and Ogura look into eachother’s eyes as they both lay dying. In his last breath, Ogura whispers “Master…”  and they both die simultaneously.  This sequence was drawn out in such a way that it expressed the intimacy the men shared by passionately fighting together and dying together in the heat of battle.

 

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Hanbei, with Lord Naritsugu in the background

Shinzaemon and his nephew find Lord Naritsugu and Hanbei.   Lord Naritsugu’s guards were about to attack before Hanbei stops them. He whispers, “Shinza.” Shinzaemon shouts to Hanbei, “Hanbei, I have no qualms with you.”  Shinzaemon does not want to fight Hanbei, because he knew it would have to be to the death. Hanbei says that he will trade his life to protect his lord. Shinzaemon tries to talk some sense into him, saying that if Lord Naritsugu get’s on the council, so many people are going to suffer. Hanbei replies, “So what? I am a Samurai. Ours is not to wonder why. Ours is to accept our fate and die.”  Shinzaemon says that if they were allies, this would be much easier, meaning that they could work together to rid of Lord Naritsugu. Hanbei takes off his helmet and part of his robe and says that he will have to kill him.

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“That I can do,” Shinzaemon says as he cleans the blood off his sword.  Shinzaemon and Hanbei move closer to each other, a shot of Shinzaemon’s feet sliding in the mud.  

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This symbolized how Shinzaemon does not want to kill Hanbei, because he has feelings for him.  

 

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The men fight and swords cross.  Hanbei whispers so that only Shinzaemon can hear, “How I’ve missed crossing swords with you.”

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They both push each other away and Shinzaemon tells Hanbei, “In the dojo, you and I were an even match.”

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 Shinzaemon expressed to Hanbei that they were equals, that he never thought low of Hanbei and returned his feelings.

 Hanbei’s facial expression falls into a vulnerability, as if this was something he had been waiting to hear Shinzaemon say for a long time.  He quickly shifts and gives a war cry, and attacks Shinzaemon.  In an unpredictable move, Shinzaemon kicks Hanbei (along with mud) in the stomach, and Hanbei loses his balance falls to the ground.  Shinzaemon then says, “Hanbei, see you in hell,” and in one clean, quick swipe decapitates Hanbei.   Although Shinzaemon killed Hanbei, the fact that he gave him a painless death still reinforces his feelings of respect and something more.  This was a powerful scene with complex layers.  A clash between moral ideologies, and a clash of unspoken emotions.

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13 Assassin’s is a film with multiple layers, and watching it through the context of queerness makes it all the more complex and intriguing. Along with the elaborate fight scenes and creative booby-traps, watching 13 warriors battle 200 soldiers is exhilarating.  Definitely a film I recommend!

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