A Return to Japan? Restaging the Cinematic Past in Takashi Miike’s 13 Assassins

By Andrew Dorman

The early twenty-first century has witnessed a significant resurgence in samurai-related film production in Japan. Although in many instances contemporary films parody or subvert the generic conventions of jidaigeki cinema[1], for instance Esu efu samurai fikushon / Samurai Fiction (Hiroyuki Nakano, 1998), Gohatto / Taboo (Nagisa Oshima, 1999), Tasogare Seibei / The Twilight Samurai (Yoji Yamada, 2002), Mibu gishi den / When the Last Sword is Drawn (Yojiro Takita, 2003), Zatoichi (Takeshi Kitano, 2003), and Kakushi ken oni no tsume / The Hidden Blade (Yoji Yamada, 2004), the increase in jidaigeki film production since the late 1990s constitutes a major reinvestment in the commercial potential of the genre’s apparent cultural authenticity.

In this article I will examine Takashi Miike’s Jusan-nin no shikaku / 13 Assassins (2010) and its close observation of jidaigeki conventions. When viewed as a genre film, 13 Assassins constitutes an ‘authentic’ Japanese cinematic spectacle; it re-enacts a feudal past that predates Japan’s early modernisation and, in so doing, restages jidaigeki’s cinematic past. However, 13 Assassins is implicated in the wider commodification of Japanese genre cinema. As I will illustrate, the production of Miike’s film and the promotion of it through transnational distribution processes, indicate that the samurai revival is not a purely national phenomenon. As a commodity, the samurai is not always the sole preserve of Japanese filmmakers, producers and studios, nor is it simply sold out of Japan given that Hollywood appropriations are often sold into the Japanese domestic market. As an authentic signature genre, jidaigeki is culturally decentred despite its authenticity; for all its cultural specificity, it is not necessarily a genre ‘beyond Hollywood’ as it is clearly implicated in the wider commodification of Japanese authenticity in foreign markets.

13 Assassins and Jidaigeki

At this point I should clarify what is meant by the term authenticity. Regardless of whether recent period films are historically accurate or not, they present ‘stable’ images of Japanese locality based upon historical iconography. It is certainly questionable as to what extent jidaigeki is authentic in explaining actual Japanese history; as Isolde Standish argues, filmmakers who use historical situations as their mise-en-scène actually tell us more about their time than the time they are depicting.[2] Similarly, David Desser notes film’s role in mythologising the samurai as opposed to presenting something genuinely authentic: “Myths can be used to blur the distinctions between the natural and the conventional, between the fact of history and the idea of history.”[3]

Cinematic representations of feudal Japan are deliberate and partly artificial in that they are performances of a perceived past. Authenticity in this study is not mistaken for historical actuality, nor is jidaigeki to be understood as a static genre that can be easily defined through formal and narrative conventions. As with most (if not any) film genre, there needs to be some consideration of genre flexibility. Thomas Schatz writes:

There is a sense […] in which film genre is both a static and dynamic system. On the one hand, it is a familiar formula of interrelated narrative and cinematic components that serves to continually re-examine some basic cultural conflict…On the other hand, changes in cultural attitudes, new influential genre films, the economics of the industry, and so forth, continually refine any film genre. As such, its nature is continually evolving.[4]

As Schatz indicates, genres have a tendency to evolve. Moreover, they become flexible; they communicate, whether through aesthetics, narrative or generic syntax, with other genres as well as with their generic ‘cousins’. For example, although Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961) differs considerably in style and tone from earlier Kurosawa period films, shared characteristics (usually of narrative and characterisation) may be identified, while, at the same time, connections are invariably made with the John Ford westerns that influenced Yojimbo and the Italian westerns that followed its narrative structure. Standish examines the narrative structures of Chûshingura / 47 Samurai (Hiroshi Inagaki, 1962) to argue that the film’s narrative forms a ‘pregeneric’ plot structure which crosses genre boundaries to encompass ‘war-retro’ and yakuza films.[5] She also demonstrates how the narrative structure allowed Japanese viewers to interpret events of the war,[6] as opposed to events of actual feudal history.

As these examples suggest,  jidaigeki does not function as a static or monolithic film category; aesthetic iconography and narrative convention can be experimented with or even disregarded to suit changing artistic and audience expectations. Although this is certainly the case with jidaigeki, many of the films mentioned in this article stem primarily from film traditions which are still associated with Japan to the extent that it becomes a signature Japanese genre. The point I wish to make is that certain characteristics, whether related to feudal iconography or recurring traits of narrative and characterisation, serve either as markers of authenticity (which in turn can be recognised by audiences) or as reference points to which directors can either conform to or depart from.

Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen argue that despite issues of categorisation and genre evolution over time, there can be no doubt that “treating a film as a representative of a familiar and perceptively formulated genre is often essential to a proper understanding of it.”[7] I would suggest that in order to understand the significance of foreign production and investment in recent Japanese period films we need to consider, to some extent, generic conventions of jidaigeki and how they help articulate a perceptible cinematic authenticity without treating these conventions as fixed or unalterable over time; as Braudy and Cohen also point out, elemental genres exist in order to be mixed.[8] Jidaigeki films about the institution of the samurai present cinematic visions of Japan which predate the end of cultural isolation in the late nineteenth century and thus are undiluted images of a Japan untouched by the external socio-cultural and economic influences of the Meiji era (1868-1912).

Accordingly, the temporal distance of the past is used to communicate a more monolithic representation of Japanese culture, one that predates encounters with industrialisation. Major jidaigeki of the 1950s and 1960s, such as Kumonosu jô / Throne of Blood (Akira Kurosawa, 1957), Yojimbo, Sanjuro (Akira Kurosawa, 1962), Chûshingura, Akahige / Red Beard (Akira Kurosawa, 1965) and Jôi-uchi: Hairyô tsuma shimatsu / Samurai Rebellion (Masaki Kobayashi, 1967), represent the Japanese feudal space as a culturally pure environment, one predating the end of cultural isolation and Meiji-era modernisation. This is communicated aesthetically through directors’ incorporation of historical-cultural iconography, mostly from the Tokugawa-Edo period (1603-1868). Cultural specificity is therefore traceable to a cinematic domain in which feudal-samurai iconography gives films connotative aesthetic identities. In this respect, filmmakers can refer to the formal and narrative conventions of jidaigeki, either to subvert these conventions or to produce films with wide appeal.

The connotative onscreen appearance of the samurai reveals a template that can be understood immediately by viewers in terms of an inherently Japanese cinematic space, even in the case of films that subvert jidaigeki genre expectations. The primary genre expectation, Alain Silver points out, is the swordsman: “Whether this character is developed as a hero or an anti-hero, his physical introduction into the scene and the viewer’s apprehension of him as the potential dramatic center are basic to all samurai films”.[9] Much like the lone protagonists of Hollywood westerns denoting a specific time and place understood as an intrinsically American space, the samurai occupies a space that can only be Japanese. It is through the recognition of established signifiers (the samurai, samurai weaponry, traditional clothing, temples, houses, etc) that we are able to situate ourselves (whether firmly or momentarily) within the world of jidaigeki. Desser writes:

Just as the Western takes shape when we understand it not only by a series of narrative patterns but from iconographic clues as well, so too does the Samurai form, as distinguished from the mass of Japanese cinema. The key image in the genre is the samurai sword itself. The wearing, in full view, of the long killing sword (daito) immediately places one within the genre of the Samurai.[10]

As Silver has suggested, the physical occupation of the landscape anticipates the onset of violent spectacles, spectacles which Justin Howe identifies as the key development in period films of the 1960s, with focus shifting away from drama and gravitating towards the action elements of the genre.[11] Similarly, Brian Moeran notes a divergence of styles in depicting feudal Japan and with it a divergence of status between jidaigeki and its action-based subgenre chanbara-eiga. He points out that film critics “regard jidaigeki as serious art, in which directors attempt to discover what is of unique value in Japanese history, and how this uniqueness should be preserved.”[12] Miike’s 13 Assassins lies somewhere between these period film variations, adopting a more nuanced jidaigeki approach to highlight the moral-ethical implications of the samurai lifestyle while also providing brutally kinetic action sequences more reminiscent of chanbara eiga. Incorporating different strands of the Japanese period film, Miike produces a landscape that is recognisably Japanese.

13 Assassins takes place during the Tokugawa-Edo period, a time of relative stability in Japan’s history following centuries of civil war. With the tyrannical Lord Matsudaira Naritsugu (Goro Inagaki) due to visit his brother the shogun in Edo and take up a key advisory role, his enemies concoct a clandestine plot of assassination. Veteran samurai Shimada Shinzaemon (Koji Yakusho) is entrusted with the task of assembling a team of assassins to eliminate Naritsugu and his troop of two hundred bodyguards, led by Shinzaemon’s long-term rival Hanbei Onigashira (Masachika Ichimura). After a lengthy recruitment process, a diverse group of warriors are assembled. Finally trapping Naritsugu and his men in the remote village of Ochiai, the assassins employ a series of ingenious tactics to reduce the overwhelming odds. After an epic struggle that ravages the village, Shinzaemon and his nephew Shinrouko (Teruyuki Yamada) fulfil their duty and murder Naritsugu.

13 Assassins’ first scene utilises various visual elements to establish its cultural, historical and cinematic authenticity. As the opening titles fade, a courtyard is revealed, its ornate, minimalist architecture a prelude to the large shrine at its centre. Kneeling before the shrine, clan elder Zusho Mamiya (Masaaki Uchino) opens his kimono to expose his torso and the white bandaging wrapped across it. Using a small tanto knife, Mamiya disembowels himself in protest against Naritsugu’s tyranny. This act is in itself a key reference point that attests to both the opening scene’s historical authenticity and the film’s generic fidelity. As a formal means of protest, this version of seppuku, a form of ritualistic suicide more commonly referred to in the West as hara-kiri, references the act of kanshi, a rarely-performed mode of seppuku, designed to initiate social or political change. Stephen Turnbull traces back this practice to a famous incident in which young daimyo (vassal to the shogun) Oda Nobunaga (1534-82) was persuaded to take greater responsibility for his administrative duties by his retainer Hirade Kiyohide’s letter of protest and eventual suicide.[13]

The act of seppuku in 13 Assassins underlines the historicity of the character’s actions, while the mise-en-scène engenders multiple strands of authenticity through the features of the courtyard and the clothing worn by Mamiya. As a cinematic motif, suicide features heavily throughout jidaigeki and other period films. For example, Hitokiri (Hideo Gosha, 1969) climaxes with the suicide of its main antagonist Takechi (Tatsuya Nakadai), while in Zatoichi, O-Shino (Yui Natsukawa) commits jigai (female suicide) in anticipation of her husband’s death as he leaves to confront the eponymous blind swordsman. There are two further suicides committed in 13 Assassins: a young woman raped by Naritsugu slits her own throat, while her father-in-law later takes his own life according to the seppuku ritual. Both as a nationally-specific action governed by the strict moral codes of the samurai and a cinematic motif, seppuku functions in 13 Assassins as a culturally and cinematically authentic action, thus it is significant that Miike chooses to open the film with an act of suicide. Mamiya’s method of suicide is an action rooted in samurai culture and is threaded throughout a variety of period films. One might conclude that seppuku serves as a generic feature in 13 Assassins, one that initiates the film’s self-presentation as inherently Japanese.

In relation to another generic convention, Silver outlines the establishment of two central protagonists as exemplary swordsmen and their inevitable confrontation as a generic element of most action-based jidaigeki: “An encounter between master swordsmen frequently serves as the climax of the film, the event towards which most of the early narrative and character development is genotypically directed […].”[14] In the case of 13 Assassins, Naritsugu’s chief bodyguard Hanbei speaks of the fact that both he and Shinzaemon have taken similar paths in life and that an ‘ill twist-of-fate’ (Hanbei having joined Naritsugu and Shinzaemon being selected to assassinate Naritsugu) has inevitably brought them into conflict. The audience is assured of this because the film has remained faithful to the generic line of action-based jidageki by establishing the possibility of a final confrontation long before it takes place.

A careful consideration of recurring motifs in post-war jidaigeki and chanbara eiga demonstrates the extent to which 13 Assassins and other contemporary titles adhere to certain genre conventions. If one considers a range of popular jidaigeki and chanbara releases from the 1950s onwards, several recurring features emerge. [Table 1] For example, a lone swordsmen pitted against a large group of attackers has been a staple of action-oriented period films stretching back to the silent era, from the films of Daisuke Ito to Kurosawa’s Yojimbo in 1961 and the long running Zatoichi and Lone Wolf and Cub series. As a centrepiece spectacle it has been utilised in contemporary productions, most notably in Zatoichi, 13 Assassins, Zatoichi: The Last, and in the finale of Miike’s Hara-Kiri. Revenge and justice narratives are also common. As noted previously, Shinzaemon is entrusted with assassinating Naritsugu to preserve stability and avenge those murdered by him. In Zatoichi, siblings Okinu (Yuko Daike) and Seitaro (Daigoro Tachibana) seek to avenge their parents’ murder at the hands of local criminals. In Seppuku / Harakiri (Masaki Kobayashi, 1962) Hanshiro enacts revenge against the court that forced his adopted son Motome into a painful suicide, while Chûshingura, the Lone Wolf and Cub series, Ako-jo danzetsu / The Fall of Ako Castle (Kinji Fukasaku, 1978), and 47 Ronin (Kon Ichikawa, 1994) are predicated on their protagonists’ quests for revenge.

Table 1 – Sample of Major Genre Conventions in Post-War Jidaigeki *

Convention Films
Tokugawa-Edo period setting YojimboChûshingura / Sanjuro/ Jusan-nin no shikaku (Eichi Kudo, 1962)/ The Thirteen Assassins/ Red  Beard/ Kedamono no ken/ Sword of the Beast (Hideo Gosha, 1965)/ Samurai Rebellion/ Goyokin (Hideo Gosha, 1969)/ Zatoichi to Yojinbo/ Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo (Kihachi Okamoto, 1970)/ The Fall of Ako Castle (Kinji Fukasaku, 1978)/ Shijushichinin no shikaku/ 47 Ronin/ Gohatto/ Twilight Samurai/ Zatoichi/ When the Last Sword is Drawn/ The Hidden Blade/ Shinobi/Bushi no ichibun/ Love and Honour (Yoji Yamada, 2006)/ Tsubuki Sanjuro (Yoshimitsu Morita, 2007)/ Ichi (Fumihiko Sori, 2008)/ Zatoichi za rasuto: The Last (Junji Sakamoto, 2010)/ 13 Assassins/ Ichimei / Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai (Takashi Miike, 2011)
Revenge narrative/ justice narrative Chûshingura / Yojimbo/ Sanjuro/ Harakiri/ Red Beard/ Kozure okami/ Lone Wolf and Cub series (1972-1980)/ The Fall of Ako Castle/ 47 Ronin/ Twilight Samurai/ Zatoichi/ When the Last Sword is Drawn/ Hana yori mo naho/ Hana (Hirokazu Koreeda, 2006)/ Tsubuki Sanjuro/ 13 Assassins/ Hara-Kiri
Two exemplary swordsmen established in narrative Sanjuro/ The Thirteen Assassins/ Samurai Rebellion/ Goyokin/ Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo/ Twilight Samurai/ Zatoichi/ When the Last Sword is Drawn/ The Hidden Blade/ Love and Honour/ Zatoichi: The Last/ 13 Assassins
Lone swordsman defeating multiple attackers Yojimbo/ Sanjuro/ Red Beard/Samurai Rebellion/ Zatoichi series/ Lone Wolf and Cub series/ Shurayukihime/ Lady Snowblood (Toshiya Fujita, 1973)/ After the Rain/ Zatoichi/ Tsubuki Sanjuro/ Ichi/ Zatoichi: The Last/ 13 Assassins/ Love and Honour/ Hara-Kiri

Note: This is not a comprehensive list

The restaging of the cinematic past in 13 Assassins and other period productions clearly represents an extensive reinvestment in cultural authenticity. Such authenticity is duly preserved and conveyed to a mass audience via the generic traits of a nationally-specific cinematic template. Nevertheless, contemporary jidaigeki is not a phenomenon related exclusively to Japan. As widely-recognised Japanese brands, the samurai and the feudal mise-en-scène have been appropriated beyond their place of origin. The revival of the samurai’s popularity via both Japanese and Hollywood productions has corresponded with jidaigeki’s transformation over the last thirty years from a Japanese signature genre into a global commodity often supported by foreign investment. In the following section I will discuss the role played by external film consortia in the revival of jidaigeki and thus question the extent to which such an authentic, culturally specific genre functions as a national product.

Selling Jidaigeki Authenticity

Due to the global recognisability of the samurai as a Japanese cultural icon, it is not difficult to see why jidaigeki production has increased in the early twentieth century, particularly if one considers the cultural-economic context of Japanese cultural export at this time.  Of great importance in recent years, writes Chris Burgess in The Japan Times, has been Japan’s exercise of soft power, its “ability to influence and attract others noncoercively through the use of cultural resources”.[15] Because of Japan’s economic downturns since the 1990s, cultural production has grown in value with the national gross domestic product no longer solely concentrated on economic power. In accordance, Japanese cultural brands have been marketed globally, most notably the Hello Kitty franchise, the animation of Studio Ghibli (and anime in general), contemporary horror (J-Horror), and jidaigeki. The increase in jidaigeki production has also been prompted by an increase in samurai-related heritage tourism aimed at non-Japanese, such as samurai package tours promoted by the Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO) and the Jidaigeki Renaissance Project, a joint venture involving Toei Kyoto Studios and the Kyoto tourist industry. As I will go on to suggest, the global visibility of feudal Japan in Hollywood productions during this time may also account for the increased production of jidaigeki.

Samurai-related films have demonstrated a potential for commercial recognition beyond Japan. Of the top twenty-three highest grossing Japanese live action films theatrically released in the USA (as of 2008), seven are identifiable as jidaigeki-samurai related, five of which were produced since the 1980s: Azumi (ranked nineteenth); The Hidden Blade (seventeenth); Gohatto (fourteenth); The Twilight Samurai (eighth); Zatoichi (fifth); Ran (Akira Kurosawa, 1985) (fourth); and Kagemusha (Akira Kurosawa, 1980) (third).[16] In addition, thirteen of the top thirty highest grossing Japanese live action DVD releases in the USA (again as of 2008) fall into the categories of jidaigeki or chanbara eiga.[17] Non-Japanese film producers and distribution companies have in recent years utilised the commercial potential of the samurai and jidaigeki as a signature genre. Accordingly, Hollywood has appropriated feudal iconography both directly (The Last Samurai (Edward Zwick, 2003)) and indirectly (Kill Bill: Volume 1 (Quentin Tarantino, 2003), Bunraku (Guy Moshe, 2010), The Wolverine (James Mangold, 2013), and 47 Ronin (Carl Erik Rinsch, 2013)). Taking into account the foreign investment in contemporary jidaigeki and the ease with which the genre has been appropriated outside Japan, it is questionable as to how ‘national’ the samurai revival is. Due to a considerable foreign presence in recent jidaigeki production, one needs to consider the fact that the apparent authenticity of films is a far less ‘national’ phenomenon than it initially appears to be.

Officially a Japanese-British co-production due to the involvement of London-based companies HanWay Films and Recorded Picture Company in its production, financing, distribution and marketing, 13 Assassins is notable for the involvement of its executive producers, Toshiaki Nakazawa from Japan and Englishman Jeremy Thomas. The respective backgrounds of these producers are revealing in terms of the film’s transnational status. Nakazawa has been one of the primary driving forces in the revival of jidaigeki and samurai related productions, his credits including Azumi, Tsu desu oa rabu / Azumi 2: Death or Love (Shusuke Kaneko, 2005), Semishigure / The Samurai I Loved (Mitsuo Kurotsuchi, 2005), Zatoichi: The Last, and Miike’s Hara-Kiri. Thomas meanwhile has cultivated a reputation for orchestrating the crossover appeal of co-productions made with Japan and China. Thomas served as producer on Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence (Nagisa Oshima, 1983), The Last Emperor (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1987) and Brother (Takeshi Kitano, 2000), a yakuza (gangster) film set in Los Angeles that contains English dialogue.

In an industry report on Japanese co-productions, the UNIJAPAN International Promotion Department points out that the more common international co-productions become, the more ambiguous the film’s nationality is.[18] The content of 13 Assassins is hardly ambiguous given its generic elements. On an aesthetic level the film’s Japanese identity is unambiguous, yet on an industrial level it appears far more questionable. Miike’s film is certainly not alone in terms of transnationally-minded production companies supporting jidaigeki productions. In association with Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas, Kurosawa’s Kagemusha was produced in association with Twentieth Century Fox, while Ran was produced by French company Greenwich Film Productions. Gohatto was as much a co-production, commercially speaking, as it was a national production, with the UK’s Recorded Picture Company and French companies Canal+ and Bac Films involved in its funding and international distribution. Ame agaru / After the Rain (Takashi Koizumi, 1999) includes 7 Films Cinéma (France) among its production companies, Umi wa miteita / The Sea is Watching (Kei Kumai, 2002) Sony Pictures Entertainment (USA/Japan), and Ichi and Ruroni kenshin: Meiji kenkaku roman tan / Rurouni kenshin (Keishi Ohtomo, 2012) Warner Brothers (USA/Japan). Elsewhere transnationally connected Japanese companies have invested in jidaigeki production. Zatoichi, for example, wasas partly financed by the Asahi National Broadcasting Company, a company well-versed in transnational film production, including the Japanese-British co-production Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence and the multi-national, multi-directed Tokyo! (Joon-Ho Bong, Leos Carax, Michel Gondry, 2008). Asahi was also involved in perhaps the most well-known Japanese-international co-production, the television miniseries Shogun (Jerry London, 1980), a clear example of how feudal Japan has been presented to an American market through international creative and commercial collaboration.

In terms of both Japanese and Hollywood production, the samurai remains a commercially viable asset. It may be somewhat unsurprising then that Miike has followed this trend in producing the highly accessible and widely marketed 13 Assassins. The generic links to classical jidaigeki in particular reinforces the cultural authenticity of Miike’s film in regards to a more ‘traditional’ approach to filmmaking. At the same time, 13 Assassins constitutes a global product in terms of sources of finance and distribution, and only constitutes a return to Japan if one approaches it as a genre film. The involvement of British, French and American film companies in the production, distribution and financing of jidaigeki and the appropriation of the genre through recent Hollywood productions raise questions of ownership that are worth exploring at this point.

Inverting Cultural Ownership: Who Owns Japanese Authenticity?

13 Assassins is notable for the involvement of Nakazawa and Thomas as executive producers, particularly if one takes into account their respective backgrounds in Japanese co-production. Yet, of even greater significance is the point at which the film’s Japanese consortia became involved in the project. In terms of strict ownership, 13 Assassins was a British project before it was handled by a major Japanese studio. HanWay Films, Thomas’ ‘sales and finance arm,’ owned the rights to the film with Miike confirmed as director before it was offered to Japanese buyers at the Cannes film festival in May 2009.[19] Japan’s Toho studios bought the rights from HanWay Films for a Japanese theatrical run, by which point the film’s formal content and thus its feudal spectacle had already been forged in pre-production (filming began in the summer of 2009). As well as being ‘handed over’ to a Japanese studio, 13 Assassins was also showcased as a project-in-development at the Cannes Film Festival; thus, even in terms of where it was first exhibited, the film is separated from a Japanese context. In this particular case the Japanese product was sold to a major Japanese studio after the conception of the project and thereafter was controlled in terms of production and international distribution by both British (HanWay Films, Recorded Picture Company) and Japanese (Nakazawa’s Sedic International) companies. Clearly there should be some consideration of ownership, particularly when films are sold into a Japanese market by non-Japanese consortia before they are sold out as national exports.

The Last Samurai, starring bankable Hollywood star Tom Cruise, is a notable example of a jidaigeki-related Hollywood production becoming commercially successful in Japan, the film having ranked second in the end-of-year standings for films released in the domestic market in 2004.[20] The Last Samurai’s critical and commercial acceptance in Japan was later confirmed with the Japanese Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Even more significantly, the film’s $119,268,595 Japanese box-office gross dwarfed those of more authentic, domestically-produced period films, such as The Twilight Samurai ($6,745,440), Zatoichi ($23,696,316) The Hidden Blade ($8,004,304), 13 Assassins ($16,752,363), and Hara-Kiri ($5,237,269).[21] If, as these figures suggest, other film industries are able to incorporate distinctive elements of Japanese (film) culture into their productions and sell them successfully to Japan, then who actually owns the cultural iconography of Japanese films and how can cultural authenticity be considered wholly authentic in such circumstances? If we return to Schatz’s contention that genres are both static and dynamic, the ‘inauthenticity’ of 13 Assassins’ production, which is to say its non-Japanese commercial identity, is hardly problematic. Certainly the involvement of British consortia in the film’s production is utterly inconsequential to the successful realisation of its authentic Japanese spectacle. Nevertheless, one cannot avoid the irony that such a spectacle is supported by foreign production and investment. Evidently the flexibility of jidaigeki as a genre is mirrored in the increasing flexibility of cross-cultural film production (as opposed to the status of ‘national’ cinema). As a result of such flexibility, the apparent historical, aesthetic and structural authenticity of jidaigeki is by no means beyond the hegemonic reach of western film production and financing. Although certain works retain a cinematic identity that is undeniably Japanese in regards to iconography and setting, this does not mean that such films can be considered exclusively as Japanese products. Due to various factors – non-national investment by film companies and studios, cross-cultural appropriation and the commercial success of appropriated cinema in Japan – the term national would appear misplaced in the context of contemporary jidaigeki, despite the genre’s apparent cultural authenticity.


As a global commodity, the samurai is not necessarily the sole preserve of Japanese filmmakers, producers and studios. Thus, in regards to commercial ownership it is not exclusively national. Japanese filmmakers, producers and studios in a sense return to Japan by investing in the commercial potential of jidaigeki’s cultural iconography. Yet, at the same time, feudal-set dramas also return to Japan via Hollywood imports and co-productions like 13 Assassins. It is certainly apparent that on a textual level, 13 Assassins remains culturally distinct and this is evident in the ways in which it remains faithful to the genre conventions that define jidaigeki as a distinctly Japanese film tradition. However, on a commercial level it is difficult to conceptualise jidaigeki in purely national terms or situate it beyond the hegemony of Hollywood and its ongoing appropriation of Japanese cinema. Despite displaying overt national characteristics, 13 Assassins, along with other contemporary productions, is an internal-external product, one that is implicated in the decentralisation of contemporary film production. Miike’s, at times derivative, work in 13 Assassins offers a ‘purer’ form of cultural performance, yet it also factors into the ongoing consumption (and manufacturing) of Japanese cinema as a global commodity, and samurai-related jidaigeki as a culturally transferrable and even ambiguous signature genre.

[1] As a generic term, jidaigeki refers to Japanese period films set during the Tokugawa-Edo period (1603-1868). Although not all films considered to be jidaigeki involve samurai, the genre is synonymous with this historical figure, both in Japan and elsewhere.

[2] Isolde Standish, Myth and Masculinity in the Japanese Cinema (Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2000), p. 2.

[3] David Desser, “Towards a Structural Analysis of the Postwar Samurai Film,” in Reframing Japanese Cinema: Authorship, Genre, History, edited by Arthur J. Noletti Jr. and David Desser (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992), p. 163.

[4] Thomas Schatz, “Film Genre and the Genre Film,” in Film Theory and Criticism, ed. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), p. 691.

[5] Standish, Myth and Masculinity in the Japanese Cinema, p. 3.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen, “Film Genres,” in Film Theory and Criticism, ed. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), p. 658.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Alan Silver, The Samurai Film (New York: The Overlook Press, 2005), p. 42.

[10] Desser, “Towards a Structural Analysis of the Postwar Samurai Film,” p. 146.

[11] Justin Howe, “Chambara Samurai Cinema,” in Directory of World Cinema: Japan, ed.

John Berra (Bristol: Intellect, 2010), p. 85.

[12] Brian Moeran, Language and Popular Culture in Japan (New York: Routledge Library Editions, 2011), p. 163.

[13] Michael Turnbull, The Samurai Sourcebook (London: Arms and Armour Press, 1998), p. 305.

[14] Silver, The Samurai Film, p. 43.

[15] Burgess, Chris, “Soft Power is Key to Japan Reshaping its Identity Abroad,” The Japan Times, September 2 2008, <http://www.japantimes.co.jp/community/2008/09/02/issues/soft-power-is-key-to-japan- reshaping-its-identity-abroad/#.UjIUPcY3vXk> [Accessed 06/05/13].

[16] Japan External Trade Organization USA, “Live Action Films,” 2009, <http://jetro2.nr10.com/trends/market_info_film_09.pdf> [Accessed 04/05/13].

[17] Ibid.

[18] UNIJAPAN, “The Guide to the Japanese Film Industry & Co-Production 2009,” <http://unijapan.org/project/information/co-production_guide.pdf> [Accessed 14/05/13].

[19] Gary Kemp, “Duo Get Behind ‘Thirteen Assassins’,” in The Hollywood Reporter, 12 May

2009, <http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/duo-thirteen-assassins-83744> [Accessed 16/03/13].

[20] Japan External Trade Organization, “Film Industry in Japan,” Japan Economic Monthly, May 2005, <http://www.jetro.go.jp/en/reports/market/pdf/2005_33_r.pdf> [Accessed 04/05/13].

[21] Box Office Mojo, <http://www.boxofficemojo.com/> [Accessed 05/05/13].


Notes on Contributor

Andrew Dorman completed his PhD at the University of St Andrews in 2014 on the cultural representation in contemporary Japanese film exports to the UK and the USA. Dorman has also written about the work of directors Kaneto Shindo and Kazuo Hara, and has taught film studies at the universities of St Andrews and Edinburgh.



Box Office Mojo. <http://www.boxofficemojo.com/> [Accessed 05/05/13]

Braudy, Leo and Marshall Cohen. “Film Genres.” In Film Theory and Criticism, edited by Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen: pp. 657-661. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

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13 Assassins (Jusan-nin no shikaku, Takashi Miike, 2010)

47 Ronin (Shijūshichinin no shikaku, Kon Ichikawa, 1994)

47 Ronin (Carl Erik Rinsch, 2013)

47 Samurai (Chûshingura: Hana no Maki, Yuki no Maki, Hiroshi Inagaki, 1962)

After the Rain (Ame agaru, Takashi Koizumi, 1999)

Azumi (Ryūhei Kitamura, 2003)

Azumi 2: Death or Love (Azumi, Tsu desu oa rabu, Shusuke Kaneko, 2005)

Brother (Takeshi Kitano, 2000)

Bunraku (Guy Moshe, 2010)

The Fall of Ako Castle (Ako-jo danzetsu, Kinji Fukasaku, 1978)

Gohatto / Taboo (Nagisa Oshima, 1999)

Harakiri (Seppuku, Masaki Kobayashi, 1962)

Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai (Ichimei, Takashi Miike, 2011)

The Hidden Blade (Kakushi ken oni no tsume, Yoji Yamada, 2004)

Hitokiri (Hideo Gosha, 1969)

Ichi (Fumihiko Sori, 2008)

Kagemusha (Akira Kurosawa, 1980)

Kill Bill: Volume 1 (Quentin Tarantino, 2003)

The Last Emperor (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1987)

The Last Samurai (Edward Zwick, 2003)

Lone Wolf and Cub series (Various, 1972 – 1974)

Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence (Nagisa Oshima, 1983)

Ran (Akira Kurosawa, 1985)

Red Beard (Chûshingura, Akahige, Akira Kurosawa, 1965)

Rurouni Kenshin (Ruroni kenshin: Meiji kenkaku roman tan, Keishi Ohtomo, 2012)

Samurai Fiction (Esu efu samurai fikushon, Hiroyuki Nakano, 1998)

The Samurai I Loved (Semishigure, Mitsuo Kurotsuchi, 2005)

Samurai Rebellion (Jôi-uchi: Hairyô tsuma shimatsu, Masaki Kobayashi, 1967)

Sanjuro (Akira Kurosawa, 1962)

The Sea is Watching (Uma wa miteita, Kei Kumai, 2002)

Shogun (Jerry London, 1980)

Throne of Blood (Kumonosu jô, Akira Kurosawa, 1957)

Tokyo! (Joon-Ho Bong, Leos Carax, Michel Gondry, 2008)

The Twilight Samurai (Tasogare seibei, Yoji Yamada, 2002)

When the Last Sword is Drawn (Mibu gishi den, Yojiro Takita, 2003)

The Wolverine (James Mangold, 2013)

Yojimbo (Akira Kurosawa, 1961)

Zatoichi (Takeshi Kitano, 2003)

Zatoichi: The Last (Zatōichi Za Rasuto, Junji Sakamoto, 2010)