Ultra-violence, as A Clockwork Orange’s protagonist reminds us, is an art. Takashi Miike agrees, judging from his new remake of Eiichi Kudo’s Thirteen Assassins (Jusan nin no shikaku). The thirteen warriors slash, spin, and sever their way through hordes of butter-fingered baddies, but the movie is not just a mindless display of butchery; somewhere between the rivers of blood and the piles of bodies, Miike has managed to hide a serious, if perhaps unintentional, discussion of virtue in a virtue-less world.
Thirteen Assassins takes place in early nineteenth-century Edo Japan, which the movie presents as a rotting corpse of a society whose noxious exhalations manifest as irresolvable moral dilemmas for its members. Two centuries of more-or-less authoritarian peace has left the government corrupt and the warrior elite of samurai decadent. As a result, the martial virtues undergirding society have fallen apart, resulting in cruel leaders who still command absolute loyalty and weak warriors who carry swords but lack the courage to use them.
The film’s plot is relatively simple: The Shogun’s sadistic half-brother Naritsugu Matsudaira is tearing the realm apart with his debauched savagery, but is immune from harm due to his proximity to the Shogun. After a lead official commits hara-kiri in an act of protest, sword-master Shinzaemon Shimada is secretly recruited to assassinate Naritsugu. The sword-master gathers a baker’s dozen of men who represent the last true warriors in Japan, and these men then unleash a bit of the old ultra-violence in which the assassins achieve victory once nearly everyone in the film has been killed.
Which brings us to virtue. The Neo-Confucian philosophers who shaped Edo-period Japan share with Aristotle a fundamental insight about virtue, which is that virtue is individually possessed but socially realized. If the structures that support virtue are sufficiently compromised, society can lose interest in real virtue, satisfying itself with cheap imitations. Strictly speaking, an individual is always free to practice true virtue, but the temptation to follow society’s false ideals can be overwhelming.
Consider our society’s dominant virtue: tolerance. Tolerance has supplanted the natural virtues of prudence and justice and their reasonable balance of liberty and restraint in favor of an open-ended permissiveness. Particularly in the realm of sexual ethics, tolerance defends a host of behaviors once considered degrading or inhuman, from open marriages to sex-change operations. We can respond to tricky moral dilemmas however we wish, but the well-trod path of tolerance is far easier than the uphill climb of prudence and justice.
Virtues also collapse when isolated from each other. An unintegrated virtue quickly becomes a vice by a different name. The villains in Thirteen Assassins are fiercely loyal men who sacrifice their lives for that virtue. But without a healthy admixture of prudence and temperance, their loyalty becomes a vicious willingness to defend, protect, and aid Naritsugu in his murderous ways. The heroic assassins are courageous and masterful swordsmen, but without justice their actions become unreasonable and brutish.
Miike’s achievement is to illustrate that the natural virtues are at best imperfectly attainable in a society that lacks a full culture of virtue. But our desire for real perfection is never absent, so when the traditional virtues are generally unavailable, our desire finds new and less savory forms of expression—consider, perhaps, our contemporary connoisseurship of adolescence. Unable to find a path for excellence within society, the thirteen assassins discover a new excellence: pure destruction. We see facility with violence become the dominant expression of human excellence. Ultra-violence is the virtue of the age.
The movie presents violence as the only form in which any other virtue can manifest itself. Throughout the film, the few acts of loyalty and bravery are always expressed in violence toward oneself or others, from the hara-kiri with which the movie opens to the bloodbath that precedes Naritsugu’s death. The heroic assassins are masters of death, and only in the bloody strokes of the sword can their courage be seen. Thirteen Assassins’ sense of virtue is a radical regression away from the structures of social virtue to the savage primacy of physical violence.
Thirteen Assassins did not invent the trope of ultra-violence as a proxy for virtue. Twentieth-century film and literature frequently turn to violence as the last refuge of excellence in degraded cultures devoid of moral structures, in movies like High Plains Drifter or Battle Royale and books like Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian or Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange.
These works are cautionary tales. We can easily mistake them for nihilistic endorsements of ultra-violence, but they instead use violence as a graphic reductio ad absurdum to warn society of the consequences resulting from abandoning the natural virtues. For no amount of cultural shift can eliminate the desire for excellence from the human heart, but without the social and moral structure to sustain real virtue, Miike’s death-dealing swordsmen might become our only heroes.
Gabriel Torretta, OP is a summer fellow at First Things and is studying for the priesthood in the Dominican Order.