Takashi Miike’s 13 Assassins has stood out as a high point in the samurai genre. It was a worldwide success, and even earned comparisons to the works of genre mastermind. Akira Kurosawa. Critics lauded Miike’s movie as one of his best and detailed how he improved on the original 1963 movie by Eiichi Kudo. Miike stated he wanted to honor Kudo’s original 13 Assassins and avoid adhering to modern-day clichés. The movie tells the story of a group of thirteen samurai banding together to bring down the merciless Lord Naritsugu (Goro Inagaki). With powerful performances, spectacular visuals, and an enthralling 45-minute battle sequence, 13 Assassins is truly epic in every sense of the word. It impresses greatly with its characters – whether it is the daring assassins or the ruthless villains – but the most intriguing character of all is the mysterious Kiga Koyata (Yusuke Iseya).
Koyata is the thirteenth assassin to join the group, and has less screen time than the others. He does not appear until fifty-three minutes into the movie when he is discovered on the group’s journey through a forest. Initially, he provides a bit of comic relief as he is unusually entrapped in a cage suspended several feet in the air. He explains this is because he tried seducing his boss’ wife, the equally enigmatic Upashi. Once freed from the cage, he spends most of his time in a crouched position while the rest of them stand. That is not the only bit of odd behavior he displays in his first encounter with them though. He also eats a bug right from the ground, appears to have some kind of sixth sense, and shows himself as able to spot prey that is seemingly entirely out of sight. However, he soon becomes integral to the assassins and guides them out of the thick forest before they recruit him as the thirteenth assassin. Undoubtedly though, he stands out in the group for all his quirks and eccentricities. During the battle sequence, he fights with a slingshot, rocks, and sticks as opposed to the more advantageous samurai sword. There is a lot of uncertainty surrounding his character, and many implications that he may be something inhuman.
In the incredible final confrontation between the assassins and Naritsugu’s army, Koyata is brutally killed. He is stabbed in the neck after arrogantly taunting and criticizing the samurai lifestyle. In a miraculous shock, he appears again in the final scene completely unharmed and back to his (un) usual self. No explanation is given for his sudden reappearance leading to many speculations about who (or what) Koyata really was. His length of screen time is relatively short compared to the other leads, but he makes a massive and memorable impact. There may not be a concrete answer to his true identity, but it may be that he is one of the countless creatures from Japanese folklore.
Japan has a long history of supernatural folktales and urban legends which includes entities known as yōkai – which can be dark and malevolent or mischievous beings who tempt fate or even do good deeds. They can take many forms and often have shapeshifting abilities. Koyata displays many qualities of a type of yōkai; he inhabits in a forest, is seemingly unable to feel pain, and has an obsession with Upashi, who also displays yōkai-like behaviors. She is seen in a flashback eating what looks like a fetus, which is something done by demons in Japanese mythology. The prominence of yōkai tales during the Edo period (1603-1867) when 13 Assassins is set is another indicator to Koyata’s true identity as a yōkai being.
Over the course of the film, Koyata establishes the biggest connection with Shinrokuro (Takayuki Yamada), who ends up being the sole survivor of the battle. Shinrokuro has his own personal demons and joins the assassins in an effort to redeem himself. An alternate view to the belief that Koyata is a yōkai suggests that his final appearance is in Shinrokuro’s head. Already unstable, the amount of violence and bloodshed Shinrokuro witnesses causes him to hallucinate Koyata as he wanders through the destruction. Koyata is back to his excitable self, and questions what Shinrokuro will do with his life next which reflects his relief at being presented with the opportunity to be a free man. He relishes the chance to leave the samurai behind, and Koyata acts as a manifestation of his desire to be free. Koyata is equally excited by the idea of starting a new life and animatedly bounces around in exhilaration. The conversation between Shinrokuro and Koyata sees them both express distaste toward the samurai lifestyle. Once Shinrokuro knows what he is going to do, a huge smile forms across his face, and this is the last shot of the movie.
Though he supposedly survives, Shinrokuro suffers many injuries during the battle and there is a suggestion that his reunion with Koyata takes place in the afterlife. The two of them form a brief but important bond in their lives, therefore they reunite in their deaths. Upon first seeing Koyata in this afterlife, Shinrokuro asks if he is immortal which he ignores implying Shinrokuro is not aware that he has died yet and Koyata does not want to tell him. Instead, he tries to make the conversation light by feigning disappointment about the fight being over and calling his own wounds “nothing”. Koyata then expresses his wish to see Upashi, his boss’ wife whom he could never have in his life, and Shinrokuro naively tells him to go and “live his life” – which causes Koyata to briefly look solemn. He eventually responds to this with a joke – “‘Til the next life!” he says wryly. There are certainly fantastical elements to this scene and a suitable level of awkwardness between Koyata and Shinrokuro which gives it many possibilities.
Koyata’s final appearance is very ambiguous and Miike has kept quiet about it since the movie’s release. The way he seamlessly weaves supernatural elements into his samurai epic elevates the movie greatly and leaves the audience desperate to watch it again. The clues surrounding Koyata may never be completely clear, but Miike has never shied away from the bizarre in his films, so it is likely there is no definitive answer as to whom he really is. For sure though, the enigma which oozes from Koyata is fascinating and it brilliantly takes the movie to new heights.