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Past Article

A Man, a Blade, an Empty Road: Postwar Samurai Film to 1970
By Allen White
March 28, 2003 - 1:33 PM PST

Chambara Eiga

Tiger's Tail

"Like the gunfight, an encounter between swordsmen frequently serves as the climax of the film, the event towards which most of the early narrative and character development is genotypically directed. Just as six-shooters may be tied down or cross-drawn, fanned or cocked and fired, the samurai has... a variety of mountings and styles for his sword. There is in most films a considerable amount of preliminary swordplay in which protagonist and antagonist may display his or her prowess by defeating a number of non-principles as preludes to the final duel. Here, two opponents whose skills have been established as roughly equal meet with attendant ceremony to settle the question of who is best."

Alain Silver, The Samurai Film, p. 36.

Japan after the Second World War was a country in flux. It had not only been utterly defeated by Allied forces, but it had a new constitution written and imposed upon it by foreigners as well. Every principle by which the Japanese had lived their lives was now subject to revision or disposal.

The Occupation forces under General MacArthur effected immediate change on the Japanese film industry by prohibiting the exhibition of films that promoted feudal or retrogressive values. Films such as Kurosawa Akira's just-completed Those Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail were banned, and the prints of many other films were burned, lost forever.

Over the next 25 years, the genre of the samurai film flourished. Known in Japan as chambara eiga ("sword fighting film"), a subset of the jidai-geki ("period theatre") genre, samurai film and its development lies at the core of Japanese cinema and its long history. Chambara became one of the central vehicles by which Japan would reexamine its culture and values in light of its new postwar, post-imperial role. Ironically, it would accomplish this by looking backwards to its own past in order to move forwards into the future. Chambara not only recycled and redefined Japanese history; it also used it as a thinly-coded metaphor for present-day struggles. Yet it wasn't until the late 1950s that censorship's Damoclean sword began to ease, and the genre would truly begin to flex its thematic and ideological muscle.

During the crucial, artistically triumphant 25-year period following World War II, until 1970, chambara became a powerful cinematic force.

The Past and the Present Are One

From the North comes Russia, from the East, America. From the West come England and France. Should [the Shogun] make one little error, what'll happen to Japan then?

- Samurai Niino Tsuruchiyo (Mifune Toshirô), Samurai Assassin (1965)

Although Niino is speaking of the weakening Tokugawa government, he might just as easily be talking about Japan's precarious position immediately following the war when Occupation forces swarmed into the country, and Japan's worst xenophobic fears were suddenly realized.

In 1853, Japan was forced at gunpoint to open its borders to trade with the outside world by Commodore Matthew Perry's warships. That ended Japan's official isolationist policy of sakoku ("closed country") and opened Japan to long-dreaded foreign influence and ideas. It is no coincidence that many chambara take place during the years directly following Perry's ultimatum and preceding the Meiji Restoration of 1868. At the end of this period, the Tokugawa Shogunate, which had lasted for 268 years (1600-1867), finally fell, replaced by an emperor who was supported by a ruling clique of nobles and former samurai.

Japanese women at the cinema

The first films shown in Japan were imported, and were typically short scenes of life abroad. When Japanese filmmakers began to try their own hand at the new medium at the turn of the century, some of the earliest dramatic films made were jidai-geki, typically filmed theatrical performances of Shimpa, or Meiji-period drama.

The following year, in 1869, the Charter Oaths emancipated the various classes, and a few years later, the various han (prefectures) were no longer ruled by hereditary daimyo (feudal lords) but by appointed officials, thus undermining one of the foundations of clan power. The final blow to feudal tradition came in 1876, when samurai were divested of their karoku (stipend; originally paid in rice, later in gold) and were forbidden to carry two swords, the very symbols of samurai privilege and power, at their waist. The samurai, as a warrior class, were effectively dead, although their descendants, the shikozu, held onto an enormous advantage as a class for years to come.

This time of radical change functions as a perfect mirror to Japan's cultural upheaval during the years following WWII. More importantly, chambara functioned as a metaphorical way to resolve the new dilemmas faced by the Japanese people that were created by contradictory demands. On the one side of this conflict were the alien but attractive notions of modernism, democracy and individualism, promoted by the West. On the other, the traditional Japanese side were a nostalgic longing for an idealized view of ancient Japan, filial piety, xenophobia, group-think and rabid nationalism -- the kind of societal and familial glue that had long been the core values of Japanese society. The inevitable outgrowth of this psycho-cultural conflict within the hearts and minds of many Japanese was a certain amount of displacement and alienation.

The paradoxical persona of the ronin, the masterless samurai, functioned as a perfect vehicle with which to explore this inner conflict.

Wasabi Westerns and Nihonjin Noir

I'm just someone who's pissed off at all mankind even though I'm a man myself. I'm past the point of no return... I know not what the future holds, but in the time that I have, I shall be the ruin of evil men that cross my path.

- Ronin Nemuri Kyoshiro, Sleepy Eyes of Death #1 (Nemuri Kyoshiro 1: Sappocho, 1963)

Like the Raymond Chandler's Phillip Marlowe or Dashiell Hammett's Continental Op, the characters of wandering ronin were often scruffy antiheroes involved in criminal and political intrigue that encompassed such classic noir genre tropes as the double-cross, the MacGuffin, the femme fatale, and the contract murder. These ronin were not only expert swordsman, but they also lived by their wits, cynically sniffing out and exploiting trouble as a way to make a fast handful of gold ryo. Yet despite their deep misanthropy, distrust of others and greed, they typically possessed a core of decency and morality that instinctively placed them of the side of good. These characters were often caught between the conflicting values of giri (duty) and ninjo (instinct towards correct action), as well as the desire for self-preservation and self-enrichment, which created an inner turmoil that certainly reflected the struggles of conscience felt by a post-war Japanese audience.

One of the greatest directors of samurai film of was Gosha Hideo, and many of his films helped create the archetype of the samurai outlaw. Gosha's films are as important as Kurosawa's in terms of their influence, visual style, and content, yet are not as well known in the West. Gosha's films often portrayed the struggle between tradtional and modernist thought and were decidedly anti-feudal.

An excellent example of the kind of immediacy and action evident in the best chambara is seen Gosha's first feature film, the classic Three Outlaw Samurai (Sanbiki no samurai, 1964), based upon a TV series of the same name. When three farmers kidnap the daughter of the local magistrate in order to call attention to the starvation of local peasants, a wandering ronin appears at the crumbling mill where they hold her captive and decides to help them. In the process, two other ronin with shifting allegiances are embroiled in the widening conflict, which leads to betrayal, assassination and legions of mercenary ronin fighting to the death. This vastly entertaining film is told in a style similar to Seven Samurai in its deft blend of drama, comedy and action, and is certainly one of the best of the genre. Three Outlaw Samurai, like many postwar samurai films, uses class disparity as the fuel for its plot. Gosha's worldview is steeped in cynicism and, though his characters decry the injustices of feudal life, by the film's end, their struggles have made negligible impact upon the entrenched system.

The two swords typically seen worn by samurai in chambara are called the katana, or long sword, about three feet in length, and the wakizashi, or short sword, between 12 and 24 inches long. These were held in place by a sash, edges upward. When wearing armor or formally dressed, samurai would wear a tachi, a long sword, tucked edge downward into his sash, and a tanto, also edge downward, held by the sash and secured by a cord. The tanto was also the blade used to commit seppuku, or ritual suicide.

Gosha's Sword of the Beast (Kedamono no ken, 1965) also has an anti-feudal critique as its springboard. The central character, Gennosuke Yuuki, becomes a fugitive ronin after he is used as a pawn in the political assassination of his clan's minister, which he has been led to believe is necessary for clan reform. His quick and brutal disillusionment leaves him pursued by a determined trio: the clan fencing instructor, the minister's vengeful daughter, Misa, and her fiancée, Daizaburo (who is also Gennosuke's old friend). The ronin soon joins up with a happy-go-lucky prospector headed for the mountains to illegally seek gold on restricted land. Once there, the pair encounters a samurai and his wife already panning gold from the mountain's river despite the threat of execution. The couple is on a secret mission to rescue their own clan from financial ruin, and Gennosuke soon discovers that they, like him, are simply the disposable tools of their clan.

One of the things that makes this film different from many chambara is that the protagonist, Gennosuke, is not up against any specific single enemy but counts his foes as supporters of the system and his allies among those exploited by it. Traditional villains make a brief appearance in the form of an amoral band of thieving prospectors out to steal the collected gold; only these characters have no code to follow. Even Gennosuke, referred to as a "wild beast" who has forsaken his samurai life and clan loyalty, still adheres to an inner sense of fairness and right action which ironically sets him apart from the utilitarian view that clans have of their retainers. An illustration of these diverging interpretations of samurai honor occurs early in the film when Gennosuke is attacked by dozens of his former clansmen. Daizaburo, sword in hand, challenges him with, "Gennosuke! Die like a samurai!" He replies, decrying the clearly dishonorable attempt to hunt him down like a dog, "How can I? This is butchery!"

In The Secret of the Urn (Tange Sazen: Hien iaigiri, 1966), Gosha presents an eccentric antihero in the form of Sazen Tange, a one-eyed, one-armed ronin. A scheming minister, Gunraku, convinces the shogun to order the Yagyu clan to perform expensive repairs on a temple. Gunraku knows this will lead to the clan's downfall as they cannot possibly afford the repairs nor refuse the shogun's edict.

The Yagyus have an ace up their sleeve in the form of an urn that bears a secret inscription, instructions to a hidden cache of one million gold ryo. The urn thus becomes the MacGuffin sought by several parties: Gunraku's minions, the Yagyus, a pair of brother-and-sister thieves, a young street urchin and the deadly Sazen. Like the protagonists of Three Outlaw Samurai, Sazen's embroilment in the plot is purely a matter of chance: during a heated battle between the various factions, the young boy runs into a fisherman's hut where Sazen rests, reiterating the important role of predestination in the chambara genre. (At the beginning of Yojimbo [1961], for example, the main character, Sanjuro, is at a crossroads and decides which direction to take by tossing a stick into the air.) Sazen, like Sanjuro, has a lack of loyalty to anyone but himself and this initially puts him in a position of strength even as he stands at the center of a complex web of interpersonal and political conflict.

Sazen is ultimately not as clever or as detached as Sanjuro and, when Sazen begins to care about the people with whom he has sided against Gunraku, his power is compromised and he must rely on his swordsmanship and instincts to get back on top. Sazen's disfigurement is used as a metaphor of both his outsider status and his anti-feudal philosophy; he is constantly referred to as a "monster" by almost every character in the film, including himself. It is precisely his "monster" status that lets him see the corruption inherent in the system and leaves him wanting no part of it -- exactly the perspective Gennosuke Yuuki has as a "beast" and symbolically the position held by Japanese citizens trying to embrace the modern world at the expense of the old. After his first appearance as a fictional character created by popular writer Hayashi Fubo in the late 1920s, Tange Sazen was a recurring character in many films and even starred in a comic by famous manga artist Tezuka Osamu, creator of Astroboy.

Kurosawa >>>

Chambara Eiga
Tearing Down the Myth

back to past articles


Allen White a writer, screenwriter and actor living in San Francisco. His current project is UnClean Arts.

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