Kurosawa Akira is certainly the best-known Japanese director in the West. His films represent some of the wisest, deepest cinematic narratives in film's history and stand the test of time as triumphs of aesthetics and storytelling. Yet in his own country, Kurosawa did not immediately get the respect he commanded abroad; his films were considered un-Japanese in their style and content. Indeed, even his films involving adventure and swordplay rise so far above conventions of chambara or jidai-geki that they almost defy categorization.
With Rashomon (1950), Kurosawa cemented his place in the pantheon of international cinema by creating what is still one of the most influential films ever made and certainly one of the first true examples of postmodern filmmaking. Even so, it was not very successful when it was originally released in Japan. Its story, told from three different points of view, examines subjective reality with breathtaking artistry. While not an example of chambara, it nonetheless paved the way for the reception and appreciation of Kurosawa's later films around the globe in a way that Gosha's films have yet to be received or appreciated.
"The way of the Kabuki, the way of the chambara is much too facile for [Kurosawa]. At the same time the fact that it exists (and is believed in, even now, by a great number of Japanese) is a continual spur, a continuous thorn in the side, a constant pain in the neck. He resents the pretended -- that is, the illusion. And he delights in revealing it as illusion. Reality is much more difficult to deal with, of course, and consequently a major theme in any of his films is just this search for reality. That it often results in failure tells us much about us, and, perhaps, something about the nature of reality itself."
Donald Ritchie, The Films of Akira Kurosawa, p. 98.
The Seven Samurai (Shichinin no samurai, 1954) is unquestionably one of the most important touchstones of the genre and the most well-known chambara outside of Japan. It also neatly illustrates some of the conventions of samurai film: First, the main characters are ronin, unemployed samurai without clan loyalty, and thus, free to act as their conscience dictates. Importantly, these men tend to deal with their problems with their swords and are very skilled at doing so.
Second, as in many later chambara (such as Three Outlaw Samurai), a group of helpless peasants is dependent on samurai muscle to solve their problem; in this case, that would be a group of bandits who regularly raid the already starving village. Third, the film's resolution is bittersweet; some must die in order that others may live. This message of continuity in the face of tragedy is an important recurring theme in many Japanese films, reiterating the notion of familial and clan loyalty. Over a rigorous shooting schedule that spanned two years and nearly bankrupted Toho, its production company, Kurosawa meticulously crafted a gripping tale that rises far above mere swordplay. The full-length cut was only recently made available outside of Japan, and now, audiences can at last marvel at one of the best examples of character development within an action setting.
Kurosawa's work often pays homage to Hollywood westerns (referred to in Japan as seibu-geki), and features arid landscapes, men on horseback and lethal showdowns on dusty village streets. With its genre elements perfectly suited to horse operas, it's hardly a surprise that The Seven Samurai was remade as an American western: The Magnificent Seven (1960).
Kurosawa's next film with a samurai-era setting was Throne of Blood (Kumonosu jo, 1957), an adaptation of Shakespeare's Macbeth, and, although bloody, is paced and scripted like jidai-geki rather than chambara. Like many of Kurosawa's works, it starred the great Mifune Toshirô in the lead role.
The Hidden Fortress (Kakushi toride no san akunin, 1958) is famously the inspiration for Star Wars. It is more of an adventure film than actual chambara, partly because Kurosawa always evinces more humanism and less blind nihilism than many other directors. (Unlike directors such as Gosha, for example, Kurosawa is uninterested in using his films as a platform for feudal reform and sticks to dimensional, character-centered stories focused on individual struggles; so his contexts are chosen for dramatic, rather than political, effect.) What also keeps it out of the chambara club is that fact that the main characters are not samurai or ronin, but two bumbling farmers. Mifune Toshirô makes his obligatory appearance as the stoic General Rokurota Makabe and fights a scene-stealing lance duel with a rival general.
Certainly one of the most important the prototypes for the unscrupulous yet moral man of action is the character of Sanjuro, brought to life by Mifune Toshirô in no less than five films. The first two were directed by Kurosawa and are the best known in the West: Yojimbo and Sanjuro (Tsubaki Sanjûrô, 1962). This scruffy, sly and unscrupulous creation sprang from one of the greatest actor/director collaborations in cinematic history. Yojimbo was successfully remade as Sergio Leone's spaghetti western A Fistful of Dollars (Per un pugno di dollari, 1964), albeit without the lighthearted humanist touches of the original.
Sanjuro distinguishes himself by his unflinching bravado, casual attitude, expert swordsmanship and keen ability to size up and manipulate opponents. Yet Sanjuro clearly has a conscience and his ninjo drives his actions as much as greed. Yojimbo and Sanjuro were the two of Kurowawa's films that best fit the chambara mold. Kurosawa's humanism and trademark insightful humor are especially evident in Sanjuro, which features Mifune shepherding a group of nine young samurai through an internal clan power struggle as he tries to prevent them from falling victim to their own naiveté. Sanjuro would like nothing better than to avoid taking lives and, at several points in the story, he admonishes the ever-headstrong samurai for foiling his plans and forcing him to shed blood. These two films were even more like westerns than The Seven Samurai -- especially Yojimbo, with its gritty tale of a canny ronin caught between feuding gangster clans in a grimy hole of a nowhere town.
One Kurosawa film that might be seen as honorary chambara is Stray Dog (Nora inu, 1949). On the surface, the film is a noir tale about a postwar Japanese police detective (a very young Mifune Toshirô) whose gun is stolen. But when you realize the loss of his gun is an equivalent to the loss of face if a samurai were to lose his sword, it becomes evident that the film is really chambara in disguise, complete with a final duel at the film's end.
Although Kurosawa made few actual chambara (later samurai epics such as Kagemusha (1980) and Ran (1985) were clearly jidai-geki), he redefined and deepened the genre through his masterful storytelling. All of his works made major contributions to international cinematic style, and helped push Japanese film into global awareness.
The Endless Adventure
Hirate Miki. I've never known such a skilled swordsman. We fished here together and drank sake together, too. He spoke with feeling about the fleeting nature of life. He was truly an admirable samurai. Yet it was I who killed him. Until I felt the sword penetrate his body, I never even imagined I could kill him. For the sake of a meaningless war between gangster clans, I lost a man it took me forever to find: a man I could call a friend.
- Zatoichi, Zatoichi: The Life and Opinion of Masseur Ichi (Zatôichi monogatari, 1962)
Some of the best-known, best-loved chambara are long-lived series starring distinctive main characters, typically wandering swordsmen or swordswomen who are so skilled with their weapons as to be virtually un-killable. These films are usually more violent than other chambara and, while they're essentially exploitation films, these movies had solid foundations of writing and long-term character development that later exploitation films lacked.
Peasants were forbidden to carry weapons, which prevented revolt and acted as another way to reinforce the rigid class structure. Also, samurai had the inherent right to kill any member of a lower class in case of insult, a practice referred to as kirisutogomen.
One of the longest-lived was the inimitable Zatoichi series, which consists of at least 26 films spanning almost three decades (1962-1989) and stars the late, great Katsu Shintarô. Zatoichi is a blind masseur who carries a sword within his cane. He often refers to himself as a gangster (yakuza) but he is more akin to a sly opportunist, a man whose handicap and lowly status drove him to become a person for whom skill with the blade became a way to come out on top in a brutal world. Zatoichi is always a reluctant killer and usually finishes off fights that others initiate. His senses are like radar and his swordsmanship is frighteningly, lethally accurate. He has a self-effacing manner that is disarming but he can just as suddenly be shockingly disrespectful of others who automatically expect him to show deference. His blindness functions as an ironic metaphor; he is typically the only person who sees the truth of any situation. Katsu's charming, multi-layered performance kept the character continually fresh and won him an international following.
The Sleepy Eyes of Death series was also popular and durable, and features Ichikawa Raizô, a pretty-faced actor who also starred in the popular Shinobi (Ninja) series of the early 60s. In Sleepy Eyes of Death #1 (Nemuri Kyoshiro 1: Sappocho, 1963), ronin Nemuri Kyoshiro is embroiled in a plot to grab a jade statue that contains damning evidence of a clan's smuggling activities. His character, brimful of cynicism and ennui, is a perfect example of the world-weariness displayed by both noir antiheroes and ronin, jaded men who have seen too much death and the worst side of human nature.
These serial tales, with their relentless exploitive bent, represent some of the greatest influences upon creators of current, modern chambara.