Seven Samurai (1954)
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 They Who Step on the Tiger's Tail (1945) 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 Tokugawa government, on the wane by the mid-19th century, 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.
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. 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, 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 on 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.