by Allen White
Note: This is a condensed version of Allen's article, "A Man, a Blade, an Empty Road: Postwar Samurai Film to 1970." If this primer sparks your interest, the rich detail you'll find there is highly recommended.
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.
"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.
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.
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 on 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 (1954) 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.
Kurosawa Akira is certainly the best-known Japanese director in the West. His films represent some of the wisest, deepest cinematic narratives in the history of cinema 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 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 the 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 (1961) 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.
Zatoichi - New Tale of Zatoichi (III) (1963)
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.
Continue to Part Two, the Glossary and our recommendations...