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July 8, 2014

Best Samurai Films

On my other site, Splendid Labyrinths, I have been looking at several film genres, such as Pre-Code Film, the Screwball ComedyNoir Film and Neo-Noir Film. On this site I have discussed Japanese Cult Films, Japanese Horror Films and Yakuza Movies. Here we will have a look at the Japanese genre that is popularly called the "Samurai Film."

Samurai Film is often compared to the American western, but was in fact much more important for the Japanese: until the early 1960s, at least half of all annual film production in Japan consisted of period films.

In Japan, samurai films are called jidaigeki or chambara. The first category, "period films" usually consists of the more serious and artistic films, while chambara films (so called after the sound swords make when clanging on each other) are often considered as B-films. The problem is that jidaigeki is not a genre - it only points to films of which the story is set before 1868 - this can also be a film version of the court novel Genji Monogatari!



So for "samurai films" we have to look for another defining genre element: the incorporation of a choreographed (sword) fight called "satsujin" or "tate" in Japanese. Besides that, the hero usually is a samurai, a ronin (masterless samurai), or a pre-modern yakuza. In other words, one or more fights, usually with swords, are central to the genre. Films lacking such scenes are not "samurai films."

"Satsujin" sounds like the Japanese for "murder," but is a different word, written with different characters, literally meaning "killing formation." The same character combination is also pronounced as "tate." The usual translation is "staging (or mise-en-scène ) of a sword fight." These mise-en-scènes were initially based on Kabuki, and next borrowed from the more realistic Shingeki theater. But until the end of the fifties they remained quite stylized - it is Kurosawa Akira who liberated the sword fight scenes from convention and started a trend of realistic violence which is typical of the samurai movies of the 1960s. The choreography of such fight scenes was in the hands of specialists.

In this definition, artistic period films such as Ugetsu Monogatari (Mizoguchi), humorous films as Bakamatsu Taiyoden (by Kawashima Yuzo), realistic drama as Humanity and Paper Balloons (Yamanaka), or period horror films as Yotsuya Kaidan, are not samurai films and will therefore left out of the list below.

What are the best samurai films? A selection of ten films:

1. Miyamoto Musashi aka Samurai (Miyamoto Musashi, 1954-56) by Inagaki Hiroshi, with Mifune Toshiro, Mikuni Rentaro and Yachigusa Kaoru. In three films Inagaki follows the exploits of Japan's greatest legendary swordsman, based on the popular novel by Yoshikawa Eiji. The first film is rather sentimental, but Mifune Toshiro shines in an explosive performance. The story improves in Part Two, Duel at Ichijoji Temple and Part Three, Duel on Ganryu Island. Read more about the historical Miyamoto Musashi here. Inagaki's epos is the archetypal samurai film, one that everyone who is even slightly interested in the genre, should see. It is also quite well-known outside Japan, thanks to its inclusion in the Criterion series and the winning of an Academy Award. Inagaki was a specialist in Musashi: he made his first Musashi series in the 1940s, so that the present one is in fact a remake of his own film. Much less known is that there exists another great Musashi series, this time five films, made by director Uchida Tomu for the Toei studios in the early sixties with Nakamura Kinnosuke, who also gives a great performance. I found him better as the young Musashi (Mifune looks a bit too mature for the role), and as good as Mifune in the final two films. Unfortunately, by spacing out the tale over five films, the 2nd and 3rd do not have such strong story lines, but on the other hand they do incorporate more elements from the novel and have more space for character development. By the way, you may notice in the Inagaki film that there is an episode where a village that is frequently attacked by armed robbers, hires a group of samurai for protection. That is the story germ that Kurosawa borrowed from the novel and built up into his superb Seven Samurai!



2. Bloody Spear at Mt Fuji (Chiyari Fuji, 1955) by Uchida Tomu, with Kataoka Chiezo, Tsukigata Ryunosuke and Kitagawa Chizuru. This film was the comeback of Uchida Tomu - who already had started his directing career long before the war - , after many years of captivity in the Soviet Union. Bloody Spear is also remarkable for the fact that Kataoka Chiezo, who was Toei's greatest star actor and would later become one of the company's directors, plays a "servant" instead of a samurai master (but of course he is the real hero). And its finale contains one of the most supremely choreographed fight scenes (satsujin) of all samurai film. The story is a sort of picaresque road movie, a samurai and his servant (Gonpachi) who carries a large spear, are on their way to Edo over the Tokaido. On the road, they encounter many colorful people: a traveling singer with her child, a father taking his daughter to be sold into prostitution, a pilgrim, a policeman searching for a notorious thief, and a suspicious man the officer has his eyes on - all these different stories will play out in the film. Gonpachi is also followed by an orphaned boy who wants to become a samurai and who brings some comic relief to the film, for example when a group of samurai sits blocking the road to enjoy the view of Mt Fuji, keeping all travelers waiting, and the boy relieves himself in the tall grass next to their banquet which sets them running off to evade the stench. The point is that the servant Gonpachi is more intelligent and brave than his master the samurai, who also cannot hold his liquor and anyway is rather foolish. This leads to tragedy at the end of the film, when the master gets into a brawl with a group of samurai and is killed by them. Gonpachi arrives too late to save him, but in his fury takes on the group of samurai with only his large spear as weapon... A well-judged blend of comedy and violence.

3. Yojinbo (1961) by Kurosawa Akira, with Mifune Toshiro and Nakadai Tatsuya. Kurosawa made many superb samurai films and it is difficult to choose one here. Seven Samurai is objectively seen probably the greatest film made by this famous director, but I opt here for Yojinbo because of its sardonic antihero played by Mifune Toshiro (take alone the way he scratches his back at the beginning of the film!), setting the tone for the samurai film of the sixties and also heavily influencing spaghetti Westerns (if not giving rise to the genre). It tells the story of an anonymous ronin, portrayed by Mifune Toshiro, who arrives in a small town where competing crime lords vie for supremacy. Locale is established at the start when a dog runs across the screen carrying a severed hand in his mouth. The two bosses each try to hire the deadly newcomer as a bodyguard (yojinbo). But by deftly switching sides, the wily ronin turns the range war between the two gangster groups to his own advantage and manages to rid the terror-stricken village of corruption. The gangsters (and citizens who are in league with them) in both groups are depicted as grotesque monsters made of flesh in this black comedy. By the way, the story of a town torn apart by warring factions and the hero who cynically agitates them further, so that they destroy each other as so much fighting insects, was probably lifted by Kurosawa from a famous American novel: Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett. In 1964, Yojinbo was remade as A Fistful of Dollars, a spaghetti western directed by Sergio Leone and starring Clint Eastwood. In short, Yojinbo is one of the most influential and entertaining samurai films of all time! Finally, I can't leave out mention of two other Kurosawa samurai films: Tsubaki Sanjuro, a sort of humorous sequel to Yojinbo, which has the earliest instance of over-the-top violence that would become characteristic of later samurai films: an impossible "fountain of blood" in the final killing; and The Hidden Fortress, another funny samurai film with two bumbling peasants and a run-away princess, to which George Lucas payed homage in his first Star Wars film.

4. Harakiri (Seppuku, 1962) by Kobayashi Masaki, with Nakadai Tatsuya, Mikuni Rentaro and Iwashita Shima. Stark, deep-cutting film that exposes the moral emptiness at the heart of Bushido, made by Kobayashi Masaki of Kwaidan-fame. It is 1630, there is peace under the Tokugawa government. A suffering ronin who has lost his job as samurai because of the peace, comes to the Ii manor requesting to be allowed to commit ritual suicide on the property - but actually angling for a position and hoping to be hired by them. However, they coolly preside over his cruel and agonizingly painful death - he has to disembowel himself with a bamboo sword, because he has no better left. His father-in-law, a great performance by Nakadai Tatsuya, decides to take revenge by shaming the Ii clan before their retainers. He also comes to the manor requesting to be allowed to commit seppuku (harakiri) - but when preparing himself, he tosses the topknots of three of the major retainers of the Ii clan in front of their leader - he has disgraced two of them who cowardly surrendered, and killed the third one. The clan head now sets his retainers upon the ronin who kills several more of them. His bold defiance of feudal authority - and the ultimate brittleness of the feudal system - is symbolized when he tears apart a yoroi, a ceremonial piece of armor, decorated in the hall of the mansion. How cynical a power the Ii are is emphasized when at the end they don't kill him by the sword, but give up the samurai code and call in a couple of guns... The clan reports all the deaths of its retainers as due to "illness," in order to avoid loss of face for being vanquished by a single ronin. In other words, Bushido was just a hypocritical pretext serving those in power - it did not have any intrinsic value. (Somebody should have told Edward Zwick who in his terrible The Last Samurai reveals himself as a latter-day believer...).
P.S. You can still see the Ii Castle in Hikone (Shiga Prefecture, a day trip from Kyoto); there is also an interesting museum.

5. The Tale of Zatoichi (Zatoichi Monogatari, 1962) by Misumi Kenji, with Katsu Shintaro. The first in a series of 25 (which are evenly good), starring Katsu Shintaro as a blind masseur, gambler and swordmaster. Zatoichi is not a samurai (on the contrary, he is an outcast, the lowest stratum of society), so he is not allowed to carry a sword - he therefore uses a cane sword (shikomi-zue), a sword hidden in his stick. And, although he can not see, he is an expert with the sword, lightning fast in pulling it out of his stick and cutting with it, relying on his ears and other senses: he can cut a candle in two after throwing it into the air, splitting even the wick! (After turning the room into blackness in this way, he will mutter: "Darkness is my advantage.") As a gambler and masseur who travels along Japan's highways, his status is that of a yakuza and he has to pay his respect to the gangster bosses in the towns he passes through. The gambling gives rise to various comic scenes: the other players think they can cheat or win easily as Zatoichi can't see the dice, but they are very mistaken - even more so, when they try to strip him of his earnings... But Zatoichi is also a good and wise man who protects the weak. In each film, he comes across someone who needs his help - often a helpless woman, to serve the love interest of the film, somewhat like the "madonnas" in Tora-san. The set-up is often copied from Yojinbo: two rival gangs making a village unsafe. Although formulaic and based on a fixed template, this is a series full of fun. Some special installments are Zatoichi meets Yojinbo (yes, with Mifune Toshiro) and Zatoichi and the One-Armed Swordsman with wuxia hero Jimmy Wang Yu from the Shaw Borthers Studios in Hong Kong. The original series ran from 1962 to 1973, with in the initial years often three new films a year. After that, the story ran for 100 installments on TV. In 1984 Katsu Shintaro made a single "remake," just called Zatoichi. The present century (where originality in film has become scarce) has witnessed several more remakes by other directors, of which the most important is Kitano Takeshi's pastiche Zatoichi (2003), but of course the original series is vastly superior. Director Misumi Kenji was one of the more interesting specialists in chambara, besides Zatoichi also known for Lone Wolf and Cub (Kozure okami). His films are far better than the average swordplay movie thanks to his depth of characterization, attention to historical detail and the visual flamboyance he brings to the screen.


6. Thirteen Assassins (Jusannin no shikyaku, 1963) by Kudo Eiichi, with Kataoka Chiezo. When you Google for "Thirteen Assassins," the results are spammed by Miike Takeshi's 2010 remake of this film - so much so, that the original film by Kudo Eiichi, which is vastly superior to Miike's weak pastiche, does not even show up in the results. Forget about Miike, and watch the tight and impressive original, filmed in stark black-and-white and 'Scope. A film about the arbitrary abuse of power and the violent measures necessary to oppose it. A sadistic daimyo (feudal lord) is guilty of rape and murder, but as he is the Shogun's younger brother, the matter is hushed up - even though one of his own vassals commits ritual suicide to bring attention to the crime. But instead of being punished, the daimyo is even going to be promoted to a higher position, from which he can wreak more havoc. Open punishment is anyway out of the question - it would bring shame on the Shogunate as the criminal is a family member. So in deepest secrecy the council of ministers decides to have the daimyo assassinated. Thirteen men are called together for a desperate mission they know they will not (and will not be allowed to) survive. When the daimyo is on his way from Edo back to his fief in Western Japan, with a large retinue of samurai, the Thirteen Assassins under the leadership of the elderly samurai Shimada Shinzaemon turn a small mountain village into an elaborate maze of booby traps and camouflaged fortifications. The daimyo, however, has been forewarned and a terrible carnage is the result... This is the film on which the reputation of Kudo Eiichi rests, together with two similar movies, The Great Melee (Daisatsujin, 1964) and Eleven Samurai (Juichinin no samurai, 1967). All three films are examinations of the fine line between legitimate and tyrannical authority and shine because of their austere composition, reminding viewers of the ritualistic quality of Harakiri.

7. Sleepy Eyes of Death: Sword of Seduction (Nemuri Kyoshiro: Joyoken, 1964) by Ikehiro Kazuo, with Ichikawa Raizo. A series of 12 eccentric films (of which this one is the best), made by the Daiei Studios between 1963 and 1969, about a nihilistic sword hero, half-Japanese half-Portuguese, "the son of a Portuguese priest who assaulted his Japanese mother during the Black Mass." Total pulp, and rather politically incorrect - take for example the sword technique of Nemuri Kyoshiro, who is skilled in stripping women of their clothes with one swipe of his mighty weapon. This installment features three interwoven narratives on the theme of addiction: a cunning and vile merchant smuggling opium from China, a sadistic princess, the Shogun's daughter, who hides her face behind a Noh mask and enjoys seeing her addicted but purposely drug-starved court ladies writhe in pain, and finally the Christians, practicing a forbidden religion and hated by Nemuri Kyoshiro, who tell him that "the Virgin Shima" knows more about the circumstances of his birth... The fourth film of the series, here Nemuri is fully unleashed as the nihilistic bastard he is - this is perhaps the first Japanese film in which the protagonist cuts down an unarmed woman. It is quite a feat of Ichikawa Raizo that viewers still feel drawn to him - he definitely has lots of charisma. The visuals are bold, with expressionistic camera angles and overt symbolism. Interesting is also the superimposition showing the trajectory of Nemuri Kyoshiro's sword when he performs his famous "full moon cut." A delightfully trashy film, in many ways ahead of its time, in others (the attitude towards women) today way behind the times... Ikehiro Kazuo was one of Daiei's most flamboyant chambara directors. Many of his films were contributions to long running series, such as the present one, where he contributed two more installments. The stylized plots in Nemuri Kyoshiro allowed Ikehiro's imagination free rein, leading to his most memorable work.

8. Sword of Doom (Daibosatsu Toge) (1966) by Okamoto Kihachi (see my post about this director), and with Nakadai Tatsuya and Mifune Toshiro. Dark film about a sociopathic samurai who is a murder-machine. Again featuring Nakadai Tatsuya in a fantastic act. He plays a gifted swordsman, living during the turbulent final days of the Shogunate, who kills without remorse and without mercy, a way of life that ultimately leads to madness. Tsukue Ryunosuke was the first nihilistic protagonist in the samurai genre. At the start of the film, he comes across an elderly Buddhist pilgrim who is tired and kneels in front of a stone image, praying for death... and with one swipe of his sword he cuts him down. Tsukue suffers from a sort of "sword-rage," going completely berserk, especially in the final scene in a burning courtesan house, where the maelstrom of killing lasts almost ten minutes. Based on a hugely popular novel by Nakazato Kaizan, which was filmed several times, for example by Daiei with Ichikawa Raizo and by Toei with Kataoka Chiezo. Okamoto Kihachi made the most modern and nihilistic version. The abrupt ending (originally a continuation was planned - the earlier films were all trilogies) in fact fits very well to this essay in absurdist violence. Okamoto Kichachi was a specialist in action cinema and the intensity of his direction conveys with great clarity the theme of how Bushido values could be easily misused as a cover for individual psychopathy.  

9. Goyokin (1969) by Gosha Hideo (see my post about this director), and with Nakadai Tatsuya, Tanba Tetsuro and Asaoka Ruriko. Another film in which Bushido is exposed as a hollow platitude to cover the criminal acts of despicable men. The film also shows the sympathy for the underdog which is a recurrent feature in Gosha's work. The cash-strapped Sabae clan has its fief on the lonely and snowy Japan Sea coast, where the ships carrying the gold from the mines on Sado Island (the personal property of the Shogun - the film's title, Goyokin, literally means "Official Gold") pass regularly by. Three years earlier, the clan leaders have sank one of these ships to steal the gold and repair their own finances - and they have murdered the local fishermen who were used to retrieve the loot. Nakadai Tatsuya plays a guilt-ridden samurai who was unable to stop the massacre at that time. Now, the cynical clan government is again planning to sink a ship and steal the Shogunate's gold - and of course, again, kill the villagers they force into helping them. Magobei (Nakadai) wants to stop this at all cost and faces off with the clan's evil chamberlain (Tanba Tetsuro), who wants to use a fake bonfire (which functions as a modern lighthouse) to lure the ship to the jagged rocks and its destruction. Great scenes in snowy landscapes and a riveting climax with the bonfire, around which the eerily masked villagers dance to the tune of huge Taiko drums. A lush and finely crafted film, with striking visuals.



10. Twilight Samurai (Tasogare Seibei, 2002) by Yamada Yoji, with Sanada Hiroyuki and Miyazawa Rie. Beautiful film about the passing of the samurai age. Sanada Hiroyuki plays the poor samurai Seibei who works as clerk for a small han in northern Japan; Miyazawa Rie shines as his love interest Tomoe. Iguchi Seibei is nicknamed Twilight (Tasogare) because he always has to go home at dusk, after work, and never has time to go drinking with his colleagues - like a modern salaryman. This is because of family circumstances: his wife has died and he has to take care of two young children and an aging, almost senile mother. He would like to marry Tomoe, the sister of a friend, but  feels he cannot take a new wife because of his poverty. He is heavily in debt, and dresses shabbily - he tends his vegetable garden to earn some extra cash. This film shows the everyday reality of the lives of many samurai in the poorer parts of Japan, who were part-time farmers. Another point the film makes is that samurai were not the fighting machines the movies have turned them into: they were rather boring government officials, high and low, and worked in the bureaucracy of the clan, or the national one of the Tokugawa in Edo. But in Twilight Samurai, the clan tries to uphold feudalism even when its time is past, which spells tragedy for unheroic but brave and upright Seibei. He is a capable swordsman and when a renegade samurai barricades himself in a house in the town, Seibei is blackmailed by the clan leaders into a last stand for the "honor" of the clan, although he has no desire to fight - he would rather tend his garden and care for his family. The fight in the house is claustrophobic and very anti-heroic - you can physically feel the tiredness and the despair. This film is the best of the three well-crafted and inspired samurai movies veteran helmer Yamada Yoji (of Tora-san fame) has made late in his career. The other two are The Hidden Blade (Kakushi ken oni no tsume, 2004) and Love and Honor (Bushi no ichibun, 2006). Like Tasogare Seibei, these films also focus on ordinary people and Yamada Yoji deftly deflates the cinematic myth of the samurai. In Twilight Samurai (which symbolically is also the twilight of the samurai as a caste) he has shown us the reality of the "last samurai" - a far cry from the false and mawkish myth-making of Edward Zwick's inflated Hollywood product.

There are many more great samurai movies, but I will keep that for another post sometime in the future!