Samurai Fiction


very spring semester, I teach a course called Japanese culture through film. It is not really a film class, because I’m not really a film instructor. I can view films and critique them in my own way, but I don’t consider myself a film expert. I couldn’t break down a mis-en-scene if my life depended on it–well, actually, I could but don’t tell anyone at school because they’d just have me teach one more class. I have seen a number of J flicks, but no where near as many as a true film experts. Geez, I’ve probably seen fewer J films than Whonose. Still, I do know Japan and its culture–albeit from a personal point of view–and I have lots of opinions about how it is reflected through film. Take samurai films for example…

Mild spoilers

Note: The following presents basic plot lines and possible spoilers–although I think most have already seen or heard of these movies. But it might, in a small way, provide insights that could make the film more enjoyable to watch.


I have not seen any of the older, silent samurai motion pictures (katsudo shahin), although maybe I should as they are not that old. Bloody Town directed by Yashiro Takeshi was relieased in 1938, eleven years after the first American talkie The Jazz Singer (1927). While there is no audio, the action sequences are purportedly superb. If nothing else, I am tempted to see Makino Shozu’s Chushingura (The 47 Ronin, 1910, 1913), the oldest extant version of the 47 loyal samurai, but to get a good grasp of the symbol of the samurai in J films, one only has to see Mizoguchi Kenji’s version, Genroku chushingura (1941).

Filmed and released during the Pacific War, Mizoguchi’s Chushingura seems to represent many of the values that the Japanese expect from their warriors. The story itself is about a group of 47 loyal samurai who avenge the death of their lord, Asano, who was forced to commit seppuku (ritual disembowelment) because he unsheathed his sword and slightly injured another lord, Kira, within the shogun’s palace. Kira was a petty conniving lord who often insulted Asano. He went too far once, inducing Asano to draw his sword in the palace, a serious crime–can you imagine drawing a gun in the Capitol? The penalty is death–albeit an honorable one, it seems that all crimes commited by samurai are resolved by death. The 47 loyal samurai plot for years to exact revenge, after which they all commit seppuku for murdering Kira, a vassal of the shogun.

The interesting aspect of this film is the fact that there is virtually no swordplay. No, I take that back. There is exactly no swordplay. Every act of violence–the seppuku of Asano and his loyal retainers, as well as the murder of Kira–takes place off screen. It is, for a samurai movie, incredibly non-violent. The movie, however, does focus on the honor and loyalty expected of these warriors: They demonstrate loyalty to Asano by exacting revenge, and manifest honor because they exact this revenge knowing and accepting the consequences of their actions. Mizoguchi (remember this name) was a talented and highly respected director, so perhaps it would not be so far-fetched to suggest that his image of the samurai–in step with the romantic figure already cut in Japanese tradition–became the baseline, the foundation to which future directors would look when creating their own version of the samurai image.

The Seven Samurai

The director most non-Japanese are familiar with is Kurosawa Akira. Indeed, he is more revered overseas than at home, and virtually everyone of his films can be found in the Criterion DVD Collection. My personal favorite is Yojimbo and its sequal Sanjuro, but his most famous film is, I think, the Seven Samurai (1954). In it, Kurosawa tries to recast the samurai not as a retainer loyal to his lord, but as one who is loyal to his profession, one who manifests all the appropriate principles of “one who serves” which is the literal translation of the Chinese character for samurai 侍. The story revolves around a village regularly raided by bandits. The villagers, at the sugestion of its Elder, go to the city in search for “hungry” samurai. The Village Elder suggests ronin–masterless samurai who have no income and wander the country in search of a lord to serve. The subtext, of course, is the idea of a samurai who is hungry to fulfill his purpose in life as well, one who seeks to serve, to do what is right and just. They find Kambei and he assembles a team of seven, leading them against the bandits.

The film presents the image of samurai with which most of us are familiar. Kurosawa’s influence plays no small role in this. As the more represented director of Japanese film, it is his samurai that is embedded in our consciousness: strong, fierce, courageous, independent, just, honorable. And the seven samurai manifest these traits, even the one samurai who was actually the son of a peasant, Kikuchiyo. He was coarse and dirty and often drunk, but in the end, he fought fiercely and bravely for a just and honorable cause, consequently being recognized as a samurai at the end of the movie, as reflected in his burial mound at the top of the hill along with three fallen comrades. His death underscores the rigid class lines established by the Tokugawa Bakufu–no one can cross classes. His fellow samurai (and Kurosawa) allow Kikuchiyo to cross that line, but only in death.

As in Yojimbo, Sanjuro, and the samurai trilogy depicting the life of Miyamoto Musashi (Inagaki Hiroshi), the samurai of the 50s and early 60s continue to manifest the characteristics established in Mizoguchi’s Chushingura. Althought masterless, they all try to live there lives by a code of conduct representing the samurai ideal of loyalty and hard work, righteousness and courage. And indeed, they still want to serve. As Kambei says at the end of the Seven Samurai, the farmers won but they lost. By defeating the bandits, the farmers were able to return to their way of life, but the samurai remained masterless. Kambei’s words underscore their desire to return to a life of service.

Unlike Mizoguchi’s film, Kurosawa’s films are full of action. In the first samurai scenei n the movie, Kambei kills a criminal holding a baby hostage. But like Mizoguchi, the killing is done off screen inside a house. But after that, there is plenty of stabbing and slashing and death. Strong samurai, brave samurai, killing for what they believe is right, even if they have no master. I often wonder if this as a reflection of the times. In the late 40s and through the 50s, immediately after losing WWII, many of the Japanese felt betrayed by the government leaders that led them down the path of national disaster. Is it a coincidence that the samurai warriors depicted in films from this era wander about Japan as ronin–strong, willing to fight for what is right and yet leaderless?

Maybe. Maybe not….

Later, I will write a bit about Okamoto Kihachi’s Kill! and Nakano Hiroyuki’s Samurai Fiction.

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