A Man, a Blade, an Empty Road

Sword of Doom (1966)
Samurai Film: Post-War to 1970
by Allen White

Chanbara Eiga

“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, as previously described, 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

Japan after the Second World War was a country in flux. It had not only been utterly defeated by Allied forces, but its new constitution was written and imposed upon it by foreigners. Every principle by which the Japanese had lived their lives was now subject to revision or disposal.

The first films shown in Japan were imported, and were typically short scenes of life abroad. When Japanese filmmakers began to try their own hand at the new medium at the turn of the century, some of the earliest dramatic films made were jidai-geki, specifically filmed theatrical performances of shinpa, or Meiji-period drama.

The Occupation forces under General MacArthur effected immediate change upon the Japanese film industry by prohibiting the exhibition of films that promoted feudal or retrogressive values. Films such as Kurosawa Akira’s just-completed Those Who Tread 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 chanbara 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. Chanbara 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. Chanbara not only recycled and redefined Japanese history, but also by 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.

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 weakening Tokugawa government, 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.

Samurai Assassin (1965)

In 1853, Japan was forced to open its borders at gunpoint to trade with the outside world by Commodore Matthew Perry’s warships, which 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 chanbara take place during the between the years directly following Perry’s ultimatum and preceding the Meiji Restoration of 1868. This was the year after 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 gold), and were forbidden to carry two swords at their waist, the very symbols of samurai privilege and power. The samurai, as a warrior class, were effectively dead, although their descendants, the shikozu, still held enormous class advantage 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, chanbara functioned as a metaphorical way to resolve major dilemmas 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, 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 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, but 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 of the side of good. These characters were often caught between the conflicting values of giri (duty) and ninjô (empathy), 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.

Three Outlaw Samurai (1964)

An excellent example of the kind of immediacy and action evident in the best chanbara is seen Gosha’s first feature film, the classic Three Outlaw Samurai (Sanbiki no samurai, 1964), based upon 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 in its deft blend of drama, comedy, and action, and is certainly one of the best of the genre. Three Outlaw Samurai, like many post-war samurai films, uses class disparity as the fuel for its plot. Gosha’s worldview is steeped in cynicism, as though his characters decry the injustices of feudal life, by the film’s end their struggles have made negligible impact upon the entrenched system.

The two swords typically seen worn by samurai in chanbara are called the katana, or long sword, about three feet in length, and the wakizashi, or short sword, between 12 and 24 inches long. These were held in place by a sash, edges upward. When wearing armor or formally dressed, samurai would wear a tachi, a long sword, tucked edge downward into his sash, and a tanto, also edge downward, held by the sash and secured by a cord. The tanto was also the blade used to commit seppuku, or ritual suicide.

Gosha’s Sword of the Beast (Kedamono no ken, 1965) also has an anti-feudal critique as its springboard. The central character, Gennosuke Yuuki, becomes a fugitive ronin after he is used as a pawn in the political assassination of his clan’s minister, which he has been led to believe is necessary for clan reform. His quick and brutal disillusionment leaves him pursued by a vengeful trio: the clan fencing instructor, the minister’s vengeful daughter, Misa, and her fiancée, Daizaburo (who is also Gennosuke’s old friend). The ronin soon joins up with a happy-go-lucky prospector headed for the mountains to illegally seek gold on restricted land. Once there, the pair encounters a samurai and his wife already panning gold from the mountain’s river despite the threat of execution. The couple is on a secret mission to rescue their own clan from financial ruin, and Gennosuke soon discovers that they, like him, are simply the disposable tools of their clan. Unlike in many chanbara, the protagonist Gennosuke is not up against any specific single enemy, but counts his foes as supporters of the system and his allies among those exploited by it. Traditional villains make a brief appearance in the form of an amoral band of thieving prospectors out to steal the collected gold; only these characters have no code to follow. Even Gennosuke, referred to as a “wild beast,” who has forsaken his samurai life and clan loyalty, still adheres to an inner sense of fairness and right action, which ironically sets him apart from the utilitarian view that clans have of their retainers. An illustration of these diverging interpretations of samurai honor occurs early in the film, when Gennosuke is attacked by dozens of his former clansmen. Daizaburo, sword in hand, challenges him with, “Gennosuke! Die like a samurai!” He replies, decrying the clearly dishonorable attempt to hunt him down like a dog, “How can I? This is butchery!”

Tange Sazen (1966)

In The Secret of the Urn (Tange Sazen: Hien iaigiri, 1966), Gosha presents an eccentric anti-hero in the form of Tange Sazen, a one-eyed, one-armed ronin (whose bleakly humorous nickname, “Sazen,” means “Lefty”). A scheming minister, Gunraku, convinces the shogun to order the Yagyu clan to perform expensive repairs on a temple, which Gunraku knows will lead to the clan’s downfall as they cannot possibly afford the repairs nor refuse the shogun’s edict. The Yagyus have an ace up their sleeve in the form of an urn that bears a secret inscription, instructions to a hidden cache of one million gold ryo. The urn thus becomes the MacGuffin sought by several parties: Gunraku’s minions, the Yagyus, a pair of brother and sister thieves, a young street urchin, and the deadly Tange. Like the protagonists of Three Outlaw Samurai, Tange’s embroilment in the plot is purely a matter of chance, as during a heated battle between the various factions, the young boy runs into a fisherman’s hut where Tange rests, reiterating the important role of predestination in the chanbara genre. (At the beginning of Yojimbo (1961), main character Sanjûrô, at a crossroads, decides which direction to take by tossing a stick into the air.) Sazen, like Sanjûrô, has a lack of loyalty to anyone but himself, which initially puts him in a position of strength while at the center of a complex web of interpersonal and political conflict. Tange is ultimately not as clever or as detached as Sanjuro, and when Tange begins to care about the people with whom he has sided against Gunraku his power is compromised, and he must rely upon his swordsmanship and instincts to get back on top. Tange’s disfigurement is used as a metaphor of both his outsider status and his anti-feudal philosophy, as he is constantly referred to as a “monster” by almost every character in the film, including himself. It is precisely his monster status that lets him see the corruption inherent in the system, and leaves him wanting no part of it–exactly the perspective Gennosuke Yuuki has as a “beast.” Since his first appearance as a fictional character created by popular writer Fubo Hayashi in the late 1920s, Tange Sazen was a recurring character in many films and even starred in a comic by famous manga artist Tezuka Osamu, creator of Astroboy.

The Master: Kurosawa

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, as his films were considered un-Japanese in their style and content.

With Rashômon (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 is certainly one of the first true examples of postmodern filmmaking–yet it was originally not very successful upon its release in Japan. Its story, told from three different points of view, examines subjective reality with breathtaking artistry. While not an example of chanbara, it nonetheless paved the way for Kurosawa’s later films to be seen and appreciated across the globe in a way that Gosha’s films never were.

Seven Samurai (1954)The Seven Samurai (Shichinin no samurai, 1954) is certainly one of the most important touchstones of the genre, and the most well-known chanbara outside of Japan. It also set forth 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 problems by using their swords, and are very skilled with their weapons. Second, as in many later chanbara, a group of helpless peasants is dependent upon samurai muscle to solve their problem, which in this case is a group of bandits who regularly raid the already starving village. Third, the film’s resolution is bittersweet, in that 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, as it reiterates the notion of familial and clan loyalty. Over a rigorous shooting schedule than 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, and features arid landscapes, men on horseback, and lethal showdowns on dusty village streets. With its genre elements perfectly suited to horse operas, it is no wonder that The Seven Samurai was remade as the American western The Magnificent Seven (1960).

In feudal Japan, 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.

Kurosawa’s next film with a samurai-era setting was Throne of Blood (Kumonosu-jô, 1957), an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, and although bloody, is paced and scripted like jidai-geki rather than chanbara.

The Hidden Fortress (Kakushi-toride no san-akunin, 1958) is famously the inspiration for Star Wars (1977). It is more of an adventure film than actual chanbara, 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 upon individual struggles; thus his contexts are chosen for dramatic, rather than political, effect.) Also denying its membership in the chanbara 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 paradoxically selfish-yet-moral man of action is the character of Sanjûrô, brought to life by Mifune Toshirô in no fewer 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, and 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. Sanjûrô distinguishes himself by his unflinching bravado, casual attitude, expert swordsmanship, and expert ability to size up and manipulate opponents. Yet Sanjûrô clearly has a conscience, and his ninjo drives his actions as much as greed. Yojimbo and Sanjûrô were the two of Kurowawa’s films that best fit the chanbara mold. Kurosawa’s humanism is especially evident in Sanjûrô, 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. Sanjûrô would like nothing better than to avoid taking lives, and at several points during 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.

Toshio Mifune in Yojimbo (1961)

One Kurosawa film that might be seen as honorary chanbara 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 loss of face as if a samurai had lost his sword, then it is evident that the film is really chanbara in disguise, complete with a final duel at the film’s end.

Although Kurosawa made few actual chanbara (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 in Zatoichi: The Life and Opinion of Masseur Ichi (Zatôichi monogatari, 1962)

Some of the best-known, best-loved chanbara 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 chanbara, and while essentially exploitation films, these movies had solid foundations of writing and long-term character development that later exploitation films lacked.

The Tale of Zatoichi (1962)

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 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, as 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 long-lived, 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 anti-heroes 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 chanbara.

Tearing Down the Myth

“Meditation on inevitable death should be performed daily. Every day when one’s body and mind are at peace, one should meditate upon being ripped apart by arrows, rifles, spears and swords, being carried away by surging waves, being thrown into the midst of a great fire, being struck by lightning, being shaken to death by a great earthquake, falling from thousand-foot cliffs, dying of disease or committing seppuku at the death of one’s master. And every day without fail one should consider himself as dead.”

— From the Hagakure (“Hidden Among the Leaves”)

Although a broad streak of anti-feudalism lay at the heart of the chanbara genre, the idea of honorably settling one’s problems with a sword was often nonetheless lionized by such films. Eventually, even this notion began to be torn down as yet another assumption foisted upon Japanese society by an obsolete system of values.

In the film Harakiri (Seppuku, 1962), brilliantly directed by Kobayashi Masaki, the plot is driven by a bloody mixture of ritual suicide, honor, and revenge. It is an exquisitely filmed wide-screen masterpiece that serves as illustration of some of the core principles of samurai thought, and of their conflict with the modernization of Japan.

Harakiri (1962)

A ronin, Tsugumo Hanshiro, appears at a castle and asks that he be allowed to use their grounds to commit seppuku. The clan elder of the Iyi family relates to Tsugumo that another, younger ronin had requested exactly the same privilege only weeks before. Suspecting that the younger ronin was using the threat of suicide to extort money from them as other unemployed samurai had recently done, the Iyi compel the young man to immediately go through with the deed. Strangely, the man begs for two days to set some affairs in order, but the Iyi refuse. They discover that his swords have been replaced with bamboo blades, as he has pawned his originals due to his poverty. Scornfully, an Iyi swordsman berates him, saying, “A samurai’s blade is his soul.” In a gesture both brutal and ironic, they force him to agonizingly disembowel himself with his bamboo sword. Tsugumo finally relates that his own reason for approaching the Iyi is tied to the fate of the young ronin, his son-in-law, and that he is there to avenge the man’s death. The son-in-law’s original motive for extortion had been to get medicine for a sick child–hence his request for two more days. Tsugumo’s last words to the Iyi before unleashing a bloody maelstrom are, “You boast of traditions of bravery. But even the code of the House of Iyi seeks only a false front!” At the end, the Iyi cover up their dishonorable actions, thus proving the vanquished Tsugumo right.

Harakiri is a study in procedural formalities, as its characters push each other into action by repeatedly citing ideals of proper conduct, but the film demonstrates that the code of bushido, like any set of rules, can be used as thin justification for selfish cruelty by arrogant men. Bushido spelled out exactly of what was expected of a samurai under any circumstance. A mixture of protocol, ritual, and nihilistic ruthlessness, bushido led to many logical dilemmas or paradoxes that were the heart of many samurai narratives. Tsugumo is played by the legendary Nakadai Tatsuya, one of the most recognizable faces in chanbara. His chiseled features often radiated coolness and composure, a façade that covered a glowing ember of rage and formidable power that would be mercilessly unleashed upon his foes.

Seppuku (“cutting the stomach”), or colloquially hara-kiri (“stomach cut”), had many forms according to circumstance.

  • kanshi: performed to admonish an overlord and inspire him by self-sacrifice to correct errant or injudicious behavior.
  • junshi or oibara: faithfully following one’s master in death.
  • funshi or munen-bara: when an oppressed or ill-used warrior takes his own life in righteous indignation.
  • sokutsu-shi: death as form of apology.

Part of the formality of seppuku typically required that a kaishakunin, or second, be present to decapitate the person after they had slit their belly in order that their excruciating agony not be prolonged.

Source: The Samurai Film, Alain Silver

Samurai Rebellion (Jôi-uchi: Hairyô tsuma shimatsu,1967), also from director Kobayashi, demarcates a bitter line between the dishonorable machinations of those in power and the steadfast loyalties and strength of character possessed by many retainers. The film stars Mifune Toshirô as Sasahara Isaburo, a worthy and good-natured soldier, who decides to retire and let his son take over the family duties. When his clan’s lord requests that Sasahara’s son, Yogoro, marry the lord’s former mistress, who has reportedly attacked the lord out of jealously over another mistress, Sasahara initially refuses, declaring the request unreasonable. His son finally relents, and remarkably, falls deeply in love with the woman, Ichi, who proves to be an incredibly sweet, kindhearted, and loyal wife. Ichi has left behind a son she bore to the clan lord, and she vows to forget him, bearing a daughter for Yogoro. When the lord’s first-born son dies, it makes Ichi’s son the new heir, and the clan lord suddenly demands that Ichi be returned to him to take his proper place as the heir’s mother. Sasahara, inspired by the young couple’s love (which contrasts with his own stale marriage), adamantly refuses to return the girl to the abject horror of much of his family. Sasahara and Yogoro and pushed into a confrontation, and must make a last stand against their clan’s own men. Like the protagonist of Hara-Kiri, Sasahara’s struggles pits his own idealized (and possibly naïve) version of bushido against the uncaring, dehumanizing politics of the powerful men above him. He is doomed to failure, because he cannot possibly best the overwhelming odds, but he is more than ready to die for what he believes to be just.

In Gosha’s Goyokin (1969), Nakadai Tatsuya plays Wakizaka Magobei, a man who leaves his clan in protest when they massacre a village to cover up the theft of Shogunate gold, which they engineer by wrecking an official transport ship. When his clan plans to again perpetrate the crime because of continuing financial desperation, Wakizaka decides he was wrong to look the other way the first time, and can no longer allow innocent lives to pay for his former clan’s misdeeds, even if it means the destruction of the clan. With the aid of a Shogunate agent, Samon (Nakamura Kinnosuke, the well-known star of many films) Wakizaka thwarts the plot. Gosha again dissects bushido by revealing the utter, dehumanizing ruthlessness at its core through the persona of clan leader Tatewaki, a man who will do anything to preserve his clan. A significant moment of resolution comes at the end of the film, as Wakizaka and Samon watch masked villagers drum in a kind of ritual. Samon asks, “Is this a life-saving festival?” Wakizaka replies, in grim acknowledgement that coldly calculating men like Tatewaki have rotted the system from the inside out, “No, it’s a funeral. Our funeral–this is the end of the samurai.” Gosha leaves us with a haunting image at the film’s end, when Wakizaka plunges his sword, the symbol of a samurai’s honor and existence, into the icy ground, and walks towards the barren mountains and oblivion as his faithful wife follows several paces behind. Goyokin’s bleak, frost-blasted landscapes and oppressive, washed-out palate give the film a powerful visual style. Ravens are used repeatedly as a symbol of impending doom. Nakadai plays his role as a walking corpse, a man emaciated and drained of life by his overwhelming guilt. The role of Wakizaka was originally written for Mifune Toshirô to play as the fifth Yojimbo installment. Mifune walked out due to personality clashes with Gosha, and the fact that filming was done in the bitter cold of Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island.

Samurai Rebellion

Only decades after the war, at the end of the 1960s, did Japanese filmmakers feel comfortable with open depiction of nationalist and anti-Western sentiment. Although xenophobia has long been a constant of the Japanese national character, specifically through the precedent of sakoku, depiction of such anti-foreigner viewpoints would have been explicitly banned under the Occupation, and were thus omitted from the cinema until long after the war. Even if such feelings were not held by the writers or directors of such films but simply by the historical characters they sought to describe, their mere depiction would have been seen as inflammatory.

Shinsengumi (1969) begins with a shot of a European man in nineteenth-century clothing crying out as he is slashed with a sword, causing his blood to spray across the camera lens. As we cut to a street scene of samurai cutting down other whites, we hear a voice shout out, “We will expel all the barbarians! We can’t let the foreign barbarians disgrace Japan!” Such violent actions were instigated by the sonno-joi (“Revere the Emperor, Expel the Barbarians”) movement. The film, set in 1863, is about the formation of an extremist militia called the Shinsengumi. Composed of fanatical roshi (masterless samurai, but not ronin), the Shinsengumis sole purpose was to kill anyone who opposed the bakufu (“tent government” or Shogunate), in direct opposition to the sonno-joi. Such shishi (anti-Shogunate activists) accused the bakufu of bowing to foreign pressure, as it had already done in capitulating to Perry. Used as a political tool by its sponsoring clan, the film’s band of Shinsengumi are ultimately fractured by politics and internal dissent.

Samurai Assassin (Samurai, 1965) shows the internal workings of the opposing movement, the pro-imperial sonno-joi. The story is framed by historical events that took place in 1860, specifically the political assassination of a major bakufu official. Mifune Toshirô plays the previously quoted main character, Niino Tsuruchiyo, a low-level samurai who becomes a pawn in a larger political struggle to destabilize the Shogunate. The film’s ending is steeped in irony, as Niino’s greatest triumph is simultaneously a personal tragedy as he unwittingly assassinates his own father. A small fish in a big sea, he cannot win no matter which course he chooses, and his final murder functions as a critique of right-wing extremism in that it suggests that in seeking to attack the enemy, you only attack yourself. Both Band of Assassins and Samurai Assassin, despite their strong depiction of nationalistic zeal, nonetheless function as strong examples of anti-feudal thought, as the film’s main characters are inevitably presented as extremists blind to anything but the twisted internal logic of their bloody cause.

Tenchu (1969)

This poster for a New York screening of Tenchu (1969) features an image of writer Mishima Yukio taken from his provocative book of photographs Barakei. This image is not from the film.

Perhaps the ultimate deconstruction of the chanbara mythos, the final word in deglamorizing the figure of the ruthless swordsman, was Tenchu (Hitokiri, 1969), Gosha Hideo’s oft-misunderstood masterpiece. This film also looks at a group of Meiji-era right-wing fanatics. This remarkable work starred the inimitable Katsu Shintarô as the samurai Okada Izo, a man ultimately destroyed by his own selfish ambition. Okada begins as a ronin so impoverished he tries to sell his familial armor. Offered a position as a retainer by Tosa clan leader Takechi (Nakadai Tatsuya), Okada realizes his dreams of wealth and his ambition to become a samurai of renown. Although Okada is not bright enough to have political motivations, he becomes an assassin for the cause of the shishi, anti-bakufu nationalists who assassinated those whom they felt were disloyal to the emperor. To his delight, he is handsomely rewarded in gold for each victim. During these attacks, Okada, like the other shishi, shouts out “Tenchu!” (“Heaven’s punishment!”) as a righteous rallying cry. Though Okada’s reputation grows, his thickheaded lack of discretion soon becomes a liability for the Tosa clan, as he is only too eager to carelessly slaughter anyone whom he feels might increase his own prestige and wealth. Takechi’s chance to rid himself of this growing embarrassment comes when Okada is imprisoned for some slight infraction. Takechi denies that Okada is who he claims, and Okada is locked away, his dreams of wealth and glory shattered. Upon his release from prison, he is a lifeless shell of his former self, and seeks only to live in peace. Yet, Takechi cannot resist a final attempt to rid himself of Okada, and attempts to poison him. Okada, reawakened from his deathlike stupor, exacts both his personal revenge and deliberate self-destruction in an act of nihilistic contrition that importantly, does not involve the use of a sword.

The use of Katsu as a man destroyed by his own selfish arrogance was a masterstroke for Gosha, as Katsu’s career was built upon the portrayal of brash, good-natured killers, the epitome of the cool, casual samurai slaughter machine. Tenchu meticulously tears down every trope of chanbara in order to depict samurai as glorified murderers, and shows clan loyalty as an elaborate means of control. Moreover, Okada is no dissatisfied rebel in the mold of Sanjûrô or Sazen, but a willing player in a system that seeks only to use him for its own nefarious ends. Okada’s blindness to anything but his own self-aggrandizement dooms him precisely because he possesses the same kind of disposable view of human life that was both the foundation of feudal thought and chanbara itself. The film, in effect, states that chanbara are as morally bankrupt as the system they supposedly critiqued.

Yet another facet of Tenchu functions as an unintentional nail in the coffin of classic chanbara. The film stars Mishima Yukio, the famous writer, in the role of hired killer Tanaka Shimbei, whose calculated coldness is shown in counterpoint to Okada’s lumbering ignorance. In the film, Tanaka is framed for a murder when his swords are stolen and left at the crime scene. Confronted with the evidence, he glares for a moment at the weapons then suddenly plunges one into his belly. His blind, instinctual reaction is that of a warrior trained to die at any instant, yet it is portrayed as the hollow gesture of a man who, backed into a corner, has nothing but his honor. Eerily, this scene came only a year before Mishima’s actual death by seppuku as a protest against what he saw as Japan’s decadence and corruption by the West. His actions were criticized by many Japanese as the rash behavior of an extremist, yet he carried out a ritual that had been a cornerstone of feudal thought and had even been seen as a tragically noble way to die within the highly mythologized context of samurai film. Chanbara, it would seem, had finally succeeded in promotion of its agenda, which was to counteract the naïve romanticizing of feudalism and bushido, and to reveal the image of the noble samurai to be both hollow and amoral.

The Aftermath: Beyond 1970

Samurai film in the post-Tenchu era had much less to say. From the 1970s onward, chanbara has been primarily an exploitation vehicle, and has grown bloodier often without getting deeper.

As samurai film became subsumed into the larger body of the martial arts genre, it ceased to be as much a vehicle for ideas as an excuse for the glorification of slaughter. This would seem to be a broad step backwards in terms of what chanbara had accomplished throughout the 1960s, for although death was no longer lionized as the nihilistic symbol of an empty code of honor, it was now shown, in greater detail than ever before, simply to appease a bloodthirsty audience.

A perfect example of this trend can be found in Katsu Shintarô’s Razor trilogy (1972-1974), which while certainly broadly entertaining in their over-the-top gore and cartoonish misogyny, lack any kind of political or social critique.

Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance (1972)

Another popular, equally bloody favorite is the unique Lone Wolf & Cub series of the early 1970s, sometimes referred to as the “Baby Cart Assassin” films. These are tales of former Shogun’s Official Executioner Ogami Itto and his toddler son, Daigoro. Ogami, framed by enemies who also murdered his wife, now makes his way through the world as a killer for hire. For a fee of 500 gold ryo, he will assassinate anyone, no questions asked. Daigoro’s cart is more than a simple pram, and also functions as a rolling arsenal packed with various weaponry hidden inside secret compartments. These films are also primarily exploitation vehicles, and while they are well-executed, smartly-made movies a cut above most, they are so focused upon murder and mayhem that they are more akin to martial arts films than the thoughtful chanbara of the 1960s. These films were based upon a popular manga series of the same name, certainly one of the most beautifully executed, visually compelling comics ever done.

Gosha and Kurosawa continued to make films for the next several decades. Out of the many samurai pictures produced, perhaps only Gosha’s work truly preserved the spirit of classic chanbara, although his later movies tended to be about yakuza rather than samurai. Kurosawa, although going on to make some of his of greatest work yet, tended to create personal dramas or grand historical epics; following Sanjûrô, none of his films was truly chanbara.

Chanbara, it would seem, had fulfilled its role as an important tool for the symbolic examination of a major sociopolitical shift in Japanese thought. Gradually, more of these films, many rarely seen in the West, are finally being made available. As a result, international audiences can continue to be rewarded by the incredible visual and thematic richness of some of the most remarkable, thrilling movies ever made.

Chanbara Dictionary

Here are a few terms you might come across in samurai films, or that might enlighten you as to some of the finer points of Japanese custom.

  • ashigaru: foot soldiers, low-caste samurai.
  • bakufu: Shogunate, the military government (e.g. Tokugawa).
  • budo: martial arts.
  • bushi: warriors.
  • Butsudo: the way of Buddha.
  • bushido: way of the warrior, a rigid code that governed samurai behavior.
  • chanbara, ken-geki: “sword theatre,” i.e. samurai fiction.
  • chori: outcast.
  • daimyo: provincial (feudal) lord.
  • giri: duty, literally the “right reason.”
  • han: province.
  • heimin: commoner.
  • hinin: non-man; classes of untouchables; referred to as things rather than human beings, and described with words usually reserved for animals.
  • issho kemmei: striving, even unto death, for a place in the world.
  • jidai-geki: “period theater,” film typically set in Japan’s feudal past.
  • kaishakunin: the second who beheaded a person committing seppuku.
  • karoku: samurai stipend; first paid in rice, later gold
  • kenin: vassals
  • kirisutogomen: samurai right to kill lower classes in case of insult.
  • metsuke: spies, informers.
  • naginata: halberd, a blade attached to a long staff.
  • ninjo: empathy (often in conflict with giri).
  • oyabun: yakuza boss.
  • ronin: “man on the wave,” masterless samurai.
  • samurai: a Japanese knight; original meaning is “servant” or “retainer.”
  • seppuku, hara-kiri: ritual suicide; “cutting the stomach.”
  • shikozu: descendants of samurai after 1868.
  • shushigaku: predestination.
  • Shinto: “the way of the gods”; the pagan, pre-Buddhist Japanese religion. Its rituals persist in modern times.
  • uji: clan or family.
  • ujigami: ancestor worship.
  • yakuza: gangster, member of the Japanese mafia. Ya=8, ku=9, za=3, which adds up to 20, a losing combination in the game of Oicho-Kabu, a humorously self-deprecating way of suggesting that a yakuza is a worthless person.

“Chanbara” or “chambara”? You will see this term written both ways, but only one form is really correct. To spell the word in Hiragana (Japanese phonetic symbols), you use these characters:

ち = chi
ゃ = ya
ん = n
ば = ba
ら = ra

Notice that the “n” stands alone; it is the only Hiragana character that is not followed by an accompanying vowel. Thus in Japanese, an “m” sound is always followed by a vowel (ma, me, mu, mi, mo). However, when speaking a word aloud that contains an “n” followed by certain consonants, particularly “b” or “p,” the action of closing the lips to make the consonant converts the sound of the “n” into a sound closer to “m”; so when vocalized, “chanbara” can often sound like “chambara.” This same effect happens with the word “tenpura,” which is often said aloud as “tempura.” But the written form should reflect the Hiragana, so “chanbara” is correct!

I am indebted to Alain Silver for his excellent book, The Samurai Film, which set me out on the right track. It’s now available in an updated form, and I highly recommend it for anybody interested in learning more about this fascinating and entertaining genre.