Samurai films have fallen out of favour with the Japanese over the last few decades, a situation made obvious by the almost unheard of occasion one turns up on these shores. Pointedly Chanbara, the genre’s accepted name, has similar emphasis on iconography, ethical codes and historical importance as the Western does, or did, for American audiences.
Chanbara, which means swordplay, achieved its Golden Age in the fifties and sixties during Japan’s post war economic recovery. Just as the Western appealed to an optimistic new world power, with its glorification of pioneering and progress for profit, so did adaptations of Samurai novels. The striding indigenous heroes bound by honour were acceptable nationalist popcorn consumed by a country well on the mend from the failures of World War II that culminated in Hiroshima’s atomic punctuation mark. The Samurai figure was a touchstone image for the Japanese to reassess themselves as historically legitimate victors. It is no surprise that movies featuring them proliferated during the economic recovery and consequent boom of this era.
John Ford and Howard Hawks had their Eastern equivalents in the admired directors; Kenji Misumi and Kihachi Okamoto. Their awe inspiring work with stars like Shintaro Katsu created a lionisation of the predatory individual that even John Wayne and Gary Cooper should have been rightly jealous of. Katsu was best known for his Blind Swordsman films, a franchise which stretched over 25 entries, where his graceful aggression won the hearts of his native moviegoing public.
Less popular in Japan, but better known around the world, were Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune’s collaborations like Rashômon (1950), Seven Samurai (1954) and Throne of Blood (1957). Kurosawa presented Japan’s iconic warrior in a more human, critical light. Despite an equal amount of action and heroics as his peers and predecessors, all masterfully and inventively filmed, he never gained the same favour with in his home audience to match his string of awards in the European film world. Perhaps this was due to his indicative use of visual dividers in his widescreen frame. Kurosawa’s samurai characters, like the eponymous Yojimbo (1961), were often filmed from angles meant to emphasise the confinement of their situation. Much of Yojimbo sees Mifune’s roaming sword for hire stuck in a hut, hiding and spectating on the chaos he has caused outside between the rival clans. This new angle on the samurai hero, darker and more mocking, showed the figure as restricted and malevolent. Kurosawa’s vision of the Samurai did not agree with the libertarian yet controlled image that the Japanese expected from their historical figures.
Chanbara and the Western both benefited from the cross-fertilisation between the revisionist works of Kurosawa and Sergio Leone, then descended into the popular, violent spectacles created by Peckinpah in the west and The Lone Wolf and Baby Cart series in the east. The Lone Wolf’s plot and tone was recently transplanted wholesale to Sam Mendes’ mannered gangster flick, Road to Perdition (2002), a shift in genre suggesting America now associates its past more with the Tommy Gun and Godfathers than the Six-shooter or The Duke. The fact that you are more likely to see a Samurai sword in a Western film (Pulp Fiction (1994), Ghost Dog (1999) and The Last Samurai (2003) to name a few) also reveals the west considers Japan’s old signifiers of heroism more potent than the weapon’s home country does.
Yet in recent years there have been two significant Chanbaras to emerge from Japan: revered arthouse director Nagisa Oshima’s Gohatto (1999) and inventive music video director Hiroyuki Nakano’s Samurai Fiction (1998). Both are reverent to Chanbara’s legacy since the silent days, they owe as much to the literary texts that originated many of the key films as they do Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune more energetic, narrative driven widescreen masterpieces. Yet they use the out of favour genre to address modern issues and concerns with styles different to each other but appropriate for the classical tales they want to tell.
Gohatto is the more traditional of the two, at least in terms of appearance. Taking place at the training camp for the Shinsengumi militia, the narrative follows the upheaval caused when an androgynous young student, Kano (Ryuhei Matsuda), ignites the unspoken homosexual passions of his teachers and comrades. The film uses the well-known samurai tale of The Story of the Chrysanthemums and blends it with Greek tragedy and murder mystery. Oshima examines the sexual tensions within the hierarchy and how these emotions are both at odds and in support of the waning feudal system which the Samurai protect.
Oshima implies, especially through the casting and performance of Takeshi Kitano as the monosyllabic but questioning second in command, that the strict codes of the militia stunt the men emotionally, suffocating their love and desires. Whereas the film starts with an eye on realism and some rousing kendo training sessions, the romances and ensuing jealousy leads the film into the realms of fantasy for its final act when the confused men face each other in an expressionist night time landscape.
It is no surprise that Nakano’s Samurai Fiction abandons any resemblance to the traditional Chanbara’s camerawork or editing. As his pop promo background should indicate, Nakano’s resuscitation of the genre compels new viewers with its rapid cuts, roving frame and use of the fish eye lens. The stripped down plot revolves around three Samurai’s chase for a stolen sword. The movie, with its beautiful monochrome cinematography and playful sense of humour, resembles a Jim Jarmusch film. Nakano has a similar reliance on scenes that other directors traditionally leave out.
Samurai Fiction often delays its narrative thrust to celebrate the games and rituals that the band occupy themselves with while on their quest, although the eventual fights that occur are as satisfying as their old school influences. Nakano was inspired to work in the almost extinct genre because he was tired of seeing directors like Tarantino hijack his country’s iconography. He immersed himself in the books of Shugoro Yamamoto, who was an influence of Kurosawa, and used the philosophy of these works as a springboard for his original adventure.
While both Samurai Fiction and Gohatto failed to cause much of a rumpus in Japan, both were well received in Europe. It seems that Nakano will have to console himself that while his own generation in Japan are resistant to the Chanbara, the west understands the Samurai figure as a relevant, exotic alternative to the cowboy genre they themselves are abandoning. This could be one instance where Hollywood dominance over the cultural hegemony might be useful. If the imminent success of Tom Cruise’s The Last Samurai captures the imaginations of the globe, then it might ironically re-ignite the Chanbara in its homeland.