(14/11/08) – Imagine a mountain top, with long grass undulating in the unrelenting wind. Two figures come into view, a few short paces away from each other. Their firm stance conveys pride, determination and a strange sort of calm. In a flurry of motion, one of the men draws his sword, quickly followed by the other. With a flash of blades, and a mist of blood, it is over. One man walks away, the other doesn’t. Who are these men? How did they get to the point where violence was the only way to settle their dispute? And why did they both seem unafraid to die? Welcome to the world of the samurai film.

One of the earliest genres to emerge from Japanese cinema, samurai films remained popular well into the 1970s, when they were finally edged out of theatres by the yakuza (gangster) genre. The peak of the genre was during the 1960s, when talented directors were able to break free of the formulaic plots that plagued many samurai tales throughout the 50s, creating some highly original and entertaining films.

The samurai films of the 1960s are populated by crafty ronin (masterless samurai) antiheroes, displaying a darkly comedic callousness in their disregard of the lives of their enemies. Leading the way with these films was Akira Kurosawa (you may have heard of him), with the brilliant Yojimbo(1961) and Sanjuro (1962), both featuring Toshiro Mifune as Sanjuro, a ronin with a wry sense of humour and a quick draw. Wandering into a town being torn apart by two rival gangs, Sanjuro plots to provoke a final showdown between the thugs, with violent results.

Kurosawa’s darkly comedic films influenced the work of some talented Japanese directors, including Kihachi Okamoto, Hideo Gosha and Kenji Misumi. These films were characterised by strong plots, lashings of dark humour and some of the goriest violence ever seen in film during the 1960s.

Other samurai films of the 1960s took a much more sombre tone; some were cautionary tales, warning against the unquestioning obedience of the samurai code {see Masaki Kobayashi’s excellent Hara-kiri(1962) and Samurai Rebellion (1967)} or showing the dangers of a violent lifestyle {for example Kihachi Okamoto’s Samurai Assassin (1965) and Sword of Doom (1966)}. With agonizing drama drawn from the stoicism of the harsh samurai code, these films are moving viewing.

The 1970s saw the samurai film drawing influence from the increasingly popular Japanese manga (comic books), some of which contained graphic over-the-top violence. Although the genre had displayed flamboyantly choreographed action scenes throughout the 1960s, the films of the 70s took this to a whole new level. Now lone warriors could face entire armies, moving through them in a series of bloody flourishes. The best example of this is the Lone Wolf and Cub series, telling the story of a disgraced samurai travelling with his infant son. Working as an assassin, Itto Ogami conceals his considerable arsenal in a baby cart. These films are wonderfully overblown, containing gory comic book style action at its best.

Of course, you’ll also find some excellent samurai films in the cinema of the 1950s (Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954), Throne of Blood (1957) and The Hidden Fortress (1958) to name a few) and even in the current cinema landscape {Yoji Yamada’s The Twilight Samurai (2002), The Hidden Blade (2004) and Love and Honour (2006)}. So, if you’re looking for exhilarating, sword swinging action, moving drama or just some damn good films, have a look into this excellent genre of Japanese cinema.

Samurai Films is out now on Kamera Books. Please follow the links provided to buy a copy and support Kamera by doing so.