Samurai: Cowboys for Hipsters


As a student (or better yet, torture-victim) of the Japanese Language, I felt intrigued to sample the original Samurai films of which I had heard so much. Being a voracious consumer of film, almost all of the proceedings of my largesse have contributed to American GNP. In other words, I am still a relative amateur when it comes to foreign films. What better place to get one’s feet wet than in the appetizingly oddball Kingdom of the Rising Sun? Surprisingly, I found much that I was familiar with.
            In Japan, Samurai films are officially known as “Chanbara,” which very appropriately translates to “sword-fighting.” A typical Chanbara film depicts a roving ronin, a master-less samurai, wandering the bleak countryside aiding the downtrodden against the injustices of the corrupt and greedy. The depicted samurai is generally a lonesome, stone-faced individual with a torn heart and a quick hand who has an unfortunate obsession with his own honor. If any of this sounds familiar, replace the samurai with a cowboy and you’ve got yourself a good ol’ fashioned, rootin-tootin American Western.

            Their familiarity is not merely plot-centric but also symbolic. The Western and the Chanbara reflect the cultural and historical heritages of their respective countries. They are national mythology tales that evoke the great spirit of the people, much like Knights in Englandor Olympian Gods in Greece. Both are antiquated stories that harken back to simpler, more pure times before the onrush of the modern age. They’re creation stories of the national character that echo the innate qualities that we give ourselves as a people. For instance, Americans are supposedly like cowboys in that they are tough, individualistic, and ambitious, whereas the Japanese are proud, steadfast, and sharp-minded like their samurai.

            It’s striking how much influence each genre took from the other in the early post-WWII era right after our two countries had fought perhaps the grisliest war in human history. Indeed, the popularity of the samurai film in Japan after the war may very well be related to the idea that the Japanese people wanted to briefly forget about the war and remember a more innocent era of their country. Also, much like the Western, the chanbara film can be seen as an escape from the constraining ascendancy of modern technology which had revolutionized the two countries.

I decided to start with a bona-fide samurai classic, Three Outlaw Samurai, the debut film of legendary genre auteur, Hideo Gosha. The excellent film follows the three eponymous swordsmen as they fight for peasant’s rights against the vile establishment interests of the cruel daimyo. Along the way, they engage in one-line zings and furious sword-fights that surely make up for the stark black and white milieu.

While watching, I was surprised by the films’ focus on master-less samurai who act as they’re conscience demands, free from the hindrances of the bushido, the samurai code of honor that emphasizes above all loyalty to one’s master. Japan is notorious for its idolization of rigid rules that give each member of society a specific, and largely binding, role. But the individualism shown in the ronin of Chanbara films betrays some influence from the American Western, where the independence of the hero is sacrosanct. In a larger context, the personal dignity of the ronin is a rebuke of the devastating collective ethos that prevailed in Japanduring WWII, when young men were pointlessly sent to die for the sake of the country in a long-lost cause. Chanbara films represented the new national spirit born out of the ashes of war-time annihilation and inspired by the glorious memories of the bygone samurai age.
The complex dynamic between doing what is right, “ninjo”, and following orders, “giri”, underlies every Chanbara film. This conflict creates tension in the samurai as he tries to create equilibrium between the two or, more rarely, pick one over the other. Along with the high prevalence of spurting blood in Chanbara films, this is one of its key differences with Westerns where frontier stragglers largely just fight for their own hide.
            Perhaps the greatest similarity between the Western and the Chanbara is that they’re both smooth, beautifully-woven morality tales. A crisp gunfight in a dusty, auburn-splashed town is clearly the philosophical cousin of a solemn sword-fight amongst the neatly-cut, green hedges of a Shinto Shrine. Also, the lessons are largely uniform in their simplicity and power: courage trumps greed, honor is sacred, love is blind…etc. So if you’re a big fan of Westerns but are getting sick of guns and saloons, try getting lost in the Wild East of feudal Japan. Plus some simple knowledge of samurai cinema is obligatory when trying to impress some hotshot, hipster friends. 
                -Jack Powers
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