Friday, November 7, 2014

Bushido Cinema: Honor, Swordplay and the Way of the Samurai

Writing on Kwaidan last week raised the issue of samurai cinema. Only a portion of the film is concerned with the subject, but I'll take any opportunity I can get to talk briefly about one of my favorite genres, so here goes nothing.
Of all the types of cinema in existence, I always find it strange that I gravitated toward samurai films. Since its beginnings, the genre has been tied to the western (which remains relatively unexplored territory for me and a genre I tend to have trouble getting into). Just from the screenshot provided above, you can see elements of "the final showdown" or "the final draw", just with katanas replacing revolvers. However, before there was The Magnificent Seven, there was Seven Samurai and before Leone's Dollars trilogy, there was Yojimbo and Sanjuro. Revenge and violence, lawlessness and the restoration of order...these are elements toyed with in both genres, but with samurai cinema, honor, specifically that of the samurai code, bushido, is frequently the central theme. The way this concept is addressed by Japanese filmmakers in the genre through the years is probably what I find most fascinating. Its rigid qualities are seemingly exalted by some and challenged by others. The fantasy of the bushido ideal is both played up and criticized. It has been used to comment on the present state of the nation while also reminiscing on Japan's history. Functioning as entertainment, allegory and unique cultural evaluation, the samurai film is a fascinating sub-section of cinema that proves itself to be much more exotic action spectacle.
Also worth mentioning is the enormous variety that the genre has to offer. Above, I've posted five screenshots from five different films, each carrying a distinct tone. There are many ways to approach a samurai film, more even then those I mention here, and it is fascinating to explore the different modes. The top picture comes from part 2 of Hiroshi Inagaki's Samurai Trilogy. Shot in vibrant color and featuring a sweeping musical score, the melodramatic series displays many of the hallmarks of classical Hollywood cinema- a very different feel from other samurai films of the time. The second screenshot is from Kuroneko, a ghostly, samurai-based, late-60's horror film. The third is from Samurai Rebellion, a deathly serious drama with considerable restraint and much more on its mind than simple swordplay. The fourth picture comes from Kill!, a comedic action-packed romp with satirical elements. And finally, the last shot is from the first installment of the Lone Wolf and Cub series, Sword of Vengeance. Made in the early 70's this cheekily bloody contribution to the genre leaned closer to grindhouse fare, while still retaining an aspect of artistic sophistication. 
Despite its noted ties to westerns, the samurai film is a rich, one-of-a-kind genre with something to offer to every fan of cinema, whatever the desired tone of presentation may be. 

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