Fakin’ It: Samurai Movies!

Posted: March 1, 2010 in Fakin' It
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What is it?
That’s the first thing to address here. There are two kinds of movies that get lumped into the Samurai category in the West. Jidaigeki is a period piece. Normally set between 1600 and 1870 or so. These tend to be a bit slower, a bit more drama than fighting, but because samurai are such a big part of Japan’s history, you’ll find a lot of them are about those guys. Chambara on the other hand is your actual sword-fighting movie, an action piece that is named after the onomatopoeia of swords clashing. Either way, what you have is stories of men with swords, honor and the conflicts that come with maintaining both of those in a cruel and wicked world. It’s a huge tent, much like the Western is in America and as such, contains numerous sub-genres. Short version, one is fun to watch and the other is fun to talk about. However, just recognizing the difference between these two will put you head and shoulders above fully 50% of the other people you’ll be talking to.

Is it Art or Pulp?
Jidaigeki is art, Chambara is pulp. That’s not exactly right, since there are many movies that blur the line, but for the purposes of a Fakin’ It article, that distinction will do. Chambara are often based on mangas while Jidaigeki movies are regularly based on novels. I use the word manga instead of comic book, because there is an entirely different culture around the sequential story telling art in Japan than here. Suffice to say though, one is more visual than the other. Jidaigeki have beautiful images, but the story is often more internal and psychological while Chambara is visceral, emotional and quite regularly bloody as hell.

Themes to look out for
Honor, duty, obligation, bushido and the conflict when one feels the need to deviate from those things. Particularly in Jidaigeki, you will find people who are internally conflicted with what they want to do and what they are supposed to do or what they believe society wants them to do. Depending on who the director is, there is a lot of the difficulty in maintaining appearances balanced with what a person can actually do. Chambara has those themes as well, but instead of balancing, they just kill everybody. You’ve got a movie like The Hidden Blade where a man tries to maintain his household, the woman he loves and his duty as a man to both his family and his lord who really only thinks about how to use him… and then you’ve got Yojimbo where the main character tricks two gangs into wiping each other out in order to fee a town of their grasp. If that was indeed his purpose. It might have just been he wanted paid, or he didn’t like the cut of their jib, or he was bored. Hard to say honestly.
Then of course there is the 47 Ronin. You’ll run into the Chūshingura a lot on either side. It’s a very popular story about 47 Ronin who killed the guy who got their master killed. There is a lot of variation, and a lot of interpretations, but if you just remember that they planned for years, killed the guy, avenged their master and gave then themselves up to commit seppuku, you’ll pretty much have it. It’s pretty much the ultimate honor, obligation and revenge story for the Japanese.

Actors Directors to Watch For
I honestly can’t tell you enough actors past Toshirō Mifune and Sonny Chiba, so I’m going to suggest directors instead. I will mention that Chiba was a hell of a producer and looking into anything he was involved with will at least be interesting. Akira Kurosawa is the one everyone in the west knows, but he’s problematic as I’ll go into later. Hiroshi Inagaki is another great one, very tradional. Yoji Yamada recently did some stellar work with his own samurai trilogy.
On the chambara side you’ve got Kenji Misumi directed a lot of the Zatoichi and Lone Wolf and Cub movies, which probably makes him the father of the blood-spraying chambara. Ryuhei Kitamura did some interesting work.

Movies to Watch
Since you only want this list to pass off as knowing about movies at parties and in bed, we’ll skip the stuff that’s just plain fun to watch and focus on things that are just plain good instead. The trilogy of The Twilight Samurai, The Hidden Blade and Love and Honor is a bit slowish, but oh so good. All three are based on the works of Shuhei Fujisawa and the first two are actually based on the same story, which lends an interesting level of comparison between versions. They’re also very grown up and mature stories. And sorry, but the label of mature in this context is code for “nothing happens but talking about feelings” instead of the “Bow-chicka-bow-wow” meaning mature normally gets slapped onto. When the Last Sword Is Drawn is an intricate drama, a story of a man seen through the eyes of the people who knew him. Harakiri which focuses on the hypocrisy of honor is quite good as is Goyôkin.

On the Chambara side (if you must) Pick one Lone Wolf and Cub, one Zatoihi, Azumi and Shogun’s Ninja. That will pretty much tell you everything you need to know. You must watch Shogun’s Ninja of course because it has CAMO NINJA! Actually, I keep thinking I should re-write that review, clearly that movie needs a more in depth look. If only for the opportunity to have more Camo Ninja. We need more Camo Ninja even more than cowbell.

Movies Not to Watch
Leave Kurosawa out of this, he’s got no percentage when you want to sound clever. A lot of people in the west have only seen his movies. Likewise avoid Kill Bill, but then avoid that because it’s pastiche and therefore is only really reflected light. You can avoid a lot of things because for the most part, it can be quite frustrating trying to get a hold of good samurai movies. If you have trouble keeping up, just say “Yeah, I’m getting to that one, but there are so many things before that and these things cost money.” and you’ll be good to go.

Movies to Scorn
Do not watch Seven Samurai. Or rather, do watch it. However, Seven Samurai is out because EVERYONE thinks of that movie. They’ll even think they know the movie when they haven’t seen it. The chief problem with Seven Samurai is that it is the ultimate jidaigeki while being the anti-jidaigeki and anti-chambara movie all at once. Where as most period dramas are based around the goings on up at the local castle, in this there is no castle. Instead of dealing with the great and the good, it’s about the lowest of the low. Ronin, farmers and bandits, not a single noble in the movie except maybe for the kid, but he hardly counts. Where as most sword-fighting movie the leader is the best man with a blade, in this the best swordsman is relegated into a small role where he’s used as a living weapon. It’s genre defying in every sense and if you haven’t watched a lot of samurai movies, you won’t really be able to grasp that. That’s why you scorn the greatest war movie ever made, because A) Lots of people have seen it and B) a full 90% of the western audience you’ll be talking to won’t have really gotten the point.

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