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Ways of the Samurai

Posted on March 7, 2012 at 1:50 AM

Ways of the Samurai

-My Journey with Samurai Cinema-

I was sitting in my film studies class at my University a little over ten years ago. It was the first class about film I decided to take, still not entirely sure what I wanted my studies to focus on (it would eventually become a minor, broadcasting my major). It was a simple, introductory class that, very general, went over the history of cinema. Pretty overwhelming, and certainly more than a semester could cover. That why it was general. That's why it was introductory. It would gloss over most parts of film history, notably the closer we moved to the present as it concentrated far more on early cinema than, say, the films of the 1970s.  But at least spent time discussing the major movements of film, the distinct style of various cultures, the rise and fall of the studio system and the major filmmakers of history, such as John Ford, Kubrick, Truffaut, Orson Welles, Griffith and, as it turns out, a Japanese filmmaker by the name of Akira Kurosawa to name a few.

Keep in mind, my exposure to film was still limited. I was only about twenty years old. Sure, I loved movies, but reaching beyond my own range of film watching was new. That was the entire point of taking a film class, or any class for that matter in college - to expand your own perspectives, expose yourself to more knowledge and get rid of your own presumptions. In this case, our brief look at Kurosawa and our even briefer look at Japanese cinema planted a small seed in my head. I was already fascinated with Japanese culture and history, but it was pretty basic and inconsequential. The seed was an easy one to plant, the soil was certainly rich for it.

It goes without saying that the one film we were able to see fully was Seven Samurai. With merely a week on certain subjects, the class was only able to provide a screening of one film in its entirety and offer up the rest in clips, which we watched ranging from violent gangster movies to family dramas. But that samurai movie…that samurai movie…Seven Samurai was the film that I felt as though I had seen before, but hadn't. Turns out it was the film I had always wanted to see, but only now had.

Well, if you're going to start somewhere...

That seed began to grow. A week with Japanese cinema and only one samurai film wasn't going to cut it. I immediately took to two actions: one was to buy more Kurosawa samurai films. That was easy. By this point DVD was popular and the Criterion Collection had more than ample Kurosawa films to choose from. The second, and it was more by chance because it wasn't offered every semester, was to take a Japanese Film class. I still had to wait a few months before getting to that, though.

In the meantime, my first purchase was Seven Samurai. It was my second Criterion DVD, after Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and my very first samurai movie. I watched it again and then looked to my film history textbook on more to choose from. Yojimbo was the second, and as expected I immediately fell in love with that, with Sanjuro not too far behind. I then, finally, picked up Kurosawa's Rashomon. We had watched clips of it in class. I liked it, but then I started to run out of things to watch. As I said, this was early 2000s. Samurai films weren't as readily available. It wouldn't be for years until Criterion really started to have a deep and wonderful library of them.

Samurai films have a distinct style to them, a combination of artistic symmetry and sense of balance as well as a contrast of light and dark on screen to bring out every dramatic conversation or swing of a sword. They also have a sense of "coolness" to them with framing for the most fittingly poetic presentations.

Thankfully, by this time, the semester covering Japanese Cinema had begun. Though I would love to go into detail about the "other" Kurosawa films I became exposed to through it, such as Ikiru or Stray Dog, and other Japanese filmmakers, such as Ozu, Mizoguchi and Naruse, that would be an entire blog all its own. My professor, a rotund man with a beard and enjoyment of sweater-vests, was enthusiastic about it all too. The man loved Japanese film, even wrote a few books about it, and he had a rival in the world of Japanese Cinema that he despised. I unfortunately can't recall either of their names, but he called his rival's books "hackney" and said "he's smart, but can't write worth shit."

I wouldn't say he was an authority, but he knew what he was talking about and, more importantly, loved what he was talking about. Through his class, quite a few new directors and samurai films came flooding my way.  Directors such as Masaki Kobayashi and Kihachi Okamoto became big names to me right away. Hiroshi Inagaki, Kihachi Okamot, Hideo Gosha and Kenji Misumi were others. Through association, I became familiar with many Japanese actors. Toshiro Mifune goes without saying, but I've also become quite the fan of Tatsuya Nakadai, Mikijiro Hira and Takashi Shimura.

Through seeit it and the sporadic clips in class of others, I found Samurai films are often stylish, full of action, intiruge, have a very straightforward story surrounded by complex themes and executed with class with a nice nod to excessiveness when needed. I immediatly fell in love

What's great about focusing, and loving, something so specific is that it makes it easy to accumulate all there is to know about it. That doesn't mean I or you or that sweater-vest wearing professor know everything, but it does make you come to appreciate the specificity of knowing it and loving it. There's always new films to be released, new directors to be discovered and new experiences to be shared. More importantly is going out and researching and educating yourself away from a classroom. Doing it on your own time because you love the material so much and want to know more about it.

One thing the Japanese film course didn't really dive into is the sociological nature of the samurai film, what it means to the culture it comes from or what it's actually saying about the society in the decades it came from. Sure, the obvious ideas are there, such as honor and pride, moral justice and right and wrongs. But other themes such as social structure, economic class, political frustration or a commentary on Japanese people as a whole are prevalent through a lot of samurai films as well.

Samurai cinema is, often, able to blend the idea of being broad and appealing, with good versus evil and so on, with something very specific and poignant, such as political beuracracy and hypocrisy that reflects the society and era in which the film was made. At their heart, they're morality plays with universal themes in the same way western films are. The similarities of both genres is probably why both genres have appealed to a wide-range of different cultures and peoples (Akira Kurosawa himself a very big John Ford fan). They are often called chambara films, if they are more focused on the sword-play element of the samurai. If more dramatic and less concentrated on action, they are referred to (though it's not entirely accurate) as jidaigeki films - a general term for a period drama which may or may not include samurai. That's the way I tend to look at it.

As the years went on, I continued to add to my samurai film collection. Criterion, I think, realized there was a huge market for it. Fans loved it. Fans like me who would buy a new DVD or collection of DVDs the instant they were released. Price be damned. The films I recall really hunting down after the first major Kurosawa push (after some Ikiru and Stray Dog purchasing) were Throne of Blood, the Samurai Trilogy, Ran, Sword of Doom, Kill!, Sword of the Beast, various Lone Wolf and Cub or Zatoichi films and, later, movies such as Harakiri, Samurai Spy and Rebellion, Gate of Hell, Kagemusha, Shogun Assassin, Ronin Gai, The Hidden Blade, 47 Ronin, The Twilight Samurai, Samurai Fiction for a fun take, 13 Assassins and, well, you get the idea. I'm not going to just give you a list of films to watch, half the fun is the discovery.

Recent films such as 13 Assassins and The Hidden Blade show the genre, though not as large and as it was at its height of popularity, is still far from dead too.

The past decade has seen some wonderful samurai films and filmmakers emerge in the genre, but the entire genre itself is far from what it used to be. It not because of lack of interest, it's more a slowing down of Japan's film industry as a whole. I would also put the rise of Japanese animation during the 90s and its supplanting as an action-movie escape as a reason as well, but I'm probably not qualified enough to make that assessment.

Despite that, it is a genre that you always seem to find new films to see even if there aren't new ones prolifically being released. Just recently, Criterion released Three Outlaw Samurai which I still have yet to see. A week ago, I finally sat and watched Tadashi Imai, not usually known for Samurai films, wonderful Revenge. His Bushido is soon to follow on my "to watch" list, which, despite by crossing off of titles as days and weeks go by, alway seems to be growing larger. The trait of a film fan if there ever was one.



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