Samurai cinema

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Actors playing samurai and ronin at Kyoto's Eigamura film studio

In Japan, the term chanbara (チャンバラ?), also commonly spelled "chambara", meaning "sword fighting" movies,[1] denotes the genre called samurai cinema in English, and is roughly equivalent to western cowboy and swashbuckler films. Chanbara is a sub-category of jidaigeki, which equates to period drama. Jidaigeki may refer to a story set in an historical period, though not necessarily dealing with a samurai character or depicting swordplay.

While earlier samurai period pieces were more dramatic rather than action-based, samurai movies post World War II have become more action-based, with darker and more violent characters. Post-war samurai epics tended to portray psychologically or physically scarred warriors.[2] Akira Kurosawa stylized and exaggerated death and violence in samurai epics. His samurai, and many others portrayed in film, were solitary figures, more often concerned with concealing their martial abilities, rather than showing them off.[2]

Historically, the genre is usually set during the Tokugawa era (1600–1868), the samurai film focuses on the end of an entire way of life for the samurai, many of the films deal with masterless ronin, or samurai dealing with changes to their status resulting from a changing society.

Samurai films were constantly made into the early 1970s, but by then, overexposure on television, the aging of the big stars of the genre, and the continued decline of the mainstream Japanese film industry put a halt to most of the production of this genre.[3]

Samurai film directors[edit]

Daisuke Itō and Masahiro Makino were central to the development of samurai films in the silent and prewar eras.

Akira Kurosawa is the best known to western audiences, and similarly has directed the samurai films best known in the West. He directed Seven Samurai, Rashomon, Throne of Blood, Yojimbo and many others. He had a long association with Toshirō Mifune arguably Japan's most famous actor. Mifune himself had a production company that produced samurai epics, often with him starring. Two of Kurosawa's samurai movies were based on the works of William Shakespeare, Throne of Blood (Macbeth) and Ran (King Lear). A number of his films were remade in Italy and the United States as westerns, or as action films set in other contexts.[4] His film Seven Samurai is one of the most important touchstones of the genre and the most well-known outside of Japan. It also illustrates some of the conventions of samurai film in that the main characters are ronin, masterless unemployed samurai, free to act as their conscience dictates. Importantly, these men tend to deal with their problems with their swords and are very skilled at doing so. It also shows the helplessness of the peasantry and the distinction between the two classes.

Masaki Kobayashi directed the films Harakiri and Samurai Rebellion, both cynical films based on flawed loyalty to the clan.

Kihachi Okamoto films focus on violence in a particular fashion. In particular in his films Samurai Assassin, Kill! and Sword of Doom. The latter is particularly violent, the main character engaging in combat for a lengthy 7 minutes of film at the end of the movie. His characters are often estranged from their environments, and their violence is a flawed reaction to this.[4]

Hideo Gosha, and many of his films helped create the archetype of the samurai outlaw. Gosha's films are as important as Kurosawa's in terms of their influence, visual style and content, yet are not as well known in the West. Gosha's films often portrayed the struggle between traditional and modernist thought and were decidedly anti-feudal.

An excellent example of the kind of immediacy and action evident in the best genre is seen Gosha's first film, the Three Outlaw Samurai, based on a television series. Three farmers kidnap the daughter of the local magistrate in order to call attention to the starvation of local peasants, a ronin appears and decides to help them. In the process, two other ronin with shifting allegiances join the drama, the conflict widens, eventually leading to betrayal, assassination and battles between armies of mercenary ronin.[5]

Recently, another director, Keishi Ōtomo, has directed a live action adaption of Nobuhiro Watsuki's manga series Rurouni Kenshin, which tells the story of a former Ishin Shishi named Himura Kenshin (formerly known as "Hitokiri Battōsai" (人斬り抜刀斎?) who, after the end of the Bakumatsu, becomes a wanderer of the countryside of Japan offering protection and aid to those in need, as atonement for the murders he once committed as an assassin. The film was a huge success. Rurouni Kenshin was theatrically released on August 25, 2012 in Japan, grossing over $36 million in that country and over $60 million worldwide as of November 2012. It was released in DVD on December 26, 2012. The film has been licensed for distribution in over 60 countries in Europe, Latin America and Asia. The movie premiered in North America as an opening selection for the 2012 LA EigaFest in December 14, 2012. Two sequels titled Rurouni Kenshin: Kyoto Taika-hen and Rurouni Kenshin: Densetsu no Saigo-hen is set to be released on 2014.

Popular characters in samurai films[edit]


At least 26 films were made about the blind swordsman, Zatoichi. A burly masseur and yakuza with short hair, he is a skilled swordsman who fights using only his hearing. While less known in the West, he is arguably the most famous chanbara character in Japan.

Crimson Bat[edit]

Four movies were made about another blind samurai, the Crimson Bat. Her character was a blind female sword fighter, and made in response to the huge success of Zatoichi.

Nemuri Kyoshirō[edit]

Nemuri Kyoshirō was a wandering "lone wolf" warrior plagued by the fact that he was fathered in less than honorable circumstance by a "fallen" Portuguese priest who had turned to worshipping Satan and a Japanese noblewoman whom he seduced and raped as part of a Black Mass.

Miyamoto Musashi[edit]

A number of films were also made about Miyamoto Musashi, a famed historical warrior and swordsman, including a six movie series about his life, starring Yorozuya Kinnosuke.

Lone Wolf and Cub[edit]

Lone Wolf and Cub, the tale of a samurai traveling Japan with his son in a wooden pram (which is armed and on occasion used in combat) was made into a live action television series called Kozure Ōkami (1973 to 1976) starring actor Yorozuya Kinnosuke as Ogami Ittō.

Sanjuro/The Ronin with No Name[edit]

Sanjuro is the wandering ronin character appearing in two of Kurosawa's films, Yojimbo and Sanjuro. The character is nameless, but when required gives the name Sanjuro (which means "thirty-ish male"), and then makes up a surname. The same character appears as the nameless wandering ronin called Yojimbo ("Bodyguard") in Incident at Blood Pass. He also appears in the Zatoichi film Zatoichi meets Yojimbo (1970).[citation needed]

The character is sometimes referred to as "the ronin with no name", as a reference to Clint Eastwood's character "the man with no name", a western version inspired by the samurai character. As was the case with Eastwood, some of the other roles that Toshirō Mifune played after the two Kurosawa movies are basically the same character.[citation needed]

Himura Kenshin[edit]

Main article: Himura Kenshin

Himura Kenshin (緋村 剣心?), known as Kenshin Himura in the English-language anime dubs,[6] is the protagonist from the Rurouni Kenshin. Kenshin is a former legendary assassin known as "Hitokiri Battōsai" (人斬り抜刀斎?)[note 1] (rendered as Battousai the Manslayer in the Media Blasters English anime dub,[6] as Battousai: The Slasher in the Sony English dub.[9] At the end of the Bakumatsu, he becomes a wandering samurai, now wielding a sakabatō (逆刃刀?, lit. "reverse-blade sword"), a katana that has the cutting edge on the inwardly curved side of the sword, thus being nearly incapable of killing. Kenshin wanders the countryside of Japan offering protection and aid to those in need, as atonement for the murders he once committed as an assassin. In Tokyo, he meets a young woman named Kamiya Kaoru, who invites him to live in her dojo despite learning about Kenshin's past. Throughout the series, Kenshin begins to establish lifelong relationships with many people, including ex-enemies, while dealing with his fair share of enemies, new and old. The character is portrayed by actor Takeru Satoh in three live-action versions of the story ( Rurouni Kenshin (film), Rurouni Kenshin: Kyoto Taika-hen and Rurouni Kenshin: Densetsu no Saigo-hen) directed by Keishi Ōtomo.


A samurai film must include samurai warriors, sword fighting, and historical setting. Samurai warriors, in film, are differentiated from other warriors by the code of honor, bushido, followed to honor the samurai's leader. Bushido did not become codified till the seventeenth century. A samurai must perforce be skilled in warfare and martial arts and ready to defend his honor even to his death. If not able to defend his honor, a samurai may choose to commit self-disembowelment, seppuku, in order to save reputation or "face." Instead, a samurai may exact vengeance in a case of the loss of someone the samurai cared about, such as occurs in the film Harakiri. In Harakiri, Hanshiro Tsugumo takes revenge on the house of Kageyu Saito for the loss of his adopted son-in-law, who was forced to commit suicide by the house of Kageyu Saito. The house of Kageyu Saito refused to give the son-in-law money. Because he had asked to commit suicide he was forced to perform self-disembowelment, with a remarkable twist not revealed in this discussion. Hanshiro knows an example was unrightfully made of his son-in-law in order to discourage the asking by impoverished samurai for donations from the house of Kageyu. In film, motivation may vary but the samurai’s behavior is to maintain honor even in death and is perpetuated by the code of bushido.

Also, looking at the historical setting of the film the audience can take cultural context[10] of the samurai in that certain period. For instance the Sengoku era (1478-1603) saw Japan torn by civil war as daimyo warlords fought for control of land. In the Tokugawa era (1603-1868), peace from civil war meant there were no wars for the samurai to fight and some samurai became ronin, masterless warriors left to struggle to survive. In the Meiji era (1868-1912), we see a decline of the hereditary existence of the samurai and the rise of westernization. In this period the ideal of the samurai and the code of bushido are popularized into the military warrior’s belief. The time frame meant changes in the sorts of conflicts for the samurai to fight and film would capture their resistance against overwhelming odds.

A recurring conflict the ideal samurai encounters is the ninjo and giri conflict.[11] Ninjo is the human feeling that tells you what is right and giri is the obligation of the samurai to his lord and clan. The conflict originated from overwhelming control of the Tokugawa bakufu government over the samurai’s behavior. Often samurai would question the morality of their actions and are torn between duty and conscience. This conflict transcends eras in samurai films and can create the perception of the protagonist as being the moral underdog or steadfast warrior. In The Last Samurai, Katsumoto is no longer of use to his emperor and sentenced to self-disembowelment. He goes against his duty to follow through with his sentence and flees to fight his final rebellion against the central government’s army. Ninjo and giri conflict is dynamic to the character of the samurai.

The meaning of an invented tradition[12] is rooted in actual formally instituted practices in a society and added to these practices are less easily traceable characteristics. For invented traditions to be creditable, the set of practices need to have authority over society and are in natural repetition, which automatically assumes invented traditions to be long standing. Furthermore inventing traditions is a process of formalization and ritualization, which contains created rituals and symbols. For instance, Afro Samurai Resurrection, the protagonist Afro must earn his way to becoming the number one fighter through a series of fights. To become number one, he must get the number one headband, which is symbolic right to being the best fighter. To challenge the owner of the number one headband he must challenge owner of number two headband because only number two headband owner has the right to challenge the number one headband. This form of ritualization and symbols give the audience the ideal of an invented tradition, which has been in practice for a long period of time. Finally, the purpose of an invented tradition is the creation of nationalism[13] to separate other societies and create independence. For Afro samurai, the fighting for headbands creates an exclusive group of warriors fighting for domination, which is well known by the populace in the world of Afro samurai. In film, the creations of new ideals of tradition help the audience construct a lawful society of samurai that is believable to the imagination.

The samurai warrior is often synonymous with his/her own sword. Although swordsmanship is an important aspect of warfare, idealizing the samurai and the sword as having a bond is an invented ideal,[citation needed] although it is popularized in many dramas. The Tokugawa period saw a change in the type of warfare, as combat shifted from the bow and arrow to close range combat with handheld weapons, and competitive sword competition.

There are a number of themes that occur in samurai film plots. Many feature roaming masterless samurai, seeking work or a place in society. Others are period historical tales of true characters. Others show tales of clan loyalty.[4]

Influence on western cinema[edit]

A number of western movies have re-told the samurai movie in a Western context. Italian director Sergio Leone's A Fistful of Dollars and Walter Hill's Last Man Standing are both remakes of Yojimbo. Clint Eastwood's "man with no name character" was modeled to some degree on Mifune's wandering ronin character that appeared in so many of his films. The Hidden Fortress influenced George Lucas when he made Star Wars. Seven Samurai has been remade as a Western and a science fiction context film, The Magnificent Seven and Battle Beyond the Stars. Other samurai influenced western movies include Charles Bronson and Toshirō Mifune in Red Sun (1971), David Mamet's Ronin (with Jean Reno and Robert De Niro), Six-String Samurai (1998) and Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999).[14] The Zatoichi character was re-made as Blind Fury in the United States, starring Rutger Hauer as a blind swordsman living in the modern US. Most recently, The Last Samurai, the story being loosely based on the true historical French officer Jules Brunet assisting Japanese samurai in rebellion against the Emperor.

List of notable samurai films[edit]

TitleDirectorRelease DateComments
OrochiBuntaro Futagawa1925
Humanity and Paper BalloonsSadao Yamanaka1937
The 47 RoninKenji Mizoguchi1941
Jakoman and TetsuSenkichi Taniguchi1949-07-11
RashomonAkira Kurosawa1950-08-25
Conclusion of Kojiro Sasaki-Duel at Ganryu IslandHiroshi Inagaki1951-10-26This was the first time that Toshirō Mifune played Musashi Miyamoto.
Vendetta for a SamuraiKazuo Mori1952-01-03
Gate of HellTeinosuke Kinugasa1953-10-31
Seven SamuraiAkira Kurosawa1954-04-26
Samurai TrilogyHiroshi Inagaki
  • 1954-09-26
  • 1955-07-12
  • 1956-01-01
Throne of Blood or Spider Web CastleAkira Kurosawa1957-01-15A Japanese version of Macbeth.
The Hidden FortressAkira Kurosawa1958-12-28A key inspiration for Star Wars
Samurai SagaHiroshi Inagaki1959-04-28A Japanese version of Cyrano de Bergerac.
The Gambling SamuraiSenkichi Taniguchi1960-03-29
Yojimbo or The BodyguardAkira Kurosawa1961-04-25A Fistful of Dollars was based on this film
Tsubaki Sanjuro or SanjuroAkira Kurosawa1962-01-01
HarakiriMasaki Kobayashi1962-09-16Won a prize at the Cannes Film Festival.
ChushinguraHiroshi Inagaki1962-11-03
Three Outlaw SamuraiHideo Gosha1964
Sword of the BeastHideo Gosha1965
Samurai Assassin or SamuraiKihachi Okamoto1965
Sanshiro SugataSeiichiro Uchikiro1965This is a remake of Akira Kurosawa's films Sanshiro Sugata and Sanshiro Sugata Part 2.
The Sword of DoomKihachi Okamoto1966
The Adventure of Kigan CastleSenkichi Taniguchi1966
Samurai RebellionMasaki Kobayashi1967This won the Fipresci Prize at the Venice Film Festival.
Kill!Kihachi Okamoto1968
Samurai BannersHiroshi Inagaki1969
Red LionKihachi Okamoto1969
Band of AssassinsTadashi Sawashima1969
GoyokinHideo Gosha1969
Hitokiri (Tenchu)Hideo Gosha1969
Watch Out Crimson BatHirokazu Ichimura1969
Mission: Iron CastleKazuo Mori1970
Zatoichi Meets YojimboKihachi Okamoto1970
The AmbitiousDaisuke Itō1970
Incident at Blood PassHiroshi Inagaki1970
Shogun's SamuraiKinji Fukasaku1978
The Fall of Ako CastleKinji Fukasaku1978
KagemushaAkira Kurosawa1980Nominated for a best foreign film Oscar.
The Bushido BladeTsugunobu Kotani1981
Legend of the Eight SamuraiKinji Fukasaku1984
RanAkira Kurosawa1985Japanese adaptation of King Lear. Won Oscar for Best Costume Design; won 25 other awards and 15 nominations.
Shintaro Katsu's Zatoichi or

Zatoichi: Darkness Is His Ally

Shintaro Katsu1989-02-04Directed, written and starring Shintaro Katsu.
Heaven and EarthHaruki Kadokawa1991-02-08
47 RoninKon Ichikawa1994
The Twilight SamuraiYôji Yamada2002-11-02Nominated for a best foreign film Oscar.
When the Last Sword Is DrawnYojiro Takita2003-01-18
ZatoichiBeat Takeshi2003-09-02Directed by and starring Beat Takeshi, this film was the Silver Lion award winner at the Venice Film Festival.
The Hidden BladeYôji Yamada2004-10-30
Love and HonorYôji Yamada2006-12-01
Castle Under Fiery SkiesMitsutoshi Tanaka2009
13 AssassinsTakashi Miike2010
Sword of DesperationHideyuki Hirayama2010-7-10
IchimeiTakashi Miike2011



See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Hitokiri". The term refers to an assassin and translates as "manslayer". Within the Rurouni Kenshin universe "Battōsai" refers to someone who has mastered battōjutsu.[7] Assassins during the bakumatsu adopted professional names; for instance Kawakami Gensai was known as Hitokiri Gensai.[8]


  1. ^ Hill (2002).
  2. ^ a b Silver (1977), p. 37.
  3. ^ Japan: A New Wave (retrieved on 07/13/2008)
  4. ^ a b c Silver (1977), p. 44.
  5. ^ White, p. 1.
  6. ^ a b "Rurouni Kenshin TV Series Season One Box". Media Blasters. Archived from the original on July 14, 2011. Retrieved July 15, 2009. 
  7. ^ Watsuki, Nobuhiro (2003). "Act 13: The Meaning of the Name". Rurouni Kenshin, Volume 2. Viz Media. ISBN 1-59116-249-1. 
  8. ^ Watsuki, Nobuhiro. "Glossary of the Restoration". Rurouni Kenshin, Volume 3. Viz Media. p. 190. 
  9. ^ "Samurai X A Killer Without Mercy." Sci Fi. August 8, 2007. Retrieved on July 22, 2009.
  10. ^ Galloway, Patrick, Stray Dogs & Lone Wolves: The Samurai Film Handbook, (Berkeley: Stone Bridge P, 2005), 16-17.
  11. ^ Galloway, Patrick, Stray Dogs & Lone Wolves: The Samurai Film Handbook, (Berkeley: Stone Bridge P, 2005), 18.
  12. ^ Hobsbawm, Eric, and Terence Ranger, eds, The Invention of Tradition (Canto), (New York: Cambridge UP, 1992), 4.
  13. ^ Hobsbawm, Eric, and Terence Ranger, eds, The Invention of Tradition (Canto), (New York: Cambridge UP, 1992), 13.
  14. ^ White, p. 2.

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