Chanbara (チャンバラ), also commonly spelled “chambara”, meaning “sword fighting” movies, denotes the Japanese film genre called samurai cinema in English and is roughly equivalent to Western western (genre) and swashbuckler films. Chanbara is a sub-category of jidaigeki, which equates to period drama. Jidaigeki may refer to a story set in a 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 produced after 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. 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.
Historically, the genre is usually set during the Tokugawa era (1600-1868). The samurai film hence often focuses on the end of an entire way of life for the samurai: many of the films deal with masterless rōnin, 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.
Samurai Film Directors
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. His film Seven Samurai is one of the most important touchstones of the genre and the most well known outside 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.
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. He largely stopped making chambara, switching to the Yakuza genre, in the 1970s. Some of his most noted movies are Goyokin, Hitokiri, Sanbiki no Samurai and Kedamono no Ken (“Sword of the Beast”).
Kenji Misumi was active making samurai films from the 1950s to the mid 1970s. He directed roughly 30 films in the genre, including some the Lone Wolf and Cub films, and a number in the Zatoichi and Sleepy Eyes of Death series.
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.
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 were released in 2014.
Popular Characters in Samurai Films
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.
The Crimson Bat
Four movies about another blind character, Oichi a.k.a. “the Crimson Bat”, a female sword fighter, was made in response to the huge success of Zatoichi.
Nemuri Kyoshirō, the master of the Engetsu (“Full Moon Cut”) sword style, was a wandering “lone wolf” warrior plagued by the fact that he was fathered in less than honourable circumstance by a “fallen” Portuguese priest who had turned to worshipping Satan and a Japanese noblewoman whom he had seduced and raped as part of a Black Mass and who had committed suicide after Kyōshirō was born. As a result, Kyōshirō despised both Christianity (which he considered weak and hypocritical) and the shogunal government (which he considered corrupt).
A number of films were also made about Miyamoto Musashi, a famed historical warrior and swordsman, including a three-movie series about his life starring Toshiro Mifune and a six-movie series about his life starring Yorozuya Kinnosuke.
Lone Wolf and Cub
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 six-film series starring Wakayama Tomisaburo as Ogami Itto and a live action television series called Kozure Ōkami (1973-1976) starring actor Yorozuya Kinnosuke as Ogami Ittō.
Sanjuro, played by Toshiro Mifune, is the wandering ronin character who acts as a yojimbo (bodyguard) in two of Kurosawa’s films, Yojimbo and Sanjuro. In both films, 三十郎 Sanjuro (a proper given name but which can also be interpreted as meaning “thirty-years-old”) makes up a different surname (桑畑 Kuwabatake which means “mulberry field”, and 椿 Tsubaki which means “camellia”), thus leading some to label the character as a “ronin with no name”, in reference to the Man with No Name character who was directly inspired by Yojimbo and portrayed by Clint Eastwood in Sergio Leone’s “Dollars Trilogy” of spaghetti Western films.
Mifune later played analogous roles in two films released in 1970, the Zatoichi film Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo (as 佐々大作 Sasa Daisaku), and Incident at Blood Pass (as 鎬刀三郎 Shinogi Tōzaburō = “ridges on a sword” Tozaburo), the two 1972-1974 TV series Ronin of the Wilderness and Yojimbo of the Wilderness (as 峠九十郎 Tōge Kujūrō = “Mountain pass” Kujuro), the 1975 TV series The Sword, the Wind, and the Lullaby (as 砦十三郎 Toride Jūzaburō = “Fortress” Juzaburo), the 1976 TV series Ronin in a Lawless Town (as ミスターの旦那 Misutā no Danna = “Mister customer”), the 1981 TV movie series The Lowly Ronin (as 春夏秋冬 Shunka Shūtō = “Spring-Summer Autumn-Winter”), and the 1983 TV movie The Secret of Cruel Valley (as 素浪人 Surōnin = “Lowly ronin”).
The Bored Hatamoto
“Bored Hatamoto” Saotome Mondonosuke (also known in English as “The Idle Vassal” and “The Crescent-Scarred Samurai”), was a hatamoto or direct vassal of Shogun Tsunayoshi, whose ‘crescent-scar’ on his forehead signifies his right to kill in the name of the shogun and rid Japan of corruption and evil. Saotome craves action to fight the boredom he feels when not pitting his sword skill against those who would corrupt Japan. The character was famously played by Utaemon Ichikawa on film 30 times from 1930-1963 and in a 25 episode TV series from 1973-1974, by Takeo Nakamura in a TV series from 1959-1960, by Hideki Takahashi in a TV series from 1970-1971, by Mikijiro Hira in a 1983 TV movie, and by Kin’ya Kitaōji (Ichikawa’s son, who also appeared with his father in some of the films) in 9 made-for-TV movies from 1988-1994 and in a 10 episode TV series in 2001.
Tange Samanosuke, a Sōma clan samurai, is attacked and mutilated as a result of betrayal, losing his right eye and right arm, and becomes a nihilistic ronin, using the pseudonym “Sazen”. He has been played in numerous films by Denjirō Ōkōchi (大河内傳次郎, Ōkōchi Denjirō), Tsumasaburō Bandō, Ryūtarō Ōtomo, Ryūnosuke Tsukigata, Kinnosuke Nakamura, and Tetsurō Tanba
Himura Kenshin is the protagonist of the Rurouni Kenshin manga series created by Nobuhiro Watsuki. Kenshin is a former legendary assassin known as “Hitokiri Battōsai” (see below). 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 films adapting the story (Rurouni Kenshin, Rurouni Kenshin: Kyoto Taika-hen and Rurouni Kenshin: Densetsu no Saigo-hen) directed by Keishi Ōtomo.
- The term refers to an assassin and translates as “man-slayer”.
- Within the Rurouni Kenshin universe “Battōsai” refers to someone who has mastered battōjutsu.
- Assassins during the bakumatsu adopted professional names; for instance Kawakami Gensai was known as Hitokiri Gensai.
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 honour followed to honour the samurai’s leader. A samurai must perforce be skilled in warfare and martial arts and ready to defend his honour even to his death. If not able to defend his honour, 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 behaviour is to maintain honour 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 of the samurai in that certain period. For instance the Sengoku period (1478-1603) saw Japan torn by civil war as daimyō warlords fought for control of land. In the Tokugawa period (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 period (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 ninjō and giri conflict. Ninjō 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 behaviour. 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 (2003), 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 samurai warrior is often synonymous with his or her own sword. Although swordsmanship is an important aspect of warfare, idealising the samurai and the sword as having a bond is an invented ideal, although it is popularised 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.
Influence on Western Cinema
Initially early samurai films were influenced by the still growing Western film genre before and during World War II. Since then both genres have had a healthy impact on one another. Two forefathers of the genre, Akira Kurosawa and Masaki Kobayashi, were influenced by American film directors such as John Ford.
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 modelled 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). 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 (2003), the story being loosely based on the true historical French officer Jules Brunet assisting Japanese samurai in rebellion against the Emperor.