Sword of the Beast:Rebel Samurai Cinema

Mirroring changes in awareness, politics, and lifestyle occurring across the globe, the chanbara (or Japanese swordplay film) underwent a significant metamorphosis in the early 1960s, acquiring a decidedly more radical spirit. Seemingly without warning, groundbreaking cinematic styles from beyond the Land of the Rising Sun suddenly melded together into one in-period genre brew. The gritty social conscience of the Italian neorealists, the downbeat nightmares of American film noir, the rage and energy of Britain’s angry-young-man school of kitchen-sink realism, and the often fractured, elliptical narrative approach of the French new wave—all were present and accounted for in the stark, thrilling samurai films of the sixties. These disparate influences, in combination with a volatile atmosphere of unrest and dissent, inspired a spontaneous combustion of creativity among a host of Japanese directors, resulting in a new kind of chanbara, and a new kind of samurai hero.

Although stories of wandering lone-wolf swordsmen and rogue samurai defying their clans had graced movie screens since the very origins of Japanese silent cinema, it was the conventional swordsman hero—the virtuous, duty-bound man of honor loyal to the status quo—that dominated chanbara cinema until well after World War II. The militaristic nationalism that pervaded Japanese culture in the 1930s and throughout the war found expression in correspondingly jingoistic celluloid hymns to the spirit of Bushido, the samurai code. Samurai film after samurai film extolled unquestioning service to the emperor and the laying down of one’s life for the nation. Due largely to the U.S. occupation following Japan’s surrender, in 1945, this approach to the samurai film began to change. Originally deemed to be too reminiscent of wartime Japan’s ultranationalist underpinnings, in-period motion pictures—particularly sagas featuring sword-wielding heroes—were actively discouraged and often prohibited, depending on the whims of the U.S. occupation censors. When the occupation forces lifted the ban on cinematic swordplay, in the early 1950s, chomping-at-the-bit Japanese studios dove back headfirst into samurai film production.

In the mid-1950s, movie ticket sales reached an all-time high in Japan. The industry was dominated by five studios—Toei, Daiei, Toho, Shintoho, and Shochiku. In sheer numbers, comparative newcomer Toei Studios led the pack, by devoting over half of their production schedule to action-packed swordfests. More so than the other studios (which were themselves no strangers to the tried, true, and sentimental), Toei made chanbara that were often filtered through a haze of cliché aimed at the family demographic. But, by the late fifties, more serious samurai pictures began slowly cropping up at Toei, from directors like Daisuke Ito, Tomu Uchida, and Tai Kato. Daiei Studios also had a huge roster of in-period films during the 1950s, from more prestigious, thoughtful jidai-geki pictures, such as Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1951), Teinosuke Kinugasa’s Gate of Hell (1953), and Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu (1954), to gritty chanbara from fresh-blood novices like Kenji Misumi, Kazuo Ikehiro, Kazuo Mori, and Tokuzo Tanaka. The decidedly mainstream Toho Studios and the financially challenged Shintoho—a company that had splintered off from Toho in the late forties—were no different, releasing scores of samurai pictures every year in the 1950s, with Toho releasing a host of Kurosawa films as well as sagas by Hiroshi Inagaki, director of the famous Samurai Trilogy (1954–55), with Toshiro Mifune as legendary swordsman Musashi Miyamoto. Many of the two studios’ films were great, straightforward pulp thrillers. Of special note was Tai Kato’s debut film as a director at Shintoho, the two-part Trouble with Swords, Trouble with Women (1951), a film that is so modern in style and pace it seems ten years ahead of its time. Shochiku Studios’ samurai cinema from the period was largely undistinguished, but Shochiku would occasionally produce a masterpiece out of nowhere, such as Tasdashi Imai’s Night Drum (1958), a harrowing depiction of the consequences of adultery for those of the samurai class.

Many leading directors of the 1950s had exhibited a willingness to explore a new realism in the chanbara film, but with the advent of the 1960s, samurai cinema suddenly started showing evidence of a major shift in perspective. Young directors who had been teenagers or even wet-nosed soldiers during World War II were suddenly given the opportunity to make movies. Their harrowing wartime experiences and fresh, bold attitudes toward Japan and its past had stripped away many illusions. Like many of those who flocked to the films, this newer generation of directors looked on Japan’s glorified history and nationalism, its current government leaders, the country’s swelling dog-eat-dog postwar capitalist economy, and its cozy, symbiotic relationship with the United States with cynicism, if not outright scorn. All through the 1960s, there were mass demonstrations and occasional student riots in the streets, with much of the protest aimed at Japan’s puppet status—a status affirmed, most notably, by America’s coercion of Japan in the signing of the controversial U.S.-Japan Security Treaty—and at repeated revelations of government corruption in the press.

Consequently, attitudes of disillusionment and a new commitment to realism began to creep into samurai films circa 1961. These same attitudes informed many other aspects of Japanese movie production, but, much like the American western, the samurai film proved to be the perfect vehicle for creating scenarios that engaged controversial, contemporary real-life events while escaping—thanks to the transposition of time period—censors or significant political repercussions. Undoubtedly inspired by Kurosawa’s groundbreaking Yojimbo (1961) and Sanjuro (1962), there was a newfound identification with lone-wolf antiheroes cast adrift by social upheaval and betrayed by the very tenets of Bushido, principles that they had once held dear. The protagonists of these new movies were frequently disenfranchised outcasts, characters viewed by authorities as transgressors dangerous to the status quo. No matter what the origins of these antiheroes, they had one thing in common—acute discontent. And these protagonists were not bashful about voicing their fury. Those old-fashioned, superhuman, unquestioning samurai of yore, glad to die for their clan—whether it be right or wrong—were suddenly and very noticeably absent from the big screen.

For these new, darker samurai films of the 1960s, filmmakers began to draw on a superabundance of correlative events and characters harking back more than 600 years in Japan’s history. Samurai had first appeared as early as AD 800, with the practice of hara-kiri (ritual suicide), emerging as early as 1200. Between 1467 and 1615 came the sengoku, or “warring states,” period, an epoch of mass civil war between samurai clans and rebel legions led by power-hungry warlords.

In 1615, the Tokugawa clan triumphed, at the Battle of Sekigahara, an event that forced many warriors, including young Musashi Miyamoto, to become ronin (masterless samurai). As the centuries progressed under the Tokugawa dynasty, there existed an uneasy but widespread time of peace among the clans. The Tokugawa shogunate ruled with an iron fist. Indeed, from the late 1600s until the mid-1800s, the all-powerful shogunate, headquartered in Edo (now known as Tokyo), gradually tightened the screws on the daimyo and raised taxes, provoking starving farmers to riot and causing various samurai clans to go bankrupt. This kind of viselike misrule ironically ended up eroding the shogunate’s authority and credibility, not just with the common people but also with the samurai class.

While the sengoku and Tokugawa periods were the traditional domain of the samurai film, the new breed of chanbara was dedicated to confronting the hypocrisy and injustices of these periods. This approach steadily acquired increased resonance for postwar audiences. Feeling increasingly exploited or marginalized—either by the military in the 1940s or by the ruthless, quickly mushrooming labor engine fueling Japan’s reconstruction in the 1950s (and its resulting economic boom in the 1960s)—more and more ordinary Japanese filmgoers began to identify with the plights of the disenfranchised characters on the big screen.

Over the nearly 250-year period of Tokugawa rule, thousands of samurai were cast adrift from their disbanded clans to wander aimlessly over the countryside. Many joined the emerging classes of artists and merchants. Some joined the incipient gangs of gamblers, peddlers, and ruffians that came to be known as yakuza. But others, particularly the more honorable and ethical, were thrown into dire poverty. (A conspicuous corollary to this condition came post–World War II, when thousands upon thousands of defeated, demoralized Japanese soldiers returned to bombed-out cities and engaged in a largely futile search for their vanished homes and gainful employment.) Nowhere is this dilemma more dramatically illustrated than in director Masaki Kobayashi’s desolate Harakiri (1962). Tatsuya Nakadai stars as a former high-ranking samurai living in poverty in seventeenth-century Japan who suddenly finds his life falling apart when his daughter (Shima Iwashita) and grandson become severely ill, and his desperate son-in-law is forced to commit hara-kiri after a failed attempt to extract money from a local samurai clan. Kobayashi, the director responsible for The Human Condition (1959–61), a sprawling three-part, nine-hour tale of a Japanese pacifist (Nakadai) in World War II–era Manchuria, had profoundly humanist leanings, much like his colleague and friend Kurosawa. In Harakiri, Kobayashi and screenwriter Shinobu Hashimoto dissect the cruelty and hypocrisy of the oppressive feudal mind-set with ruthless precision, building to a shattering climax.

In 1967, Kobayashi returned with another searing indictment of the tendency of the powerful to objectify and exploit human beings. Samurai Rebellion, starring Mifune and Nakadai, was the stunning result. Mifune plays a loyal, high-ranking retainer who accepts his lord’s dictate that the lord’s banished mistress marry his son. But when the monarch’s wife dies several years later, and the lord demands the woman’s return, Mifune and his son refuse, eliciting the wrath of his clan. Nakadai, a former comrade and rival, becomes one of Mifune’s prime opponents in the ensuing struggle. There are a number of intriguing aspects to Mifune’s character, but perhaps the most fascinating is that he is himself a member of the ruling class. Although a subordinate to his lord, he is a powerful, influential samurai. Like the character Nakadai plays in Harakiri, Mifune’s character is blithely unaware of the abuses of the samurai code until his own family is affected—and he knows his rebellious defiance of the ruling power will almost certainly result in his own destruction.

Meanwhile, over at Toei Studios, several directors were creating timely and topical samurai tapestries of vivid beauty and bone-crunching realism. In 1963, Eiichi Kudo directed Thirteen Assassins, the first of an evocative, loosely linked trio of jidai-geki about rebel samurai struggling to overthrow abusive lords. Kudo’s The Great Melee (1964), a thinly disguised in-period look at the squashing of the early 1960s student protest movement, and Eleven Samurai (1967) rounded out the trilogy. Tadashi Imai directed the superlative Tale of Bushido Cruelty (1963), an examination of the fundamentals of inhumanity behind the samurai code. In 1964, Tai Kato made Cruelty of the Shogunate’s Downfall, one of a multitude of pictures since the silent film era about the infamous Shinsengumi, a group of mid-nineteenth-century activist assassins bent on protecting the crumbling shogunate. Commonly referred to as the Full Metal Jacket of samurai films, Cruelty of the Shogunate’s Downfall is the finest, fiercest, and most poignant of the distinguished bunch, exposing the relentless numbing of the senses and hardening of the heart required to create human machines devoted to a single task—killing.

But Kobayashi was hardly alone in creating critical, socially conscious chanbara. Almost simultaneously, other directors were evoking a new mood in more realistic jidai-geki chronicles, sprinkled liberally with grueling bouts of swordplay. At Daiei Studios, the first two installments of the Ninja, Band of Assassins (1962–66) series, directed by ardent leftist Satsuo Yamamoto and starring Raizo Ichikawa, broke new ground not only by presenting historically accurate ninja stories but by doing it in an intoxicatingly noirish fashion. Many ninja films of the 1960s managed to infuse a timely sociopolitical subtext into the proceedings, but no director accomplished this delicate balance more effectively than Yamamoto, a filmmaker adept at depicting the machinations of those in power and their capacity to manipulate reality for their citizens, all in the service of blind loyalty to often empty ideals. Also at Daiei, directors Kenji Misumi and Kazuo Mori gave a realistic foundation to what was, in essence, a folk tale when they helmed the first and second installments, respectively, of the Zatoichi series—two stark, melancholy chanbara about a blind, gambling masseur who has learned swordsmanship to protect himself as well as those too weak to defend themselves. These first two entries exhibit much less humor than the long-running, crowd-pleasing series would gradually develop as it grew in popularity.

Despite their by and large weak offerings in the samurai film arena during the 1950s, Shochiku Studios suddenly took the lead in the early 1960s, competing head-to-head with Toho, Daiei, and Toei for top honors in the genre. Television producer and director Hideo Gosha, instrumental in the success of Fuji TV’s popular Three Outlaw Samurai show, was drafted by Shochiku to create a feature-length, theatrical film version of the chanbara drama. Gosha’s startlingly assured debut as a film director, Three Outlaw Samurai (1964), followed, starring Tetsuro Tanba, Isamu Nogato, and Mikijiro Hira as wandering ronin drawn in to helping impoverished farmers protest against unfair taxes. Gosha’s equally impressive Sword of the Beast (1965) followed on its heels, bringing back Hira as a rebel samurai on the run after being tricked into assassinating a clan minister in the name of reform. Pursued by the deceased man’s daughter and her fiancé, as well as other clan samurai, he takes refuge in a forbidden valley reserved for shogunate gold prospectors. There he encounters another low-ranking samurai (Go Kato) and his wife (Shima Iwashita), secretly mining gold for their own bankrupt clan. Before the swift film is over, Gosha not only puts on display some of the most amazing swordplay yet to grace Japanese movie screens, he also tears to shreds every single hypocritical tenet of the samurai code. Though Gosha exhibited no explicit political bent and was vocally opposed to including “messages” in his films, all of his productions—from these exhilarating early chanbara to later samurai gems like Goyokin (1969), Hitokiri (1969), Hunter in the Dark (1978), and Bandits vs. Samurai Squad (1979) to ninkyo yakuza epics like The Wolves (1971) and Oni-Masa (1982)—are savagely critical of established authority and bourgeois hypocrisy. Much like the work of Americans Anthony Mann and Sam Peckinpah, Gosha’s films reflect a rugged individualism bound up with personal honor and integrity, and a ferocious self-reliance in the face of overwhelming adversity.

Also at Shochiku Studios, Masahiro Shinoda, independent iconoclast and one of the exponents of the 1960s Japanese new wave, was turning out bleak, dissonant masterpieces, particularly the atypical yakuza drama Pale Flower (1963) and the jidai-geki magnum opuses Assassination (1964), Samurai Spy (1965), and Double Suicide (1969). Assassination is a fascinating, mazelike catalogue of flashbacks by various samurai examining the motivations of the mysterious real-life activist Kiyokawa (Tetsuro Tanba), a man originally devoted to restoring the emperor to power in the turbulent early 1860s. But his ostensible betrayal of the cause, in joining the opposing, pro-shogunate factions, sows doubt on both sides regarding his trustworthiness. Shinoda’s next film, Samurai Spy, is slightly less labyrinthine in structure, but no less complex, with a bounty of ninja characters, many based on real life. Koji Takahashi plays Sasuke Sarutobi, a fatalistic, thoughtful ninja in the late sengoku period who is disgusted with the betrayals and double-dealing he constantly encounters. Determined to remain loyal to his clan, he suddenly becomes a hunted man when he is the last to be seen with a duplicitous double agent (Rokko Toura). Alternately assisted, manipulated, and attacked by a rival superninja dressed in white (Tanba), Sarutobi struggles to achieve the simple goal of building a new life with the naive young Omiyo (Jitsuko Yoshimura). Through Samurai Spy’s shadowy world of triple crosses and false identities, Shinoda unpretentiously paints a picture of existential dread, occasionally lightened by bursts of absurdist humor. But Shinoda never forgets that his saga is first and foremost a chanbara genre thriller.

Finally, we come to renowned Toho Studios action director Kihachi Okamoto. Over his long career, Okamoto toiled in many genres, but he is best known for his samurai films of the 1960s, movies that swung between fast-moving swordplay, bumptious humor, and bleakest tragedy with deceptive ease. All his chanbara are supremely entertaining, including Warring Clans (1963), Samurai Assassin (1965), Red Lion (1969), and Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo (1970), but his most justly famous masterpieces are Sword Of Doom (1966) and Kill! (1968). For Sword Of Doom, master scenarist Shinobu Hashimoto was drafted to adapt the oft-filmed novel The Great Bodhisatva Pass, by Kaizan Nakazato. Okamoto’s resulting masterwork is one of his darkest pictures, with Nakadai giving a chilling performance as Ryunosuke Tsukue, a cold-bloodedly sociopathic swordsman who becomes briefly affiliated with the notorious Shinsengumi of the early 1860s. But Tsukue’s sojourn with the group is short-lived. Tracked by a young samurai (Yuzo Kayama) bent on avenging his brother, and sent over the brink after one murder too many, Tsukue succumbs to full-blown psychosis. The resulting madness climaxes in one of the most harrowing mass swordfights ever committed to celluloid. Kill!, on the other hand, represents a 180-degree turn. Although it is possessed of the same gritty, stark realism with regard to imagery and body count, the tone is decidedly comic. The versatile Nakadai once again stars, this time as a fatalistic ex-samurai-turned-wandering-yakuza who, along with a country-bumpkin swordsman played by Etsushi Takahashi, is drawn into helping a gullible band of young samurai who have been betrayed by a minister of their clan. What is so rewarding about Kill! is Okamoto’s expert balance of seemingly disparate elements. He walks a tightrope, skillfully juggling humorous moments, fierce swordplay, and more sober, dramatic sequences, all punctuated by Masaru Sato’s alternately whimsical and wistful score. It is an exhilarating example of Okamoto at his best; and, though it may be hard to recognize at first glance, Kill! is adapted from the same Shugoro Yamamoto source novel that inspired Kurosawa’s Sanjuro.

While at least two dozen great chanbara films (almost all of which feature rebel samurai of some stripe) were produced in the 1970s and beyond—the Lone Wolf and Cub movies and the final Zatoichi pictures are prime examples—samurai swordplay stories were relegated largely to episodic television by the late 1960s and throughout the following decade. A number of circumstances led to this gradual decline: Starting as early as the mid-1960s, the same iconoclastic attitude that had informed the abrasive, realistic chanbara also contributed to the surging popularity of the ninkyo (or chivalrous) yakuza film. This genre of in-period gangster movie, generally set between 1900 and 1930, enjoyed huge box office success. In turn, the ninkyo yakuza films were replaced, in the early 1970s, by the more brutal jitsuroku (or true account) postwar yakuza sagas. Both of these gangster subgenres resonated with audiences in the same way as the rebel samurai films, drawing on feelings of mass alienation, blue-collar angst, and fury towards governmental hypocrisy. To legions of lonely salarymen buying movie tickets, the burgeoning yakuza genre slowly became a more potent catharsis than the rebel samurai pictures. Unfortunately, an even stronger force was at work than the simple supplanting of one genre by another. Televisions had not been common in Japanese households until the early 1960s. But, by 1971, television had helped to erode box office returns to a catastrophic degree, causing the virtual bankruptcy of one major studio (Daiei) and the transformation of another (Nikkatsu) into a soft-core porn factory. Parents and children who might once have flocked to the latest samurai film at the neighborhood bijou were suddenly staying at home to watch episodic swordplay series on the small screen.

Thus, the era of the hardest-hitting outlaw samurai chanbara spanned little over a decade in Japanese moviehouses. Like many other periods of innovation and upheaval in national cinemas, it was born of a specific time and set of historical circumstances, its idioms and groundbreaking genre elements gradually diluted and assimilated into the mainstream. But for a brief and shining moment, these hard-boiled swordplay films were the thrilling bearers of new ideas and dissenting voices, producing some of the most exciting movies of the 1960s, or any other decade. It is a phenomenon we are not likely to see again—at least anytime soon.

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