Introduction and Statement of Style
Period Dramas & Swordplay

Seven Samurai “Cham, cham, chambara! He is cut! He is stabbed! The blood galore! The blood galore!”

— Children's sing-song chant, Vengeance for Sale

When I tell someone about my great passion for Japanese cinema, the simplest and quickest way for me get it across is to say that I love samurai movies. That's fairer than saying I'm a fan of all Japanese movies in general. I'm really not so interested in the anime, yakuza, "J-horror" and Godzilla monster genres that Americans would most readily associate with Japan. But I do like other kinds of Japanese movies besides historical dramas with samurai in them. My tastes run toward the more obscure and artsy reaches of Japanese cinema that aren't so well known, including contemporary dramas and comedies by the likes of Yasujiro Ozu, Mikio Naruse and Juzo Itami. No doubt samurai movies are my favorite exports from Japan -- it's just that kimonos and katanas aren't a mandatory requisite in my book.

I say this not because I'm ashamed of samurai movies and want to cloak them among more "respectable" Japanese movies. I say it in the interest of accuracy. In order to get really specific about my favorite kinds of Japanese movies, I'm afraid it's going to be necessary to break out some high-falutin' film geek vocabulary.

But before I roll out the definitions of jidai-geki and chambara, let's take a minute to consider the connotations of that generic term, "samurai movies." The fact is that most people in the western world have very little knowledge about what that means, let alone the fancy Japanese terminology. Those having basic familiarity with foreign films probably know about Akira Kurosawa. The more eclectic film fan might have seen Hiroshi Inagaki's Samurai trilogy, or the action series of Zatoichi or Lone Wolf and Cub. Beyond that, the vast realm of samurai cinema is virtually unknown among the general public in my country.

Of course, that doesn't stop them from thinking they know about samurai movies. When I mention my interest, invaribly there's one familiar touchstone that they can reach for: "Oh yeah, I remember that one movie where Tom Cruise played the samurai. That was awesome!" Or, if they're a little older, they might recall the Shogun TV miniseries. In response, I can just smile and explain that those don't count. Those are American productions starring white guys interacting with the Japanese for the benefit of English-speaking audiences. For most people the idea of watching an authentic samurai film made in Japan with an all-Japanese cast in the Japanese language is, well, totally foreign.

Some are apt to overlook the distinction that the samurai were of Japanese origin or simply choose to mix all of Asian cinema together in one big bucket. They're likely to equate samurai movies to martial arts movies and the realm of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan. This confusion can lead to a sort of condescending dismissal of samurai movies as junk culture artifacts, based on the stereotypes of poorly dubbed kung-fu flicks with ridiculous and super-fake fight scenes. I suppose you could broadly classify samurai movies as martial arts films. In fact, at retailers like Best Buy, you can find Kurosawa classics shelved alongside Hong Kong chop-socky flicks in the inauspicious ghetto of the "Martial Arts" section. It's an indignity borne of the marketing necessity to shove every inventory item into some recognizable box.

On a more artistically suitable level, but still geographically confused, people might point to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon when I mention samurai movies. At least here they're thinking in terms of arthouse cinema, intelligent drama and beautiful cinematography. We can thank Ang Lee for showing the masses that films involving swordplay in historical settings of the Far East can be perfectly respectable -- not to mention his amazing feat of convincing Americans to sit through two hours of subtitles. But obviously the Chinese wuxia genre represents an entirely different tradition than Japan's historical dramas. It's culturally ignorant to lump them all together as the fightin' Orientals.

But really, it's no wonder the unique identity of samurai movies is so badly misunderstood in our mainstream society. Not only are the movies practically invisible, but the history and the legends behind them are practically unknown. Before we can know something about samurai movies, first we need to know something about the samurai.

The Inevitable Boring History Section

I don't want to dwell on some long history lecture, because I'm no historian and I don't want to bore you to death with a bunch of dates and facts that I'll probably get wrong anyway. But I think the best way to move forward is to cover some basic details about the history of the samurai and their place in Japanese cinema, very briefly and in very simplified terms. Please bear with me. I'll try to make this quick and painless.

The Samurai The samurai were the caste of warrior nobility in Japan for about a thousand year, from about the 9th century to the late 1800s. The samurai were also known as the bushi, which means "warrior," as compared to the word samurai which more specifically means "servant." This definition stresses the key importance of the samurai's loyal service as a retainer to his lord. A samurai was willing to die for his lord at a moment's notice, and would commit suicide to atone for dishonor or failure through the well-known ritual of harakiri or seppuku.

The conduct of the samurai was governed by a loosely organized but widely accepted conglomeration of principles described as the bushido code or the "way of the samurai." These were lofty ideals concerning proper etiquette, defending the honor of one's clan and upholding general virtues and righteousness. But the reality of the situation was that the lord of a samurai was the boss, period. If the lord issued at order that ran contrary to bushido ethics, so be it. And there were plenty of corrupt lords more dedicated to their selfish ambitions than honor and decency. So there was a lot of cynicism and hypocrisy to be found amid the supposedly noble order of the samurai, a state of contradiction between giri (official duty) and ninjo (personal morality).

During the era of feudal Japan from the 12th century through the early 17th century, also known as the Sengoku era, the country was divided up among a large number of warlords who continually battled each other for land and power, so there were always plenty of wars to keep samurai occupied. This situation changed radically when the Tokugawa shogunate succeeded in uniting all of Japan under one regime. During the 260 years of the Tokugawa era, Japan was at peace and isolated from the rest of the world, and many of the clans from feudal times were abolished and disbanded.

This left vast numbers of samurai unemployed and purposeless. If he didn't choose to commit seppuku and couldn't find a gainful position as a retainer for a different lord, a samurai became a ronin, a "man on the waves" or masterless samurai. There had been ronin all throughout the history of the samurai, but Tokugawa-era Japan was overrun with them. Ronin may have found honest work as martial arts instructors, farmers or menial laborers, or they could abandon morality and become marauding bandits, hired muscle or bodyguards (a.k.a. yojimbo) in yakuza gangs, or assassins for hire.

In the aftermath of the Meiji Restoration of the late 19th century, the four divisions of Japanese society were abolished, and the former castes of samurai, artisans, merchants and farmers became equal citizens under the law. People could still point to samurai lineage as a matter of family pride and cultural heritage, but the samurai officially no longer existed. Practically right at this same time, the arrival of a new technology ushered Japan into another era of a different kind. The motion picture camera was set to change the world, and the Japanese were among the first to develop its implementation in the telling of stories.

Just the age of the samurai drew to a close, the age of jidai-geki was born.

Jidai-geki. Period.

Dramatic Japanese cinema can be broken down into two broad categories: gendai-geki (dramas set in contemporary times) and jidai-geki (period dramas). Though it's a highly and important useful term, the precise meaning of jidai-geki can be a contentious issue. For the purposes of my discussion, I will use the generally accepted definition that classifies any Japanese period film set before 1868 (the end of the Tokugawa shogunate and the dawn of modern Japan) as jidai-geki. A Japanese movie set in the more recent past, such as a World War II drama, is not considered jidai-geki.

Jidai-Geki Of course, the presence of the samurai looms heavily in the annals of jidai-geki, with their conflicts and action-packed adventures making superb fodder for filmmaking. Japan's first silent movies were largely adapted from kabuki theater and traditional folk tales, which included lots of samurai stories. Since the samurai are so central to the popular conception of Japanese history, and a number of samurai movies have come to be regarded as top classics of Japanese cinema, sometimes people use the terms jidai-geki and "samurai movies" interchangeably. Though jidai-geki remains mostly an obscure film-school term, it has gained some minor currency as the phonetic inspiration for George Lucas in coining the name Jedi Knights. Movie fans trying to act like they're "in the know" might inaccurately state that jidai-geki is a fancy word that means samurai movies.

In fact, that would be like suggesting that period films set in American history are all known as westerns. Or it might be a more precise analogy to imagine someone saying that westerns are equivalent to cowboy movies. We freely associate cowboys and western movies, but in fact the majority of westerns lack cattle ranchers and wranglers as key protagonists. Westerns are likely to feature gunslingers, lawmen, bandits and non-ranching settlers, with nary an actual cowboy in sight. Similarly, a great many jidai-geki films have nothing to do with samurai, or feature them only peripherally. The movies might be about lords and nobility or struggling peasants instead of samurai. Most of the great works of Kenji Mizoguchi are jidai-geki that would not be classified as samurai movies.

So we have another, more specific Japanese term used to identify the large and popular subcategory of jidai-geki movies that involve swordplay and action scenes, and that word is chambara. Sometimes alternately romanized as chanbara, the label originated as onomatopoeia mimicking the chan-chan, bara-bara sound of swords clashing together.

Far from being a junk product of modern culture, chambara boasts a proud heritage that dates back to ancient kabuki dramas and bunraku puppet theater featuring dramatizations of swordfights. Some of the earliest silent films in Japan were primitive chambara with ornately choreographed, balletic fight scenes as well as chaotic Keystone Cops-style melees. Samurai films reached new heights of maturity and sophistication in the 1960s, and many of us fans like to describe that period as the golden age of chambara.

One further Japanese phrase that's found its way into international film critic vernacular is the suffix -eiga, meaning "film," which is used in compound words to indentify bunches of different movie genres. Yakuza-eiga are movies about gangsters and gamblers (which are further classified as matatabi-eiga for wandering yakuza and ninkyo-eiga for chivalrous yakuza); kaiju-eiga are monster movies (including the likes of Godzilla, Rodan and Mothra); pinku-eiga are softcore pornography and exploitation films (including the popular "pinky violence" action movies); jishu-eiga are low-budget independent films; and so on. Sometimes people talk about samurai-eiga and chambara-eiga, but it's more common just to say chambara.

Championing Chambara

I find chambara a wonderfully valuable label because it gives a name to my favorite kind of jidai-geki that's more accurate than "samurai movies." But the same misappropriation has befallen the word chambara as happens with jidai-geki. People mistakenly construe chambara as being synonymous for samurai movies, which badly dilutes the specific meaning of the term. There certainly are samurai films with little or no swordfighting that shouldn't be called chambara. And conversely, there are tons and tons of chambara in which the protagonists are not samurai. The most sterling example of this is the Zatoichi series, in which the hero is a blind masseur and yakuza gambler who is also a skilled swordsman. Zatoichi is the further thing in the world from being a samurai, but his films definitely share a kinship with the other great swordplay films of the '60s and '70s. The word chambara gives us a shorthand to unite these works, whether they are "samurai movies" or not.

Unfortunately, some people can't manage to use the terms chambara and jidai-geki properly in conjunction with one another. It seems that when we have two exotic terms to describe exotic things, we have a natural tendency to put them in diametric opposition, whether it's warranted or not. This could account for the common misconception that there are two kinds of samurai movies: jidai-geki and chambara. This false dichotomy is founded upon more than the presence or absence of swordfighting in a given movie. More often it's used to perpetrate a pernicious value judgment of "serious artistic films" vs. "crude action movies."

You can imagine how this lazy line of thinking would come about. Jidai-geki can include non-samurai subject matter and storylines that are more about character development, quiet drama and classicism. Chambara tend to be more action-oriented, with the capacity for giant battles, severed limbs and geysers of gushing blood. To oversimply the distinction further:

Jidai-geki: Traditional Respectable Arty Boring
Chambara: Exploitational Commercial Trashy   Exciting

In this case, it's not just uninformed newbies on Internet message boards and blogs making the faulty assertions. You'll find professional critics and scholars who know all the proper definitions and have watched the key films and yet contribute to this prejudice against chambara.

It's especially unfair because not only do chambara have the capacity to be as sophisticated as any other kind of jidai-geki, but because the fighting in chambara is generally more refined than the violence in the typical action movie. The essence of chambara is swordfighting, which requires two or more skilled opponents who have trained to master their art. A swordsman murdering unarmed victims isn't chambara, and clueless brutes slinging swords at each other wouldn't count either. Dueling with swords is recognized by cultures around the world as the height of chivalrous combat, a way for gentlemen of honor to settle a dispute. The opponents can only strike at close range, face to face, blow for blow, without the option of keeping a safe distance that firearms provide. Any idiot or coward can pull a trigger, but it takes valiant skill to challenge a foe with a sword.

So in fundamental terms, one could argue that chambara exist on a level above slasher movies, gangster movies or modern war movies, where the violence tends to be more impersonalized, mechanized and random. Chambara can certainly wallow in the muck with the most depraved exploitation movies, as the blood-soaked excesses of the 1970s proved, but still the genre has its basis in a tradition of honor. There's something undeniably cool about the spectacle of steel blades clashing together, and that dash of archaic elegance is a big part of it.

When you watch an excellent swordfight scene, you're admiring not only the prowess of the characters but the talents of the actors, stuntmen and fight coordinators as well. Realistic sword combat is not an easy thing to simulate for the cameras. The great chambara classics were accomplished long before the age of digital effects, so it makes you wonder how often the actors and doubles must have gotten seriously injured by all that flying metal.

At any rate, we've ended up with jidai-geki and chambara as our two primary "expert" labels for describing samurai-type movies from Japan. Jidai-geki divides movies set in the samurai era from movies set in modern times, and chambara separates swordplay movies from other jidai-geki without fighting. Provided they're used correctly as intersecting terms instead of mutually exclusive categories, and without dismissive condescension, they are extremely useful above and beyond facilitating one's ability to sound like a pretentious movie nerd.

Of Ronin and Retainers

As infinitely complex and diverse as jidai-geki movies are, there are endless other criteria you could use to categorize them than whether they have swordfights in them or not. In particular, there's another major distinction I find helpful in regard to these films, and I wish there was a handy term to describe it. Maybe the Japanese have the words for it and I just haven't learned them yet.

In my estimation, there's a fundamental divide between movies about actual samurai and movies about ronin. A great many of the jidai-geki commonly described as samurai films would be more accurately described as ronin films. Just look at the Samurai trilogy, which is entirely concerned with Musashi Miyamoto's training as a wandering ronin before he later became a hired samurai. Or Seven Samurai, which wouldn't have been quite the same had it borne the more literal title Five Ronin, One Student and a Crazy-Ass Farmer.

Seven Samurai As Kurosawa famously observed after exploring story ideas that ultimately led to Seven Samurai being about a gang of indigent outcasts, the average actual employed samurai isn't all that interesting a figure. The samurai were merely servants, after all, existing only to serve their master, defend the honor of the clan and do as they were told. Effective protagonists in drama generally need to possess and act upon some measure of free will, which is an attribute that samurai retainers are generally lacking. When the hero of a movie is an official samurai, he's likely to be positioned at some extreme in the pecking order: he could be a lord who's making decisions and ordering other samurai around, or he could be an underling frustrated by his servitude to the point of taking rebellious action. Those are viable ways to create dramatic interest from a character trapped within the rigidly regimented confines of the samurai life.

But with ronin, you've got no such problem. The very concept of the ronin is fraught with dramatic possibilities. He used to be a samurai, but now he's not. Why? How did he end up that way? Did he get expelled from his clan for some reason? Was his master killed? What about a vendetta for revenge? How is the ronin handling his fall from the elite social class into disgrace? Why is he still wandering around instead of choosing to kill himself like a dishonored samurai is supposed to do? With all these questions springing to mind and juicy scenarios presenting themselves, it only makes sense that so many samurai movies are about ronin. The ronin gives the filmmaker a far greater range of freedom to explore the nature of the samurai and its inherent contradictions like the giri/ninjo conflict.

There's a distinctive flavor in the great chambara films that followed in the wake of 1961's Yojimbo, an element of iconoclasm and smart social commentary that makes them much more than simple-minded action flicks. I think if you break it down, you find that the presence of ronin characters and their attendant conflicts is the secret sauce that makes chambara taste like chambara, just as much if not more than the ingredient of swordplay. Any jidai-geki movie with a lot of dueling and battle in it is probably going to involve ronin to some degree or another. Even the yakuza and ninja varieties of chambara tend to feature the occasional ronin guest star and deal with similar issues of disenfranchisement and betrayal.

Maybe we need some kind of differentiator like ronin-eiga to capture the unique character of ronin movies, instead of misapplying chambara to do the job. Some experts have adopted the term "anti-samurai movies" to describe those jidai-geki (generally but not always featuring ronin) that deflate the heroic samurai myth with a political activist viewpoint. That's a pretty good term, though it can be awkward to put into use. I've just proven how long it takes to correctly explain what samurai movies are, and I don't need the headache of following that up with "...and the anti-samurai ones are the best!" I'd rather just say I'm a huge jidai-geki fan, and '60s chambara with ronin are my favorites.

And now you know what that means.

San: A Fistful of Ryo
Pursuing these films in the English-speaking world.

The Jidai-Geki Knights