Shi: Ask the Sword
You have been lining up logic, but what words do you seek from my mouth?|
Then what is your ultimate goal through that sword?
You are persistent! If you must know, ask the sword!
Musashi Miyamoto and Kichijiro Hayashi, Musashi Miyamoto 4: Duel at Ichijoji Temple
When it comes to art and entertainment, I am without question an elitist and a cultural snob, and damned proud of it. My appreciation of popular culture has always been governed by the wisdom of Sturgeon's Law, which states that ninety percent of everything is crud. This goes for everything: movies, music, television, books, comics, video games, fast food, porn, you name it. It's your challenge and your responsibility to seek out the small amount of meritorious works while avoiding as much of the crud as possible.
Consequently, I've never been much of a follower of genres and broad classifications of popular entertainment. If you blindly consume everything that falls under a given genre that appeals to you in general, I believe you're just setting yourself up to suffer large volumes of specific disappointment.
In this way I'm unlike many of my fellow film geeks with a taste for non-mainstream fare, who tend to harbor Tarantino-style predilections towards their chosen pet genres, be they horror or spaghetti westerns, French new wave cinema or anime. Not me. Since I'm a Star Wars nut, people are always assuming I must love "sci-fi." In fact, there are absolutely no science fiction/fantasy movies in my all-time top 25 other than the Star Wars series, and I have no interest in stuff like Babylon 5 or Battlestar Galactica.
I've always had eclectic tastes driven by my favored artists rather than their chosen subject matter. When I come across a movie I like, I try to identify the directors, writers and actors and seek out more of their work. When I watch a movie that sucks, I add those responsible to my shit list and take efforts to avoid them. This "auteur" system has worked pretty well for me over the years. I used to look down on those people who would indiscriminately consume any old vampire movie or kung-fu flick dangled before them, just because they "liked those kinds of movies." That phenomenon never made any sense to me. The kind of movies I like are good movies, which you can't slap a label on and sell in bulk containers like a drum of Sam's Club mayonnaise. Genre worship is for losers.
Or so said the old D. Trull. if you've read this far, you know I've had to change my tune. I've fallen utterly head-over-heels crazy for jidai-geki films, finally having a genre to call my own. This is a whole new world for me. In the whole of popular entertainment, including movies, music, books and television, samurai movies are the first and only genre immune to Sturgeon's Law. In my humble opinion, of course.
Sure, I have a few clunkers in my collection. There are some with campy swordfighting and stuntwork, and some with incomprehensibly complicated or improbable plotlines, and some with uninspired retellings of familiar Japanese folklore that didn't need to be recycled that one extra time. They can't all be classics. But I'm to the point of compulsion that I even like owning the bad movies, because there'll be some favorite character actor in a supporting role, or some historical reference or storytelling quirk that adds to my bank of genre familiarity. It's sort of like what they say about sex or pizza: even when jidai-geki is bad, it's still pretty good.
Thus far I've spent a lot of time explaining what jidai-geki and chambara are, how I got interested in them, and where you can find them. But I haven't said a whole lot about why I'm a fan. So now it's time to tackle that fundamental question: Why samurai movies? What is it that makes jidai-geki films so uniformly fascinating to me?
You'll always hear film scholars and critics rolling out the same stock answers regarding the genre's appeal: the tragic underpinnings of a chivalrous order of knights that history eventually makes obsolete; the samurai's giri/ninjo conflict of formal duty vs. personal morality; the ronin as the archetypal antihero. Not to mention the visceral thrills of seeing dudes slashing at each other – and occasionally their own bellies – with these big long sharp knives.
No doubt, all of the above are important elements that contribute to making samurai movies so cool. But honestly, I believe those are the easy answers, the lazy answers, the kind of stuff you can find by the bucketload with a Google search for "samurai film criticism." I want to dig deeper to spell out some of the more personal and fundamental reasons for my involvement in this particular corner of world cinema.
First off, I've always been drawn to things that are different, things that are obscure and unpopular. Most people seem to seek comfort and community in liking whatever everybody else likes, but something in my psychological makeup compels me to go a different way. I use a Mac, my favorite singer is Paul Weller, and the only pro sport I like is hockey. I prefer to find my own shit that only an exclusive club of other people knows about. When you go looking around for sources of great art and pop culture that the general public chooses to spurn and ignore, one obvious place to start is foreign movies. Even better, old foreign movies from about forty or fifty years ago. With subtitles.
"I want to watch a movie, not read a movie," goes the howl of the subtitle-allergic American masses. I believe the real obstacle posed by subtitles is that they force you to give a movie your undivided attention. We've become accustomed to predigested fare where you can put your brain in neutral and surf the Internet or goof around while the movie plays in the background. Subtitles force you to put other distractions aside and fully engage yourself, which many of us don't have the patience for. The alternative is a dubbed track that tosses out all the actors' meaningful inflections and makes Joe Six-Pack laugh at the rib-tickling absence of lip-sync, so you can't win. I think one reason I've never had a problem with subtitles is that I've been reading comics my whole life, which develops the ability to process words and images at the same time. Except in really intense scenes that might require a rewind and a pause, I can generally absorb the entire screen as a unit of information the same way some people can speed-read a book.
So yes, I am predisposed to like foreign movies because they're foreign. And yet that alien quality is a sword that cuts both ways (pun not yet intended). To enjoy a movie or any other creative work, I have to be able to connect with it readily and access its intended messages with some degree of success. I may have a higher than average threshold for difficult movies that challenge the viewer, but I admit that I get easily frustrated with films that I can't understand. That, reasonably enough, is the main barrier that keeps people away from foreign movies, even worse than the subtitles and all that: the fear that you won't know what the hell's going on.
If you regard a foreign movie as a puzzle to be solved, you could measure its worth by how well you understand it. That may be a superficial judgment but it's a valid one nonetheless. A film might be the Citizen Kane of its native land, but if it's incomprehensible to the foreign viewer who lacks necessary knowledge about its indigenous context and content, it's not going to have much value as an export.
I've watched a lot of foreign movies and had mixed results. Sometimes it's a profoundly memorable experience, sometimes it's mediocre, and sometimes it's a wretched bore where I'm left bewildered and uninvolved, if I can keep from switching it off before the end. Even among the greatest names in world cinema, it can be a hit-or-miss proposition for me. I adore 8 1/2 and The Seventh Seal, but none of the other Fellini or Bergman films I've seen have proven quite as magical for me.
On the other hand, I've had a far more solidly consistent track record with movies from Japan. No doubt, they can be totally confusing at times and I'm often oblivious to the cultural and historical references, and yet I'm able to connect with these movies in some way that pulls me through the difficulties of translation.
I just love the look, the sound and the feel of Japanese cinema. I savor the tones and the rhythms, the elegant visual composition, the storytelling styles that have both borrowed from and influenced and Western films, and the many elements that bear no relationship at all to Hollywood. I even love the sound of the Japanese language. At the risk of damaging my street cred among the arthouse crowd, I have to admit that vocalizations in some languages like French, German or Mandarin can start to grate on my ears through the course of a subtitled feature. But somehow I never get tired of hearing the staccato flow of spoken Japanese.
I've seen and heard so many of these movies that I'm beginning to learn some basics of the language. My favorite Japanese word is "Nani?" (emphasis on the second syllable), which means "What?" Whenever a samurai is offended, surprised or confused, odds are that the next thing out of his mouth will be "Nani?" Other phrases I've picked up include the popular "so ka" or "ah, so desu ka" (meaning "I see"), "yosh!" ("okay!"), "baka" ("fool") and "wo katta" ("I understand"), the last of which I first learned from Uma Thurman in Kill Bill. If I keep absorbing through osmosis, maybe someday I'll be able to start doing without the subtitles.
I don't mean to oversimplify the artistic output of an entire nation or suggest that there is one common flavor inherent in every Japanese movie. But through my exposure to a huge number of Japanese movies, my experience has resulted in a set of expectations about the qualities that make them very different from western movies. Every time I sit down to watch another Japanese movie, I have the opportunity to develop and enrich that set of expectations. It's been a deeply rewarding experience.
Anachronism Aphasia and The Captain Kirk Effect
As an American in the 21st century watching jidai-geki films made over the past 60 years, I feel like a cultural archeologist. I am removed from these artistic artifacts not only in terms of nationality, geography, ethnicity and linguistics, but also by two separate degrees of history: the stories are set centuries ago, and the classic films were produced decades ago. I have to interpret the historical Japan in which the samurai had their exploits, as well as the more recent – though similarly exotic – Japan in which the directors and actors worked back before I was born. A majority of the people involved in the production of the classic jidai-geki I watch today are now sadly dead.
To illustrate the temporal and cultural dissonance I'm talking about, consider the experience of watching an episode of the original Star Trek. It's supposed to be in the future, but the art direction, special effects and hairstyles clearly betray to contemporary American viewers that the program is an artifact of the 1960s. Now imagine a foreigner with no frame of reference for 20th century American fashions and entertainment production standards who watches the adventures of Kirk and Spock. To this outsider, the actual past and fictional future would blend together into a conglomeration of general weirdness, which would seem more cohesive and believable to him than through our jaded eyes.
This is akin to how I experience an old jidai-geki movie. I'm intellectually aware that it's only a rough approximation of ancient Japan produced in recent decades. But I don't have the cultural background to distinguish fully between the two eras. When I note a particularly foreign trait or behavior on displayed, I can't be certain whether it's an accurate reflection of the historical period, or if it's more of a contemporary element showing the filmmaking and social trends in Japan in the 1950s or '60s. Sometimes I can make an educated guess based on past experiences, but most of the time I can't answer those questions for sure.
There are lots of fans who approach jidai-geki as experts in Japanese history, and they possess the know-how to easily separate historical fact from mythology and anachronism. They can dissect a chambara film the way a grad student would analyze Russian literature or Celtic folklore for a doctoral thesis. I admire and respect those fans, but that's not where I'm coming from.
The truth is, like the song says, I don't know much about history – and it's really not my concern. Despite the fact that I've ended up writing my own sort of dissertation on the subject, jidai-geki is entertainment for me, and not a scholarly pursuit. I think some of the history-oriented fans can be such sticklers for accuracy that they ruin their enjoyment of a good movie. I actually like being the foreign Star Trek newbie who can't discern how dated William Shatner's sideburns are. Knowledge is good, but a little ignorance can be bliss.
Which raises this question: since I'm not particularly interested in history, why would I be so fanatical about historical dramas? For that I have a simple answer. I don't like history but I love mythology. Jidai-geki in general, and especially samurai movies, are more heavily founded upon mythology than history.
Myth or Logical?
I hate to break it to the history buffs, but none of us living today can know for sure what life was like back in the Sengoku era or during the Tokugawa shogunate. We can't say exactly what did or didn't happen. We can gather evidence and study records, but at the end of the day, history is just a bunch of guesses. So no motion picture is ever going to capture history with accuracy, since no one's totally sure what "accurate" is. Movies are myth.
This doesn't have to be seen as a shortcoming of cinema – in fact, it's a monumental strength. We only have to understand historical drama as a vehicle for creative expression as opposed to documentary. To return to the accessibility of foreign films I was discussing earlier, I would argue that historical foreign films are easier for outsiders to understand than contemporary ones. In a movie with a modern-day setting, the filmmakers and the native audience belong to an exclusive club. They both inhabit the world being depicted onscreen and share a set of assumptions and understandings. In a historical film (or fantasy, or science fiction, for that matter), the creators and participants are all cast beyond their everyday sphere of existence and set loose in a different world built on myth and imagination. A viewer from another country who comes to the party is therefore on more of an equally disoriented footing with everyone else.
On a mythological level, jidai-geki tap into universal themes and stories that transcend cultural barriers. They become accessible to open-minded viewers from anywhere around the globe without requiring prior knowledge and scholarship. Knowing about the pertinent historical facts and events can enhance one's appreciation of the story's context and significance, but generally you won't be completely clueless if you have only a vague impression of who the samurai were.
I certainly don't mean to trivialize Japanese history, but I think it's fair to observe that samurai cinema creates a sort of mythological world that's comparable to the fictional realms of J.R.R. Tolkein or C.S. Lewis, or even Star Wars and Star Trek. There are a great many people who devote themselves to studying and cataloging the histories of Hobbits or Klingons, although they have no interest in conducting similar examinations of the non-fictional past. I think there's nothing inherently wrong with this, and it's unfair to dismiss such people as nerds who need to get a life.
Specifically because it's more defined and restricted that history, mythology by its nature is more comforting and knowable. History has the significant advantage of being based on reality, but that also makes it messier and less certain. The details of history are infinitely complex and subject to debate, and ultimately quite intimidating.
On the other hand, with something like The Lord of the Rings or the Star Wars saga, you've got a complete milieu defined by a finite number of works that you can definitively master. These mythologies create whole cultures and histories that are pleasurable to study and enjoy, and it's not only about escapism and "being transported to another world." They satisfy our human need for myths and storytelling that helps us understand life and the world around us in a deeper way that history alone can teach us.
The same sort of attraction is also present in jidai-geki movies. They present variations on Japanese history that are stylized, idealized and simplified in order to be more digestible than actual fact. Their basis in the real world weaves threads of commonality throughout the corpus of samurai cinema, a sort of meta-continuity, to borrow a fanboy term. Watch enough jidai-geki films and you'll soon recognize the recurrence of historical figures, events and customs linking different movies from different directors in different decades. You'll see the Battle of Sekigahara waged again and again, and the warlord Oda Nobunaga portrayed by many different actors, and beautiful actresses sporting blacked-out teeth as a high-class fashion statement, and archery parlors where the hostess proclaims a bull's-eye hit by shrieking "Atari!" Jidai-geki mythology has an advantage over the worlds of Tolkien or Lucas in that the classic works aren't generated by only one author, but by a pantheon of great artists working within a "shared universe." It's a world that's small enough to remain far more manageable than scholarly Japanese history, but expansive enough to encompass a huge variety of stories.
This creates a huge appeal for me and makes the jidai-geki realm more than just some interesting foreign land to explore. It actually becomes a place where repeated imaginary visits make you feel comfortably at home.
A Beautifully Woven Japanese Tapestry
Now there's one further aspect of the jidai-geki mystique that will bring us back full circle. As I've said, I'm no history buff, but I am a film geek. Obscure movies are something that I can get into, big time, and I love following the work of my favorite directors and actors.
When I started getting exposed to a number of different jidai-geki films beyond Kurosawa, I quickly began to notice that the same handful of directors were responsible for the best movies. As a fan, you start to recognize the various talented character actors that pop up from one film to the next, extending well beyond the famous Kurosawa leading men Toshiro Mifune and Tatsuya Nakadai. The guy who plays the kind-hearted, wisecracking ronin in one movie is cast as the corrupt daimyo's evil henchman in the next, and then shows up as the downtrodden peasant.
This was what got me really excited. It's captivating to play the game that author Patrick Galloway describes as "samurai spotting" and find all the connections running between jidai-geki films. You begin to appreciate how they're all part of a massive continuum woven together like a tapestry. Japan is a small country with a small movie industry, which results in a relative handful of filmmakers and familiar corps of performers being responsible for the whole genre. And there are historical events and favorite plot devices you see recurring across very different films, and you begin to pick up on each director's signature styles.
I wanted to make myself some sort of scoresheet to get down some of this vast spider web of connections, since I found it way too complex to keep track of in my head. This impulse ultimately resulted in The Jidai-Geki Knights and its "Works of the Sensei" movie database. I had a vision to create of my own miniature version of the Internet Movie Database specializing in jidai-geki as the best way to document all those intertwined filmographies and offer my humble appreciations. This is the real thrill of jidai-geki: discovering these fantastic director and actors, tracing their careers and watching how they criss-cross throughout this grand mythological domain.
So in the final analysis, it's really not the subject matter of jidai-geki that matters most to me. It's the people. It's not at all a contradiction with my auteur-oriented principles of cinematic appreciation for me to fall in love with this particular genre. Jidai-geki just happens to be a well-defined film category rich with talent, styles and sensibilities that appeal to my personal tastes, which entirely explains why these movies turn Sturgeon's Law on its head. Ninety percent of everything is awesome.
And that's because I'm not necessarily a diehard fan of the samurai or the warlords, or the yakuza or the ninja, or the fight scenes or the bloodbaths. I'm a devoted follower of the filmmakers, the performers, the screenwriters, the cinematographers and the composers who have created these wonderful movies. I bow before the sensei of samurai cinema.
I idolize the jidai-geki knights.
Go: The Obi-Wan Connection|
Jedi inspirations and Star Wars as chambara.