Dissecting Chanbara: The Evolution of the Samurai Film Genre

Three stills from chanbara: Seven Samurai, Twilight Samurai, Harakiri

There are samurai films, and then there are films that, while falling into this genre by happenstance, become the high points of cinema itself. I intend to examine three films in the chanbara tradition, and, in doing so, I will show how they’ve helped evolve the genre, advancing it into high art by building on previous achievements.

Perhaps the most important (even if not the best) film in the chanbara genre is Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954), which tells the story of a group of warriors recruited by a village aiming to free itself from harassment by local bandits. It is a great action/adventure film that manages to transcend that label because of its pristine characterization and Kurosawa’s skill as a storyteller. The village farmers have only rice to offer in exchange for the service of the samurais, so that the viewer knows the only warriors who will agree to help are those righteous enough to sympathize with their struggle, or those desperate enough to take the job.

From its opening, one of the film’s few limitations becomes clear: Kurosawa’s proclivity for melodrama. As one of the farmers (Bokuzen Hidari) overhears bandits planning their next raid, the villagers whine and scream, worried about their future. However, even this aspect of the film is ameliorated by two things: 1) although the presentation is a bit cheesy, it makes sense for the farmers to be upset, since their lives are at risk; 2) the film is extremely concise and well-paced, with this scene an immediate point of departure. In fact, although Seven Samurai is three and a half hours long, it feels more like two. This is partly due to Kurosawa’s editing, which often cuts amid a character’s movement to maintain seamlessness in the flow of each sequence, then alternates loud and quiet scenes, so that they rarely feel monotonous.

The villagers, prompted by the village elder, decide to employ swordsmen and fend off the coming pillage. They visit the city, nourishing themselves on millet in order to save rice for any willing samurais. This is difficult, and the samurais they try to convince to help them walk off angrily after discovering the farmers can only offer rice as payment. But then they encounter Kambei Shimada (Takashi Shimura), the future leader of the seven, and we experience the first masterful character introduction in Kurosawa’s chanbara.

The townsfolk huddle around a few houses and when asked what is happening, they explain how a thief has taken a boy hostage in one of the shacks. We see a samurai who has offered to help. He shaves his head after asking for a monk’s robe and two bowls of rice. He approaches the house, disguised as a monk, with the two bowls in hand. He tells the thief he’s brought food for the sake of the child, and after sliding them inside, he does so too. Next, we see the thief run out of the house, before pausing and falling onto the ground. Kambei exits the shack with the sword of the dead criminal.

This introduction immediately gives us a sense of Kambei’s character, as he clearly feels the urge to aid others, and has the necessary cunning and skill to pull off such a stunt. After this exhibition, a young man named Katsuhiro (Isao Kimura) asks Kambei to be his teacher, a wannabe samurai (Toshiro Mifune) tags behind him, and, finally, the villagers ask for his help. At first, Kambei is reluctant to help them, but after noticing the sacrifices the farmers undergo to save the rice, he agrees.

Another memorable introduction is that one of Kyūzō (Seiji Miyaguchi), a quiet yet supremely skilled swordsman. The samurais encounter him as he is about to partake in a duel using bamboo swords. When both warriors strike, their blades seem to strike one another at the same moment. However, Kyūzō claims to have won, explaining to his adversary that if they were using real swords he would have died. So, of course, his rival insists on using real swords, and, as expected, Kyūzō kills him – the implication being that Kyūzō’s bamboo sword struck first by a microscopic margin, and he was the only one skilled enough to discern this difference. These scenes look simple on a surface level, but both manage to portray the ruling characteristics of their characters, memorably and economically.

Aside from Kambei, Kyūzō, and Katsuhiro, whom Kambei ends up accepting as a disciple, the villagers manage to recruit three more samurai: a former lieutenant named Shichiroji (Daisuke Katō), an archer named Gorobei (Yoshio Inaba), and an amiable though less-skilled swordsman named Heihachi (Minoru Chiaki). The wannabe samurai from before reveals himself to the group as Kikuchiyo. He carries a family scroll that supposedly proves he is a samurai, though the birth date on it would only fit a teenager. He follows the group despite attempts to drive him away, and one can deduce he will become the seventh samurai referred to in the title. Up to this point, he strikes the audience as a clown with self-esteem issues, but he ends up becoming one of the more complex characters in the film (as well as in the chanbara tradition as a whole) as the story develops.

When the group arrives at the village, they find the farmers hidden in their homes, refusing to greet them. Kikuchiyo then rings an alarm, prompting the villagers to come out of hiding and beg for protection. He is the only one of the seven who tries to confront the settlers with their cowardice, and it is because of his frankness that, from here on, his character starts redeeming himself in the eyes of the samurai and the audience. It seems that while the other samurai are aiding the village because of necessity or some sense of duty, Kiukuchiyo – an orphaned farmer’s son – is doing so to channel his anger or to work out inner issues. Meanwhile, Katsushirō forms a relationship with a farmer’s daughter, a romantic subplot which feels unstrained partly because the screenplay does not linger on it more than it needs to, and partly because its bittersweet yet realistic conclusion is a daring one when compared to Hollywood standards. Such character flourishes are possible only in the best of chanbara.

There are many comedic moments in the film, which balance nicely the more dramatic instances and add authenticity to the narrative. Many of these are at the expense of Kikuchiyo. A memorable exchange occurs when Heihachi is designing their flag. The piece of cloth has circles representing each of the Samurai, but when Kikuchiyo notices there are only six, he wonders if he’s being left out. Heihachi explains that Kikuchiyo’s depicted by the triangle and the six warriors burst into laughter. This is the sort of teasing that might happen among one’s own group of friends, and because of it, it makes the comradeship between the leads much more believable.

Yet the film’s “serious” scenes – such as when Kambei scolds the villagers over their cowardice – makes plain the fact that Kurosawa, and screenwriters Shinobu Hashimoto and Hideo Oguni, understand what should be obvious to every filmmaker writing an action/adventure film: that the heroes in a film should be competent enough to justify their status as heroes. There isn’t an instance in the film where one of the samurai makes the dumbest possible choice to propel the conflict. The only exception to this would be Kikuchiyo, who constantly makes dumb mistakes, but that fits perfectly within his character. Such tension is artistically bolstered by Takashi Shimura’s great performance, who, in contrast with Toshiro Mifune’s scenery-chewing acting style, has a subtle and unstrained way of expressing himself.

The samurai plan to burn down the bandits’ camp in a pre-emptive strike. The farmer Rikichi accompanies them on the mission, and when they burn the building, he breaks down upon seeing his wife exiting it, thus capitalizing on an earlier, seemingly throwaway scene in which he gets inexplicably upset about a marital joke. It is now revealed his wife had been kidnapped and made a concubine in a previous raid. On seeing her husband, she runs back into the burning hut, and Heihachi is killed by musket fire while trying to save Rikichi, who tries to reach his burning wife. Notice the attention to detail, since the one who dies in the incident is also the one who previously tried to help Rikichi, but also notice the commitment the screenwriters have to each narrative, ensuring that even the film’s side characters have both texture and personal arcs.

This sequence concludes in an emotional highlight of the chanbara genre when the villagers and the samurai bury the fallen warrior, and Kikuchiyo places their flag on the roof of one of the shacks. The simple musical score gains a lot of power when paired with Kurosawa’s masterful use of the camera, editing, and blocking. The movements of his cast are exaggerated, clearly finding their roots in the kabuki tradition, but they are so well organized that they gain an almost musical force, if not a conventionally dramatic one. Later, when Kikuchiyo saves an infant from a destroyed village, he breaks down in tears, as it reminds him of how he was orphaned. Thus, in only two or three pivotal moments, the screenwriters manage to sketch Kikuchiyo’s character. He is one of the pillars of the film, for he undergoes a dramatic change of values and motivation, thus redeeming himself by the end.

The next morning the battle resumes beneath a torrential downpour, and although the villagers finally win, all samurais but Kambei, Katsuhiro, and Shichiroji die in the process. The three surviving samurai later watch from the funeral mounds of their comrades as the joyful villagers sing whilst planting their crops. Katsuhiro tries to approach Shino, who ignores him, and Kambei remarks how “In the end, we lost this battle too. The victory belongs to the peasants, not to us.”

It is a very realistic ending, as the samurais will probably need to leave the village and search for more work, and the villagers seem unmoved by the sacrifice of the warriors. It is in moments like this one that the film goes far beyond others within chanbara. Unlike other action/adventure films, it dares to examine the many sides of everything and avoids pandering. Even considering its most dated aspects, such as the bits of melodrama and overacting, it is impressive the skill with which Kurosawa and the screenwriters manage the many threads in the story, and it is no surprise the number of Hollywood ensemble pieces the film influenced. Yet, even considering all this, the second film I will examine improves on it.

A still from Kobayashi's "Harakiri" (1962), of the chanbara film genre

Masaki Kobayashi’s Harakiri (1962) is two hours and fourteen minutes long, and it earns every second. It is set in the Edo period when it was common for masterless samurai to request to commit seppuku, hoping to receive alms from the remaining feudal lords. The film is structured around a series of flashbacks, which must have been an innovative use of the device back when the film was released, and which remains very effective as it permits the narrative to enter a state of constant unfolding.

The first thing we see is empty samurai armor while Tōru Takemitsu’s atmospheric score plays, as the film’s tone of dread is quickly established. The story begins when Tsugumo Hanshirō (Tatsuya Nakadai), a retainer of the former Fukushima Clan in Hiroshima, arrives at the estate of the Iyi clan and says that he wishes to commit seppuku within the forecourt of the palace. As there have been visitors like him in the past, many of whom did not truly intend to commit seppuku, Saitō Kageyu (Rentarō Mikuni), the Daimyō’s senior counselor, tries to deter the rōnin by telling him the story of another samurai, Chijiiwa Motome (Akira Ishihama), who had arrived with swords of bamboo, and, after his bluff had been called, was forced to disembowel himself with the dull blades, making his death slow and humiliating. Even considering the House’s point of view, this is a very disturbing scene to watch, and the lengths these people will go to for the sake of tradition, honor, and reputation are immediately established as absurd. This invokes and plays upon the chanbara tradition in unexpected ways, making even a great samurai film like Akira Kurosawa’s pale in comparison.

Despite Saito’s warning, Hanshirō insists that he has no intention of leaving the Iyi palace alive. After a suicide pavilion is set up in the courtyard, Hanshirō insists on choosing the specific samurai who shall behead him when the ritual is complete. Hanshirō names Motome’s de facto executioners – Hayato (Ichirō Nakatani), Umenosuke (Yoshiro Aoki), and Hikokuro (Tetsurō Tamba) – but when messengers are dispatched to summon them, all three decline to come, saying they are suffering from illness. Meanwhile, it becomes obvious that the film’s two leads will provide great, refractive performances, for there is a coldness to both characters that the viewer soon learns originate from very different places.

In time, Hanshirō admits to having known Motome. When his clan was abolished by the shogun, Hanshirō’s Lord decided to commit seppuku and, as his senior samurai, Hanshirō planned to die alongside him. To prevent this, Hanshirō’s closest friend performed seppuku and left a letter assigning to the rōnin the guardianship of his teenage son, Motome, who marries Hanshirō’s daughter, Miho, and eventually has a son, Kingo. This serves more than just a narrative function, however, for Nakadai’s performance is allowed some exceptional range, as the Hanshirō we watch in the past is incredibly different from the one we see in the present. He is much more vulnerable in the flashbacks and quite likeable, such as when he flushes upon asking Motome to marry his daughter, or when he excitedly interacts with his grandson.

The economic downfall of the family is another highlight, executed in a very clever manner, as it sneaks up on the viewer the way it must have done on the characters. After Hanshirō relates how her daughter gave birth to his grandson, the flashback that ensues shows him visiting the child. He walks towards the sleeping baby, and as he says something to her daughter, the camera cuts to a close-up of Miho which shows she has lost some of her teeth. The scene goes on and it is not a particularly sad one, but to the perceptive viewer, it foretells things to come. For example, when Miho falls ill with a fever, Motome does everything he can to raise money for a doctor. We see him entering the pawnshop and deduce that the reason he carried bamboo blades earlier on is that he had sold his actual weapons. Eventually, Kingo also falls ill, and the audience knows that money will not arrive.

Late that evening, Motome’s executioners bring his mutilated body home, mocking their victim before his family. After Kingo dies, so does Miho, forcing Hanshirō to explain that he realized that the samurai code of honor is worthless, and further capitalizing on the film’s structural choices and implicit character arcs those choices engender. Hanshirō, both as character and actor, is thus “harder” at the palace, explaining that he wishes to join Motome, Miho, and Kingo in death, while Saitō insists Motome got what he deserved, and boasts that all suicide bluffs who come to the palace shall be treated in the same fashion.

In a memorable twist of the chanbara genre, Hanshirō takes three topknots out of his robe and throws them in the courtyard. It becomes clear these were the topknots of the absent retainers of the house, and the viewer immediately assumes Hanshirō killed them. But he explains he merely defeated them in combat and cut off their hair: the greatest humiliation for a samurai. This is an apt way to take revenge in a film which is, really, a scathing critique of Japanese culture’s obsession with honor and reputation.

The duels, as shown in the flashbacks that ensue, are a great mix of theatricality and realism, the one with Hikokuro being the most impressive. In this last encounter, Hanshirō uses the direction of the wind to his advantage, and ends up breaking his opponent’s katana in the process. Mocking the house of Iyi for its cowardice, Hanshirō points out that the three most revered retainers refuse seppuku and instead conceal their dishonor by feigning illness while waiting for their hair to grow back. In a battle that rages through the palace, Hanshirō kills four samurai, wounds eight more, and throws down the antique suit of armor which symbolizes the history of the House of Iyi. In an echo of the upcoming industrialization of the country, three warriors arrive armed with matchlock guns – a weapon seen with contempt by most samurai. As Hanshirō begins seppuku, he is simultaneously shot by the three gunmen, and Saitō attempts to conceal the cause of these deaths to maintain some semblance of the clan’s honor, then orders the malingerers to kill themselves off-screen.

The film has aged well both in form and in content, as many of the things it criticizes in a feudal setting seem relevant to today’s Japan. Having such a high rate of work-related suicides and deaths by exhaustion, Japan’s culture strikes one as haunted by ideas of duty and reputation. This adds another layer to the film’s dialectic, since not only does it denounce the more celebratory portions of the chanbara tradition, but also the fact that they’ve changed so little throughout history.

The visuals of the film are excellent, with skillful lighting and composition, while the wide lenses permit Kobayashi to capture the lead characters’ faces amid the unmoving expressions of the retainers, thus reasserting the clan’s brainwashing. The editing and the score work in collaboration to provide stylistic flourishes which not only remain fresh, but have gone on to influence cinema at large. In fact, Harakiri’s action is so dense that the viewer becomes wary of blinking, for doing so might miss something important.

Yet the greatest contribution the film makes to chanbara and beyond is the psychological depth with which it manages to imbue its characters. The house samurais seem to have a sadistic bent to them, reiterating both the cruelty and stupidity of human history, while Saitō desperately holds on to tradition and Hanshirō tries to rebel against a system he now sees as worthless. Except for the climactic battle, this film feels like a drama which merely happens to feature samurai, rather than a pure samurai film. In this aspect, it resembles the third and last film I will now discuss.

Yoji Yamada’s The Twilight Samurai (2002) is easily the most realistic chanbara I have ever watched. While some sequences in Harakiri have to find a balance between realism and theatricality, in Yamada’s film, realism directly enhances the drama. The film follows the life of Seibei Iguchi (Hiroyuki Sanada), a low-ranking samurai employed as a bureaucrat, as he encounters romance and increasing conflict a few years before the Meiji Restoration. The film opens as Seibei becomes a widower when his wife succumbs to tuberculosis. He works in the grain warehouse, where colleagues mock him behind his back with the nickname “Twilight”. This is because when evening approaches, Seibei always rushes home instead of going out to drink with them. He looks after his elderly mother, who has dementia, and two young daughters, Kayano and Ito.

A still from Yoji Yamada's "Twilight Samurai" (2002), of the chanbara film genreWe notice the realism of the film from the start, as it exhibits details other chanbara rarely include, such as certain kinds of family relationships, as in the mental decline of Seibei’s mother. She doesn’t recognize him, but there is no melodrama in this scene. Upon realizing this, the viewer can only see an undercurrent of sadness in Seibei, which makes the exchange much more moving, especially since Seibei frequently neglects his own physical appearance. The well-being of his young daughters and medicine for his mother take priority over new clothes or the monthly bath fee. Sanada’s performance brims with warmth and likeability without ever losing authenticity.

Things change when the sister of Iinuma Michinojo (Mitsuru Fukikoshi), one of Seibei’s samurai friends, returns to town. Tomoe (Rie Miyazawa) belongs to a higher social class, yet is atypical in that she questions points of etiquette, such as blindly obeying her elder brother’s wife and not attending peasant festivals. Recently divorced from an abusive husband, Tomoe finds comfort and solace visiting Seibei and his daughters.

One night, after Seibei accompanies Tomoe to her house, her ex-husband Koda (Ren Osugi) barges inside in a drunken demand for Tomoe and challenges Michinojo to a duel. Koda reaches for his Katana but Seibei intervenes and prevents him from even unsheathing the blade. This sequence hints at two things: 1) the skill of Seibei as a warrior, but even more importantly, 2) the quality of the action sequences of the film. It is all very believable but has the spontaneity it needs to keep the viewer invested.

Later, when Seibei accepts Koda’s challenge on Michinojo’s behalf, despite the severe penalties for dueling, we see Seibei practice his strikes before the duel, and there is a quiet sense of bravado which is all the more powerful because of its understated quality. Seibei’s not just a skilled samurai the way Kyuzo, in Seven Samurai, is a skilled samurai. Kyuzo is almost mythical in his skill, but in Yamada’s film, we get a glimpse at the care a samurai has to have for his craft. However, it is the unpretentious quality of the presentation, which feels as if it were just documenting the moment, which makes it work. The duel soon commences and Seibei beats and disarms his opponent using only a wooden stick, the fight is succinct, and all the more impressive because of it.

Seibei rejects Michinojo’s offer to marry Tomoe, citing his inferior social status, and explaining how he would not want to see Tomoe share the burden of poverty. He remembers his deceased wife, who was also of a higher rank, and how she never got used to living with a “petty” samurai. The reason this scene works, beyond just being an excuse to prolong the romantic conflict in the story, is because of its great characterization. Seibei reveals not as the lead we are used to seeing in samurai films, but as a man full of remorse, who feels guilt over the suffering of his late wife.

After this, Tomoe stops visiting his daughters, and, as rumors of Seibei’s skill with the sword spread, Seibei’s clan orders him to kill the Captain of the Guard, Zenemon Yogo (Min Tanaka), a friend of Koda who seems to reject Koda’s desire for vengeance, though he still hopes to duel Seibei in the future. The order comes because Yogo has been “disowned” but refuses to resign his post, by way of seppuku, after losing a succession struggle. Seibei, reluctant to accept the mission, responds:

“I am ashamed to say that over many years of hardship with two daughters, a sick wife, and an aged mother, I have lost the desire to wield the sword. A serious fight, the killing of a man, requires animal ferocity and calm disregard for one’s own life. I have neither of those within me now. Perhaps in a month alone with the beasts in the hills, I could get them back. But tomorrow, I am afraid, is completely impossible. I ask that you extend the honor of this commission to another man.”

One senses that, although he is clearly stalling, there is at least some truth in his words. Of course, this does not matter to the officials present, and after scolding him, they ask him again. His conviction wavers, and he complies. Seibei is not like the protagonist of Harakiri; someone determined to unmask a system he believes to be worthless. He is, rather, an ordinary man who’s trying to survive, along with his family. He has many flaws, such as indecisiveness, as shown the next morning, when he asks Tomoe to help him complete the rituals of a samurai before battle. Seibei tells her that if he lives, he would like to ask for her hand in marriage. She regretfully tells him she has accepted another proposal. Seibei, feeling like a fool, tells Tomoe to forget about the conversation, and wishes her the best.

He arrives at Yogo’s house, where Yogo has already killed several samurai assassins. Seibei finds his target drinking alcohol in a fly-infested room, who recognizes him from a prior scene and invites him to sit and drink. Yogo likens Seibei to an errand boy, echoing Apocalypse’s Now, then asks Seibei permission to run away. He explains he was only faithfully serving his master and describes how his wife and daughter also died of tuberculosis. Seibei commiserates and reveals further parallels in the two men’s stories, such as that his wife’s family demanded she have an expensive funeral and so he sold his katana to pay for it. He reveals that his long scabbard contains a fake bamboo sword. This angers Yogo who believes Seibei is mocking him. Seibei retorts he has been trained with the short sword, which he still carries, but Yogo is not placated, and the duel starts. Yet it is only because of the advantages of the short sword that Seibei manages to defeat Yogo, whose own, larger blade gets stuck in the wooden frame of the house.

There are clear parallels between Harakiri’s criticisms of the Bushido code and Twilight Samurai’s criticism of feudal Japan’s obsession with honor, as it is because Yogo perceives an offense in Seibei’s actions that he sparks the fight that ends him. Both films are also set in transitional periods, hinting at the end of the samurai era. But Harakiri is more of a confrontative critique than The Twilight Samurai. Yamada’s film is more preoccupied with sketching the three-dimensional portrait of a man living in the age.

The film ends with a brief epilogue set years later, when Seibei’s younger daughter, Ito, visits the grave of Seibei and Tomoe. Narrating, she explains they married but that their happiness was not to last, as he died three years later in Japan’s last civil war.

When you consider The Twilight Samurai’s story, you realize that it boasts a fairly conventional narrative. It features a skillful warrior who is no longer interested in fighting as a romance unfolds. However, much like Seven Samurai, it manages to take generic elements and make something great out of them. The skillful warrior suddenly feels like a real person, and the romance and action sequences are just an excuse for the filmmakers to explore the character more deeply. While Kurosawa brought concision to his characters, and Kobayashi brought psychological depth, Yamada brings realism and understatement to chanbara.

Although one can argue for a rise in quality between these three films, on seeing them side by side, one can also see a decrease in the overall level of accomplishment of each filmmaker. As a friend pointed out to me, while Kurosawa was in a higher league, Kobayashi did not have as many achievements, and Yamada was no auteur. However, each filmmaker seems to have been better suited for the genre than the previous one. This could be because more conventional minds work better within the confines of genre. When considering this, the evolution of chanbara becomes a testament to what one can do when working within one’s own limitations. After all, it is only when a challenge is proportional to the challenger that it can be overcome.

At first, the appeal of samurai films seems to be the thrill and exotic quality of their setting. But these later chanbara seem to acknowledge the triviality of these aspects, and instead of alienating their audience with the idiosyncrasies of the period, or providing an escape through sword fights, they try to prove to the viewers that these characters could have existed. They shed the tropes of the genre, and instead focus on articulating the human experience. Samurai films are reaching maturity, and in so doing, they are realizing what the essence of good narrative is.

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