Samurai Swordplay

A few days ago, I promised to list my favorite Japanese samurai films. Here I present the annotated list in alphabetical order by eight directors, with my favorite samurai film for each director:

  • Hideo Gosha: Goyokin (1969) See also his early Three Outlaw Samurai (1964) and Sword of the Beast (1965).
  • Kazuo Ikehiro: Trail of Traps (1967). My favorite of the Kyoshiro Nemuri films starring Raizo Ichikawa.
  • Hiroshi Inagaki: Samurai Trilogy, comprising Musashi Miyamoto (1954), The Duel at Ichijoji Temple (1955), and Duel on Ganryu Island (1956).
  • Masaki Kobayashi: Harakiri (1962) starring the great Tatsuya Nakadai.
  • Akira Kurosawa: The Seven Samurai (1954), just one of over a dozen great chambara epics usually starring Toshiro Mifune.
  • Kenji Misumi: Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance (1972). Weird and entertaining.
  • Kihachi Okamoto: Sword of Doom (1965), another great Nakadai role.
  • Kimiyoshi Yasuda: Zatoichi’s Fire Festival (1970), one of a score of films starring Shintaro Katsu as a blind samurai warrior. Very funny.

After the 1970s, the studio system that supported the great Japanese films of the postwar period collapsed because the studios made more money selling their studio space in a real estate bubble than they ever did making movies. There’s a lesson to be learned there.

Ronin

It is without a doubt one of the most incredible shots in the history of the cinema. And yet it was the work of a director, Hideo Gosha, on his first motion picture, Three Outlaw Samurai (1964). Picture to yourself a peasant who with two of his friends kidnapped the daughter of a corrupt local magistrate as part of a protest against his cruel administration. Instead of keeping his promises, this magistrate sends thugs to kill him. As he lies bleeding with his back slashed by a sword, we cut to a closeup up the peasant, dying, looking with wide-eyed wonder at a lone wildflower growing in front of his face.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the Japanese cinema was at its height, one of the most fascinating in the world. The best of their films were in a genre known as jidaigeki, historical pictures set mostly during the Tokugawa Shogunate between 1603 and 1868. Starring most prominently were samurai, particularly masterless or outlaw samurai called ronin. Other films in the genre portrayed gangsters (yakuza), merchants, even peasants.

I had seen Three Outlaw Samurai at least twice before, but this time the film’s pessimism struck home. Aiding the peasants in their protest are three ronin who, one by one, come together. They are unable, however, to help the peasants win. After the three who kidnapped the magistrate’s daughter are killed, the other peasants in the surrounding villages are afraid to present their protest to a wondering clan chief who is due to visit in a few days. It is because of this visit that the magistrate hires waves of goons to attack not only the protestors, but previous goons who are asking for too much money.

The bloodshed is considerable. The three ronin kill at least a hundred of the magistrate’s men, who in turn kill large numbers of peasants. At the end, the three ronin decide to travel together in a direction selected by chance.

Ever since I first fell in love with movies as a student at Dartmouth, I have loved the fast action of chambara (“sword fight”) films. But, like the best Westerns, these “Easterns” can attain the status of high art. In a future post, I will list my favorite samurai films.

Grace Under Pressure

Opening Ceremony of the 2020 Tokyo Olympiad—in 2021!

Japan was put in an untenable position by the International Olympic Committee (IOC). At a time when Covid-19 was surging through the island nation, the IOC said the Olympic Games had to go on nonetheless. Of course, we won’t know for a week or two whether Japan will pay the price by putting on the games during an epidemic.

I must say, however, that Japan reacted with competence and grace and managed to put on a memorable event. Even if the stands were mostly empty, these games were an utter delight, even if NBC’s televising was at times ham-fisted and soap-opera-ish.

My favorite events were the team competitions, such as men’s and women’s basketball, women’s indoor and beach volleyball, women’s water polo, and some of track and field events. I didn’t much care for golf, canoeing/kayaking, swimming and diving. Never before have I spent so much time glued to the television set watching sporting events. It was worth it, and I feel bereft now that the Games are over.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North

Matsuo Bashō by Hokusai

Several times over the last thirty years, I have returned to the 17th century haiku and commentaries by Matsuo Bashō on the subject of travel:

Amid mountains of high summer,
I bowed respectfully before
The tall clogs of a statue,
Asking a blessing on my journey.

There is a quality to Bashō’s writing that makes me want to hit the road. As he wends his way through Shogunate Japan, stopping at temples along the way, I see him as the ideal traveling companion.

This grassy hermitage,
Hardly any more
Than five feet square,
I would gladly quit
But for the rain.

I think of his poem about a ruined castle:

A thicket of summer grass
Is all that remains
Of the dreams and ambitions
Of ancient warriors.

Bashō’s prose, too, has a certain quality that is worth remembering:

Go to the pine if you want to learn about the pine, or to the bamboo if you want to learn about the bamboo. And in doing so, you must leave your subjective preoccupation with yourself. Otherwise you impose yourself on the object and do not learn. Your poetry issues of its own accord when you and the object have become one—when you have plunged deep enough into the object to see something like a hidden glimmering there. However well phrased your poetry may be, if your feeling is not natural—if the object and yourself are separate—then your poetry is not true poetry but merely your subjective counterfeit.

How marvelous! This is what I seek from my travels—not that I write poetry—a “hidden glimmering” that makes itself manifest when I confront it with my entire being.

The name of this post, and of Bashō’s poetic journal, was also used by Australian novelist Thomas Kavanagh in his novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North, which tells of its physician hero’s imprisonment in World War Two Burma building the bridge on the River Kwai made famous by David Lean’s movie.