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In a society that places so much value on fealty to one's master, the ronin , or masterless samurai is someone who is in disgrace. Within the bushido, if the samurai were truly noble and dedicated to his master, then when his master died he should have chosen the same path: death. But within Japanese society, this was unacceptable and therefore the ronin was regarded as a scoundrel and not, at the very least, as a veteran warrior. On a social level, the samurai occupied a sphere where they were answerable primarily to the bushido and little else outside of clan fealty.

Once masterless, the ronin's role in society changed dramatically, having no specified purpose anymore. Within Tokugawa society - , the samurai was empowered to kill a commoner if he felt the situation demanded it. Even if circumstances didn't, the samurai could kill a peasant and only pay a negligible financial penalty. In so far as the ronin were concerned, they were permitted by law to continue wearing two swords something in Japanese society that only the upper class and the samurai were allowed to do , and in general retain the social perks that came with being a samurai including the relative lack of accountability for killing a peasant.

So in this sense, the ronin would become someone who "slipped between the cracks," so to speak. This is the reason why they were both not respected by the aristocracy and the samurai nobility while also feared by the lower class. Artistically, the ronin was represented in two manners: the noble ronin who comes into town and uses his skills for good, and the corrupt scoundrel who rapes, steals and murders without compunction. The primary setting of the samurai film is during the Tokugawa Shogunate period - [ 2 ], although there are a number of films that are set in the late Muromachi - and Azuchi-Momoyama unification - periods.

A basic explanation for the large number of Tokugawa era set stories was that the Tokugawa clan ascended to power through the sheer force of their arms. This, as a result, firmly established the importance of the warrior within society, but furthermore, with the new government came numerous strict laws, which necessitated armed government officials for their enforcement.

Samurai cinema

This focus on strong-arm tactics to impose, among other things, a caste system that awarded ruthless war play and mercenary tactics to gain wealth and power, as opposed to relieving famines through food aid, made being a samurai a plum job. The period drama, or the jidai-geki , is one of the staples of Japanese entertainment. These stories are typically short on action but heavy on political intrigue, romantic trysts, and other types of back room engineering; they're stories that are more about characters and less about the sword fighting.

It is the jidai-geki drama that is still popularly serialized on Japanese television.

The chanbara , or sword fight film, is the action film counterpart to the jidai-geki. Named for the onomatopoetic sound that two or more clashing swords make, these films are heavy on action and are, in general, less character-based and more action oriented. Though, it should be noted, they can be character-based as Akira Kurosawa proves in Seven Samurai , Yojimbo , and Sanjuro.

With the introduction of the chanbara film the fighting became more stylised and fetishized.


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An interesting development was that each new film series featured characters that had very specialized skills, styles or even handicaps, and the excitement became for the audience to see how these warriors were going to battle. Some of these formulas became so popular that they spawned massive series and spin-offs, of which the Zatoichi Blind Swordsman series is still the best example. Furthermore, as with all art, by veiling these films as period dramas and simple sword fight movies, it was possible to disguise their political criticism and lampooning of the government.

Often times, the films were cynical indictments of the Japanese feudal system emperor and all and of the over reliance on honor and the group over the individual. Specifically, films like Masaki Kobayashi's Harakiri are critical of the over-value placed on bushido and the samurai's loyalty to the clan being more significant than life itself. The critique reads that all lives and their deaths that occur in an impersonal and pointless social order become, inexorably, impersonal and pointless as well. The reward for following the rules or rebelling against them is ultimately the same: identical destruction.

The samurai is always found with the same few items: two swords, samurai clothing emblazoned with his master's signet, and a chonmage top knot. The chonmage, itself, was a haircut designed for battle helmets. While it later developed into a defining aspect of a samurai's look, they did not always sport it. These attributes were so specific and unique to the samurai and were therefore so socially ingrained into the Japanese culture that it became possible, in films, to shortcut clumsy exposition and introduce a character as a samurai simply and efficiently by showing them with these items.

Akira Kurosawa introduces Yojimbo in such a manner by focusing on the master's signet on Sanjuro's robe, his chonmage haircut, and then, finally, revealing his two swords on his hip as the framing changes to show his full body. For a Japanese audience member this was illustrative enough.

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When it is then revealed that Sanjuro is wandering by himself, letting the winds of fate blow him around, we learn that he is, in fact, a mawari ronin a wandering masterless samurai. This, then, becomes all of the information that we need to get the story started. Another aspect of the samurai film, as mentioned previously, is the political intrigue and double-crossing that feeds into the daimyo's power struggles.

In these stories, the samurai is the weapon of choice, though, depending on the character of the lord and his dedication to his retainer, or vice-versa, the relationship could be dissolved if the situation demanded it. Within the jidai-geki and chanbara film where giri and ninjo are so highly praised, in a sense it is ironic to see that these attributes can be put aside if need be , for a higher political aim. But such is the nature of the beast. The result within these films, though, is that double and triple crosses inevitably lead to violence. Violence, although often used in the films in a consistent manner to the world where it is set, with the rise of the more pessimistic chanbara film, the carnage took on a stylized approach that represented the existential state of the world that the samurai operated in.

Though by all means this is not meant to be an exhaustive list of genre types, here are a few staples of the genre. There is the 'lone wolf' film with the loner samurai as the protagonist.

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The group samurai film, where no one samurai is singled out, but instead the group acts as 'one large samurai. The whole notion of vengeance is, in a real sense, sanctioned by Japanese society and one will find that a number of the jidai-geki and chanbara film use this theme, if not as a main story element, then certainly in a sub-plot. Vengeance is often romanticized and visualized in a 'poetic' manner; needless to say, melodrama can run thick at times. Wrapping up the short list, and this is primarily due to the central role that the samurai Musashi Miyamoto plays in Japanese folklore, is the 'rise to excellence' storyline.

In these stories, the character starts out a bumbling fool and ends with great sword skill and an enlightened insight into the human condition. This, perhaps, can be called the Japanese version of the 'hero journey'. There are certain technical, metaphoric and literary tropes that are readily found in samurai cinema. Again, this is not a full list by any means, but represents certain constants in the genre.

In general, the chanbara film, technically speaking, is more complicated than the jidai-geki film. The following list includes technical attributes that do occur in both jidai-geki and chanbara, but are more prevalent in the chanbara movie. It goes without saying that these elements are used in these films, certainly by contemporary standards, in some very ham-fisted manners.

As a result, these elements feel theatrical, but nonetheless, help to create a very unique and exciting viewing experience. Kurosawa returns again, this time with a rip-roaring story of a renegade samurai pulled into a bitter war between rival clans, which in turn wreaks deadly havoc on a small village.

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The ronin takes matters into his own hands and decides to save the day with his ingenuity, deceiving each side in order to ensure they wipe each other out. Set during the end of the Tokugawa period, this compelling film tells the story of Tsugumo Hanshiro played by the great Tatsuya Nakadai , a samurai who loses his respected position in society. With nowhere to go, he tries to reintegrate himself into the world and reconcile his heroic past with the harsh realities of the present.

An ode to the human spirit and a reflection on the follies of mortality, the film is also a profound meditation on the ending of an era, as well as a look at the more tragic aspects of being part of the samurai class in Ancient Japan. Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune reunited for this sequel to Yojimbo. Running throughout the movie is a subtext on the futility of violence and war. One of the bloodiest and most engorged offerings on this list, Shogun Assassin is an abridged version of the Lone Wolf and Cub films from the s, which were adapted from the manga of the same name. A samurai executioner is betrayed by his master, who sends ninjas to kill him.

His wife is cut down instead, leaving him to fend himself for himself and his infant son. Swearing vengeance, he slices his way through anyone unfortunate enough to get in his path. And quite a few people do. Both were huge fans of Kurosawa and convinced 20th Century Fox to help finance the project in return for international distribution rights outside Japan. The story revolves around a lowly criminal hired to impersonate a dying warlord in order to stave off attacks from warring clans, but he gets more than he bargained for.


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  6. The final Kurosawa film on this list. Kurosawa was no stranger to widescreen epics, but he digs extra-deep in this sprawling beast of a film, which would sit comfortably alongside the all-time great war movies. The battle sequences made use of horses, and more than 1, uniforms and sets of armour were handcrafted by artisans for the production.

    The end result is a monumental achievement in world cinema, with battle scenes so vivid that you can almost smell the blood, sweat and gunpowder. Director Yasuo Furuhata took his cues from Western action cinema, with over-the-top action scenes and a rock soundtrack in one of the most expensive films ever made in Japan at the time of release.

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    All this added up to a hugely enjoyable movie that never lets up. Jim Jarmusch pays homage to hip-hop and samurai cinema in this glorious outing, in which Forest Whitaker plays a hitman who is double-crossed by his mob employers and must fight for his life. Ghost Dog is set in modern-day Brooklyn with nary a swordsman in sight, so it seems as far as one can get from chanbara. But dig deeper and the parallels are plain to see: a stoic warrior adheres to a strict code of honour; an executioner is betrayed by his masters; and the film is interspersed with quotes from the Hagakure , a philosophical Bushido warrior handbook that dates back to 16th-century Japan.