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Excerpt from The Samurai Film

by Alain Silver

[used by permission]



Yugen is considered to be the mark of supreme attainment in all the arts and accomplishments... yugen is attained when all different forms of visual and aural expression are beautiful

Seami Motokiyo, On Attaining the Stage of Yugen1


Sword-bearing haniwa figure from the 6th century (Kofun Period) In fiction and more specifically on film, the history of the samurai, bushido, and the icon of the sword are subsumed into a genre tradition.  Naturally the simplifications introduced in order to mold a fictional character, whether from a generic concept or an authentic personage, distort much of the social and ethical heritage outlined in the first chapter.  Yet the fact that the film samurai follows chronologically in the wake of the social reality does not prevent “him” from re-writing the history to fit the need of the fictional persona.  Besides the movies inspired by the Chushingura or Musashi legends, a considerable number of other samurai films involve actual figures fictionalized to varying degrees.  It is not the intent here to use the historical accuracy of any motion picture as a measure of aesthetic merit.  The question is rather how a type of film identified with a particular country recruits elements from both that nation's past and its other modes of fiction to constitute a vital genre in its own right.

I. The Samurai in Legend and Art

In its most recent manifestations, the association of extreme violence and polarized characterizations with chambara reinforces analogies to archetypes of expression found in the American Western or in the gangster film.  In earlier forms, however, the figure of the samurai is most often rendered in an “epic” style.  Arguably the first examples of the bushi in art are the haniwa, clay statues of warriors found in tombs, which date from the Nara period.  These figurines may have been simply grave decorations or may have served a ritualistic purpose in which they “died” for or otherwise took the place of an actual warrior.  Whichever is the case, the haniwa suggest that, from pre-historic times, the warrior was the focal figure in a certain type of myth.  Specifically when societal dilemmas or inadequacies could not be remedied in practical terms, they were transferred to the level of folktale to be “answered” or figuratively rectified.  Here, the bushi functions as both legendary hero and instrument of social correction.

While it may be somewhat oversimplified to claim that this tradition is perpetuated in all of Japan's pre-modern art, such is effectively the case.  On one level, the kodan or prose tales and the naniwa-bushi or poetic recitals of brave exploits in an Homeric manner are essentially parables which glorify men of righteousness and proper conduct.  On a more formal level, that tragic potential in the samurai repeatedly figured in the Patrician, semi-religious Noh drama, the more popular theater of kabuki, and the bunraku or joruri puppet plays.  None of these forms are free or open.  The mixture of speech, chant, and dance and attendant actor performance depend on highly stylized and non-natural expressions.  The dramatic conflicts, whether between one character and another or between one character and his own conscience, are specific and reflect the cultural prejudices of feudalism.  Generalizations are constrained from reaching the point where they might be perceived as between characters and existing institutions.  In primitive myth, Prince Yamato Take is half-god and half-man.  Possessing the “soul of Yamato” is subsequently inscribed as a positive cultural value.  The warrior-heroes and villains of Japan's classic drama and literature follow in this tradition by being less human beings than models or personifications of virtues and aberrations.  Complicating this is the unusual evolution of theatrical performing styles.  Kabuki, which originated early in the Tokugawa era, changed from being all-female casts (yujo kabuki, usually performed by prostitutes) to all-males casts (wakushu and then yaro kabuki).  In the 18th century, kabuki developed further by region.  In imperial Kyoto, the plays often depicted young samurai smitten of geishas.  The actor prototype was the handsome and sensitive Tojuro Sakata who helped define the refined or wagoto style of acting.  In Edo, the aragoto or rough style (an abbreviation of aramushogato or “reckless warrior matter”), which used fierce looks and menacing poses to typify aggressive masculine characters, was more popular.  Danjuro Ichikawa founded a lineage of Kabuki performers that stretches to the present day, which specializes in this form.  In some plays the aragoto style might be reserved for the antagonist, a jitsuaku or villainous samurai featured in the more realistic kabuki preferred outside of Kyoto. [Pictured is Toshiro Mifune (left), who typified the unshaven and rough-looking aragoto style in Kurosawa’s work, particularly in contrast to Yuzo Kayama (right)]

Yuzo Kayama as Hiro (right) and Toshiro Mifune as the title character in Sanjuro [page 52 first edition; page 75 typescript] Neither myth nor drama could deconstruct or impartially examine codes of behavior imposed by the culture.  As a consequence, the pre-modern higeki or stage tragedy is not an action-drama but develops its catharsis in a more contemplative mode.  Although the samurai film combines this tradition with that of ken-geki, “sword theater” spectacles in which fights and other action were more realistically performed, the tendency from the silent era well into the 1950's was more towards set pieces and dialogue scenes than action sequences and towards a formalized rather than naturalistic context whether in dialogue, wardrobe, make-up or action.

Japanese aesthetics during the Tokugawa era developed through the kokugaku, the study of the nation or national ideals.  Using the kojiki, nihon-ji and the manyoshu (“countless leaves,” a collection of the earliest Japanese poetry), scholars called kokugakushu attempted to remove all foreign influences and distill the essence of Japanese culture.  The preeminent kokugakushu, Motori Norinaga, is credited with inventing mono no aware, which is usually rendered as the “sadness of things.”  From the manyoshu and Shinto precepts, Norinaga devised his concept of the touching or tragic aspects of mono, of everyday matters.  According to mono no aware the naturalness and impermanence of these things are analogs for all human vicissitude.

In feudal art as well as in feudal life, the classic, melodramatic dichotomy was between dutiful action and impulsive action.  As giri was often characterized by a repression of violent inclination, it is not unusual for ninjo to have been associated with an outburst of violence.  And yet visualization of any such outburst in the art of pre-modern Japan was infrequent.  The scroll painting of the battle of Dan-no-ura, which is used as an insert in Kobayashi's Kwaidan (Kaidan, 1964), illustrates the contrast between painterly and filmic stylizations of violence.  The former with its masses of armed men frozen in opposing poses even incorporates, in a manner reminiscent of the Bayeux tapestry's treatment of the Norman invasion, the debris of warfare into its scheme of historical depiction by gradually reducing those mounted warriors to piles of naked, headless corpses stripped of armor and pierced by arrows.  Ultimately, however, not even this kind of detailing can narrow the stylized distance between viewer and object and must remain more in the convention of the Kabuki “sword dances” than in one of realism.

II. The Samurai on Film

If the post-War samurai film does employ an expressive equation (which its predecessors in motion pictures, art, or legend did not possess) for bridging that distance between mythic object and spectator, then violence is its key exponent.  In fact, with increasing frequency and graphic detail, the contemplation of violence has long been a major factor in all motion pictures, both Eastern and Western.  The reel-long interlude at the conclusion of The Wild Bunch, punctuated by scores of stylized, slow-motion shootings, has become an archetype for screen massacre; yet much of Peckinpah's orientation towards killing as an integral part of human affairs and his visualization of it derives from the work of Akira Kurosawa, with the most obvious analog to The Wild Bunch being the latter's Seven Samurai (Shichinin No Samurai, 1957).  In Japanese cinema as with Japanese metaphysics, the qualities of death and violence have always been essential to understanding life, to its transcendence and its annihilation.  Ultimately this study will trace various and specific manifestations of that ethic in a few examples of chambara motion pictures produced in post-War Japan.  It may be useful to begin with a brief catalogue of some of the samurai films distinctive features.

Isolated figure on a windswept road with his arms tucked protectively inside his sleeves. [page 75] Narrative and Character Conventions.  The primary genre expectation of chambara is quite obviously the swordsman.  Whether this character is developed as a hero or an anti-hero, his physical introduction into the scene and the viewer's apprehension of him as the potential dramatic center are basic to all samurai films.  While this character does not need to be a true samurai—the principals of Seven Samurai, for instance, are not clan retainers but ronin—he must, even if a kyokaku, be armed.  In this manner, the sword may be seen as chambara's fundamental icon, and the whole genre as a manifestation of the ideal which regarded the swordsman and his weapon as one.  In a very real sense, the mere sight of the man with a sword in his sash, even standing with his back to the camera against an undefined landscape—as in, for example, the first shot of Kurosawa's Yojimbo (1964—pictured is the title character at the crossroads) or Gosha's Three Outlaw Samurai—is enough to identify the film generically.  It is conceivable that for many viewers, merely a shot of the sword could convey the anticipation that a samurai film was to follow.

There are, of course, a range of subsidiary expectations which such initial images engender.  The main elements are simple and might be explained by analogy to the Western.  The second half of the 19th century in Japan was, as in the United States, a post-Civil War period of social and political flux.  In the post-Tokugawa reassessment of governing principles and the transition from isolationism into imperialism in the modern sense, the feudal daimyo and their clansmen tried unsuccessfully—like the anachronistic “cattle barons”—to keep the Japanese equivalent of the homesteader at bay with the threat of violent death.  Like the bounty hunter or hired gun, the swordsman whether a true samurai or wandering mercenary may align himself with either of these factions, may be either good or evil or a figure of moral ambivalence depending more on individual characterization than genre typing because, like the Western's scruples against never drawing first or back-shooting, bushido is not always unswervingly adhered to by either hero or villain.  Like the gunfight, an encounter between master swordsmen frequently serves as the climax of the film, the event towards which most of the early narrative and character development is genotypically directed.  Just as six-shooters may be tied down or cross-drawn, fanned or cocked and fired, the samurai has as previously described a variety of mountings and fighting styles with which to wield his sword.  In most films there is a considerable amount of preliminary swordplay in which protagonist and antagonist may display his or her prowess by defeating a number of non-principals as preludes to the final duel.  There, two opponents whose skills have been established as roughly equal meet with attendant ceremony to settle the question of who is best.  Whether they meet behind the corral or behind the temple, the generic set-up is the same.

Since the daito or katana is a slashing as well as piercing weapon and since most fighting methods incorporated downward cuts at the head or shoulders and forward thrusts to puncture the chest or stomach, the climactic duel between masters often receives a very particular and highly stylized visual treatment.  Unusual lenses and lighting, slow-motion, optical printing, and all manner of other special effects become the common and precise choreography of a deadly ballet.  The analogy to the Western is not perfect; but beyond being an analytical device, it has been a remake strategy for Western filmmakers.  Three of Kurosawa’s samurai films have been transposed to American West: Seven Samurai as The Magnificent Seven (1960, directed by John Sturges), Rashomon (1950) as The Outrage (1964, directed by Martin Ritt), and Yojimbo as A Fistful of Dollars (1965, directed by Sergio Leone).  It is even applicable to the concept of serialized characters, with recurring personalities such as the Three Musketeers, the Lone Ranger, or Hopalong Cassidy in the U.S. production of the 1930s and 40s finding their equivalents over time and space in the Crimson Bat, the Three Outlaw Samurai, Zato-Ichi, and Kyoshiro Nemuri in Japan in the 1950s and 60s.

As with the Western, certain historical figures and events have been a recurring subject for films since the silent era.  Just as the views on American events from the Civil War to the gunfight at the OK Corral may have changed from Birth of a Nation (1915) to Glory (1989) or from My Darling Clementine (1946) to Tombstone (1993) and Wyatt Earp (1994), the portrayal of the Chushingura saga or the events of the bakumatsu have also evolved with chambara.  Since World War II, the samurai film has undergone significant stylistic and thematic changes, moving away from the sometimes actionless jidai-geki or simple period film.  The use of tangential violence only is exemplified in certain pictures of Kenji Mizoguchi: civil war is a disruptive but marginal consideration in Ugetsu (1953); the few battles in Tales of the Taira Clan (Shin Heike Monogatari, 1955) end quickly and almost bloodlessly; and the only swordplay in his two-part Chushingura (1941-42) is over in the first scene.

Although completed and released as Japan entered World War II, Mizoguchi’s Chushingura is remarkably unbellicose in that it is practically bloodless: aside from the initial brief attack, two scenes hinge on the discovery of a person dying from suicide.  This oblique approach to the suicides and killings at the heart of the 47 ronin saga, is very different from the scores of other retellings in plays, motion pictures, and television programs, as it relies entirely on moving camera, staging in depth, nuanced performances and details of costuming and set decoration to convey a sense of fatality and resignation.  While the violent events and behaviors depicted in many later samurai films effectively externalize the emotions of their troubled protagonist, Mizoguchi’s restrained but telling staging underlines the despair, the existential angst, of his characters.

Mizoguchi began by presuming that the audience would be quite familiar with its subject.  He also abandoned the tradition stretching back to the early 18th century and the Kanadehon Chushingura—various early kabuki and puppet plays in which the names and places were transposed to the Kamakura era so as not to embarrass the shogunate—in favor of the contemporary kabuki, Genroku Chushingura, by Seika Mayama who restored the historical names, dates, and places.

After a static shot of assembled dignitaries, Mizoguchi’s sustained opening both belies and anticipates the contemplative tone that will follow.  During a slow traveling to the right along one of four corridors that surrounds a freshly raked open courtyard, dark posts pass through the foreground like mile markers of doom.  After a full minute, an off-screen voice is heard and seems to compel the moving camera to quicken its pace as a pan reveals two men, Lord Kira and an attendant  As Kira disparages “Lord Asano,” he faces away from the attendant, with the back of his head to camera.  Finally more than two minutes into the shot, the two men turn and exit the frame on the left, revealing another figure, presumably Lord Asano, who has been kneeling in the background but blocked from the view by the attendant’s body.  Asano springs up, contemplates for a moment then hurries in pursuit.  The camera dollies back quickly, leading him to the corner, then pans as he draws his sword, catches up to Kira, and strikes.  The cut comes on the slash of the blade, as Asano cries out, “Vengeance!”  Men appear from all sides of the previously empty area and pull him off.

Much has been made of Mizoguchi’s statement at the time of Chushingura’s release about Japanese visual style, using of different planes and perspectives in contrast to Western painting and film.  Certainly the long and “pensive” takes throughout Chushingura use moving camera to reveal different planes.  The depth of field when the clan’s Edo retainers arrive to report events permits the Chamberlain Oishi to move dramatically from rear ground to foreground.  This use of staging in depth is also quite different from the previous shot, a wide view of the room with the chamberlain at the back, his figure increasingly obscured as more and more kneeling samurai edge forward to hear the report.

The long take and moving camera are extensively used by such diverse Mizoguchi contemporaries as Max Ophuls and John Farrow.  What separates Mizoguchi’s work is his use of viewer expectation to create visual metaphor within the drama.  The slow move down the “Pine Corridor,” where the audience knows what will happen, becomes a trope for the inevitable pull of fate.  The momentary hesitation by Asano, barely two seconds in a shot that lasts two and half minutes is even more telling: the briefest but profoundly existential pause where free will comes into play.

The high angle shot in the Palm Room, where Asano awaits the official investigators, is also rich in figurative values.  The “omniscient” perspective looks down of Asano hemmed by screens but only sees only his head and torso.  Around the edges of the room guards kneel with their backs to Asano (and camera).  While the screen that is visible behind the lord has pastoral drawings of clouds, mountains, and vegetation, the one in the foreground is not lit, so that is top edge cuts like a jagged blade through the shot and bisects the doomed man’s body.  The interrogation is another long take but after an opening move that pulls back from the lead official and cranes down to a three shot with the figures of the two shogunate men higher than Asano’s.  Both the sustained camera and the men’s darker forms constrict the frame and refuse to permit Asano any “breathing room.”  As the lord surrenders emotionally to his fate, he bows so that the visual dominance of the others is even more pronounced.  For one instant, as he invites them to laugh at his lack of sword skill, he leans back becoming as tall as they are in the shot and pressing against the left edge.  Again the existential display is fleeting: Asano bows low again and Mizoguchi cuts away.  Mizoguchi’s later jidai-geki from Five Woman around Utamaro (1946) to Sansho the Bailiff (1954) stress the personal story as the dramatic core, emphasize the pathos of the individual fate over any sense of epic tragedy.  But the concept of mono no aware, which figures prominently in most of Mizoguichi’s work, is seldom expressed in Chushingura, the preeminent moment being as Chamberlain Oishi repeats the last poem of Asano: “More frail than petals scattered by the wind, I bid a last farewell and leave spring behind.”

The straightforward adaptation in Hiroshi Inagaki’s 1962 Chushingura returns to the Kanadehon structures but retains the real names.  Inagaki also attempts an epic sweep within the classic giri-ninjo dilemma.  Unlike Mizoguchi’s version, the exposition of what could be considered a prologue—that is everything leading up to Lord Asano’s seppuku—is fully detailed and consumes a major portion of the narrative.  Certainly Asano’s prideful behavior up to his interrogation and the Shogun’s clipped comment (“The rules are clear.  Keep to the rules.”) serve as ironic undertone.  Asano’s celebrated refusal to bribe Lord Kira because such action is forbidden by the Kemmu Shikimoku, the legal code established by the Muromachi shogunate in 1336, becomes more an act of anachronistic stubbornness than existential revolt against Tokugawa policy in 1701.  Kira pointedly taunts Asano about the fate that his retainers will suffer should he dare to draw his sword in the shogun castle; and yet Asano draws it.  Compared to the vigorous stagings of Kurosawa’s early 1960s chambara, Inagaki’s stately style is somewhat detached.  The use of sound stage “exteriors” such as Chamberlain Kuranosuke’s farm, where he and his eldest son must formally separate themselves from his wife and younger children, reinforces this effect.  On the other hand, the forced perspective set in Horibe’s half-hearted attack on the ronin Tawaraboshi effectively externalizes the almost counterfeit nature of Horibe’s position.  Perhaps the most telling moment in this version of the 47 ronin saga is an indirect questioning of cultural value: when Kuranosuke and his son are at an inn visited by several peri-wigged men in Western garb.  “If those Dutchmen knew,” the son asks, “would they think we were doing the right thing.”

Those working in the genre after Mizoguchi initiated a genuine exploration of the social aberrations of Japan's long feudal history.  The warriors of the kabuki drama were also white-powdered and peri-wigged and the pastel full-lit sets where action was more often discussed than portrayed gave way to a large number of dark, nihilistic motion pictures which re-paint Japan's past in blacker hues.  Although Western audiences remain most familiar with the films of Akira Kurosawa, many other directors in that same span of over fifty years have continued to extend the limits of the samurai film.

Their new genre heroes are physically or psychologically scarred, ostracized and stigmatized by their society.  Aware of the intransigent nature of societal judgments, their violent responses are invariable and understandable both as generic constructions and simple, desperate acts.  In Kurosawa's case, whether it is a body falling in slow motion or bandits writhing in mud as a score of villagers descend upon them with bamboo spears in Seven Samurai or the fountain of blood that gushes from the chest of the losing duelist at the end of Sanjuro (1962, pictured at left), the visualization of death is manipulated so as to be beyond strict conventions of realism.  Nonetheless in these pictures and in Yojimbo, Kurosawa helped to bring the genre to maturity not merely by injecting it with wry humor but also by fashioning heroes more intent on anonymity than vainglory, more concerned with concealing their martial abilities than displaying them.

In the same vein, Masaki Kobayashi's Hara-Kiri and Rebellion (Joi-Uchi, 1967) are a manifestation of developing anti-feudal themes.  The extreme cynicism of both films is focused on the oppressive concept of clan loyalty, to the point where the bushido ideal of a noble—or, in Western terms, tragic—death is rendered contextually impossible.  All lives and deaths in an impersonal and meaningless social order become inevitably impersonal and meaningless as well.  The reward for obeisance or rebellion is ultimately the same, indistinguishable annihilation.  The hopelessness of the title action in Rebellion does not negate the ethical “rightness” which motivates it; but Kobayashi’s bleak, overriding determinism will not permit the “rebellion” to assume more than a personal significance, will not allow his characters to genuinely threaten the established order.

Kobayashi like Kurosawa remains traditional in the sense that he stages his action relative to thematic constants.  They derive from and outline a consistent world-view.  Characters who reject the feudal values of Tokugawa implicitly reject the principle of mono no aware as well and instincts of sensitivity and sadness are replaced by the more fundamental concept of survival.  In the years just following Yojimbo and Hara-Kiri, directors such as Masahiro Shinoda, Hideo Gosha, and Kihachi Okamoto have made action (i.e., violence) into a more purely expressive component in their films.  As their characters are estranged from their environment, violence functions as both existential definition of their being and the most direct method for expressing their oppressed relationship to that environment.  Okamoto's Samurai Assassin (Samurai, 1964) and Sword of Doom, Gosha's Sword of the Beast (Kedemono No Ken, 1965), Goyokin (1969), and Tenchu, and Shinoda's Assassin and Samurai Spy (Ibun Sarutobi Sasuke, 1965) all possess the same “anarchic” qualities.  Through unnervingly orchestrated sound effects of steel ripping into flesh and images of spurting blood which stains clothing or—as in both the murderous battle which closes Samurai Assassin [pictured] and the final duel of Goyokin—which leaves dark, red blotches in freshly fallen snow, a new type of samurai is defined: pitiless, obsessive, perhaps more alienated than any other genre hero.  The ninja sub-genre—which features exponents of ninjutsu, a Heian era martial art that originated in the Koga and Iga regions late in the first millennium—often features the exploits of Iga clan spies, who became an essential part of Tokugawa espionage system and individual practitioners from first Iga follower of Tokugawa, the legendary Hanzo Hattori Masashige, onward.  A unique aspect of these films in terms of chambara is the kunoichi or female ninja.  For while no female could become a samurai, a significant number of ninjutsu practitioners were young women.  In the late 1970s and long before Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1987), the hooded, dark-clad and semi-magical spies crossed over to the mainstream partly via Hong Kong-made pictures and became a martial arts icon in the West.

Toshiro Mifune as Tsuruchiyo in the final battle in Samurai Assassin (1964) [page 39 first edition, page 54 typescript] With the identification of this new breed of fictional samurai who are somewhat less than noble and may have flecks of rust on their formerly untarnished weapons, of ronin less stalwart than the legendary 47 ronin, the classical limitations of the genre have been expanded but not entirely superseded.  Both independently and as a whole, the post-War samurai films may make a disturbing impression on the Western viewer.  This is not merely because of their violent content and visceral style but also because their directness runs counter to those clichés of ambiguity and understatement which the West has formulated for the East, because the consistent display and ultimate impotence of the violence in these films are as difficult to accept as the idea of contemplative men being cold-blooded killers.

Visual Conventions.  Visual style in the samurai film, as has already been suggested through a number of examples, contributes to and reinforces narrative and character development.  It does not constitute a genre convention in the same sense as these others.  Certain motifs which may reoccur in the work of various filmmakers—such as the use of slow motion or elaborate special effects in the sequences of combat—are heavily predetermined by an iconic typing which has no visual specificity.  As the sword, for instance, is an icon, its treatment in film is associated with both kendo style and the sword-dances of classical theater.  Any film's visualization of swordplay is highly derivative from these or primarily an elaboration of previous usages, both social and artistic.  A second set of conventions influencing film is rooted in earlier visual arts.  For example, the assumption of the Eastern landscape painter that the spectator is not standing in an ideal spot merely observing the work but is actually within its topography contributes to a heritage of visual expression as to the Early version of the great wave by Katsushika Hokusai  (1760-1849). manner in which a filmmaker inscribes his frame.  The pen-and-ink simplicity of terrain, a fondness for mists, and line drawings which emphasize the interfacing of earth, sky, and sea are other qualities of traditional Japanese landscapes that often find equivalents in filmic images.

The best known artists of the Tokugawa era were viewed from the isolationist principle of ukiyo-e or “images of the floating world.”  In a literal sense the “floating world” is the island of the Japan, removed from all outside influences by the Tokugawa policy.  In a figurative sense, it is the organizing principle behind material reality.  As such, it permeates art work as diverse as the landscapes of Katsushika Hokusai and the theater posters of Kitagawa Utamaro, it underlies the great wave [pictured] or tea plantation painted by Hokusai and the geishas of Utamaro alike.  Utamaro, Hokusai and scores of other artists, such Utagawa Kuniyoshi and Utagawa Kunisada (Toyokuni III), produced numerous ukiyo-e prints centered around the Chushingura legend. [pictured below is a print by Kunisada]

Hokusai is credited with creating the term manga (literally “funny pictures”), which was retroactively applied to many captioned wood-block prints of the 18th century.  Since World War II, the term manga has been associated with long-form comic books which are immensely popular with consumers of all ages.  One of the earliest samurai manga was a version of “Tange Sazen” drawn by modern-manga pioneer Osamu Tezuka and published in book form in 1954.  Sazen, a one-armed, one-eyed samurai created in the 1920s by novelist Fubo Hayashi (a pen name of Umitaro Hasegawa) was first adapted into a film by Daisuke Ito in 1928 and more than a score of other movies and television versions have followed, most notably Gosha’s The Secret of the Urn (Tange Sazen Hien Iai-giri, 1966).  Tezuka wrote about his approach that:

Ukiyo-e print by Utagawa Kunisada (1786-1864) inspired by the Kanadehon Chushingura.

Most manga were drawn from a two-dimensional perspective like a stage play.  Actor’s entrances from stage left and right focused on the audience.  I came to realize there was no way to produce power or psychological impact with this approach, so I began to introduce cinematic techniques from the German and French movies of my student days.  I manipulated close-ups and angles and tried using many panels or many pages to faithfully capture movements and facial expressions that previously would have been a single panel.2

It did not take long for chambara-manga to proliferate.  Anime or Japanese animation for features and television soon sprang from manga, and scores of animated samurai stories have been produced.  Just as the movies he watched as medical student during World War II help to shape Tezuka’s style, manga and anime techniques have influenced many post-War, live-action filmmakers.

Finally, there are a number of principles of aesthetic perception which antedate mono no aware.  Besides Seami's notion of yugen (literally “mystery” or “obscurity”) cited at the beginning of this chapter, there are wabi (melancholy or desolation), sabi (weathered or antique), and shibui (silent or understated).  Seami’s classic examples of these qualities—sabi found in a tarnished silver bowl full of snow, yugen in the moon partially hidden by rain clouds—suggest how a motion picture can be grounded in forms antecedent to its invention, as part of an organic conception of art and a belief that, within the introspective and experiential totality of a work, author style may be “mysteriously” transformed into viewer emotion.

None of this is to say that the samurai film, particularly since World War II, has been shackled by a host of aesthetic prescriptions, that any filmmaker has mistaken his method of expression for the scroll landscapes of Sesshu or the Noh drama of Seami.  As should become apparent in succeeding chapters, most of these extrinsic, formal prejudices have, under the shadow of Western film production and as part of the indigenous evolution of the Japanese motion picture, been thoroughly transmuted or entirely discarded over the last few decades.  The same is true of factors which intrinsically affect the basic images of any motion picture, usages such as widescreen aspect ratios and color film stock, to which all but a handful of Japanese productions have conformed since the 1960's, or the preeminence of long focal length lenses.  Both pre-Modern aesthetics and post-War technology contribute to the genre's imagistic conventions; but neither does so in a dominant way.

If, in fact, the samurai film possesses a genotypical visual style, it may be related as much to the ideographic nature of the Japanese language as it is to aesthetics or technology.  All of these are involved in the complex question of how film generates figurative meanings.  The development of color, wide-screen, and lenses of greater focal range control in an obvious way the production of any given film image.  A step further along, aesthetic considerations may be overlaid, and a filmmaker's fondness for the primary colors of Utamaro Kitagawa may relate to the actual colors employed.  But the conceptual thought which supports that production is intricately bound up with certain perceptual dispositions.

On a literal level, the conventions of “squaring” written characters which are themselves patterned after a rough sketch of the object represented—for example, the ideograph for “sun” which was originally drawn as is squared off to become —produces in most Japanese films an emphasis on straight lines and angular compositions over curves and circular forms.  The fact that words are read from left to right and top to bottom means that an image is scanned similarly.  As a consequence, if persons or objects are “stacked” from foreground to background in a CinemaScope frame, the stage line linking them will most often recede from right front to left rear or top front to bottom rear.

On a figurative level, the sometimes metaphorical way in which the ideographs themselves are constructed may have implications for the creation of visual metaphors in Japanese film.  Sergei Eisenstein argues in his essay “The Cinematic Principle and the Ideogram” that the ideograph is a linguistic analog to the process of montage, since each combines sub-units or sub-images to produce a higher meaning.  Perhaps a clearer understanding of the relation of the ideograph to perception can be found in Ernest Fenollosa's study of Chinese poetry.3


Mother                                                       Sees                                                         Sunrise

The first level of metaphor is internal, pertaining to the construction of each symbolic word.  While the structural addition of  (woman) plus  (breast) to equal mother seems mainly physiological,  (sun) plus (horizon) is a pictorial compound in which each element adds to a visual understanding of the other through context, i.e., it is metaphoric in the sense of elucidation through contrast.  Finally,  (eye) plus  (legs) is almost purely figurative, as it derives the notion of vision itself from a metaphysical image of the eye running towards a perceived object.  On an external or interactive level, even when the ideograms are placed vertically, Fenellosa distinguishes a complex of a dynamic, metaphorical syntax in which the eye seems to run from the mother towards the rising sun.  The problem with the analyses of both Eisenstein and Fenellosa is that, in actual usage, the “montage” or synthetic stage is eliminated.  An ideograph such as  is not read metaphorically by adding the sub-units of  and or by relating to any graphic signification, which is grounded in perception.  Simply put Japanese is a phonetic language, which took the ideographs to symbolize the sounds already in the language not their concepts.  Many words in Japanese require two or more ideographs, each representing a phoneme and/or syllable.  Consequently most words are apprehended in a purely arbitrary manner, that is, just as an English-speaker would associate the letters in “sunrise” by rote with a memory image of an actual event.

Can Japanese film, then, as Fenellosa suggests of ideographs, “bear its metaphor on its face”?  Clearly, any film viewer, Eastern or Western, whether from a phonetic or hieroglyphic linguistic background, has a choice when searching for visual meaning.  One can first search interiorly, in mise-en-scène or the interaction of figures within the shot, or exteriorly, in montage or the interaction of separate shots.  But if Japanese filmmakers have a greater general tendency towards conditioning their audience to the interior method than their Western counterparts, it is not apparent from their films.  It remains then for figurative usage as well as the other stylistic and narrative questions to be further examined at the level of the individual motion picture.


1. Translated by Ryusaku Tsunoda and Donald Keene in Anthology of Japanese Literature.

2. Tezuka quoted in Chad Boudreau, “An Abriged History of Manga,” Comicbookreaders.com.

3. Ernest Fenellosa, The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry.

This article is excerpted from Chapter Two of The Samurai Film, New York: Overlook Press, 3rd Edition, 2005 and is Copyright © 2005 Alain Silver

Alain Silver is a Santa Monica, California-based writer/producer/director of independent feature films who is currently in post-production on an adaptation of Dostoevsky's “White Nights.”.His books include genre surveys on the vampire and gangster film, director studies of Robert Aldrich and David Lean, and seven volumes on film noir. More information is available at http://www.samuraifilm.com.