Samurai cinema

Actors playing samurai and ronin at Kyoto's Eigamura film studio

Chanbara (チャンバラ), also commonly spelled "chambara", meaning "sword fighting" movies,[1] denotes the Japanese genre called samurai cinema in English, and is roughly equivalent to western cowboy and swashbuckler films. Chanbara is a sub-category of jidaigeki, which equates to period drama. Jidaigeki may refer to a story set in a historical period, though not necessarily dealing with a samurai character or depicting swordplay.

While earlier samurai period pieces were more dramatic rather than action-based, samurai movies post World War II have become more action-based, with darker and more violent characters. Post war samurai epics tended to portray psychologically or physically scarred warriors.[2] Akira Kurosawa stylized and exaggerated death and violence in samurai epics. His samurai, and many others portrayed in film, were solitary figures, more often concerned with concealing their martial abilities, rather than showing them off.[2]

Historically, the genre is usually set during the Tokugawa era (1600–1868). The samurai film hence often focuses on the end of an entire way of life for the samurai: many of the films deal with masterless ronin, or samurai dealing with changes to their status resulting from a changing society.

Samurai films were constantly made into the early 1970s, but by then, overexposure on television, the aging of the big stars of the genre, and the continued decline of the mainstream Japanese film industry put a halt to most of the production of this genre.[3]

Samurai film directors

Daisuke Itō and Masahiro Makino were central to the development of samurai films in the silent and prewar eras.

Akira Kurosawa is the best known to western audiences, and similarly has directed the samurai films best known in the West. He directed Seven Samurai, Rashomon, Throne of Blood, Yojimbo and many others. He had a long association with Toshirō Mifune arguably Japan's most famous actor. Mifune himself had a production company that produced samurai epics, often with him starring. Two of Kurosawa's samurai movies were based on the works of William Shakespeare, Throne of Blood (Macbeth) and Ran (King Lear). A number of his films were remade in Italy and the United States as westerns, or as action films set in other contexts.[4] His film Seven Samurai is one of the most important touchstones of the genre and the most well-known outside Japan. It also illustrates some of the conventions of samurai film in that the main characters are ronin, masterless unemployed samurai, free to act as their conscience dictates. Importantly, these men tend to deal with their problems with their swords and are very skilled at doing so. It also shows the helplessness of the peasantry and the distinction between the two classes.

Masaki Kobayashi directed the films Harakiri and Samurai Rebellion, both cynical films based on flawed loyalty to the clan.

Kihachi Okamoto films focus on violence in a particular fashion. In particular in his films Samurai Assassin, Kill! and Sword of Doom. The latter is particularly violent, the main character engaging in combat for a lengthy 7 minutes of film at the end of the movie. His characters are often estranged from their environments, and their violence is a flawed reaction to this.[4]

Hideo Gosha, and many of his films helped create the archetype of the samurai outlaw. Gosha's films are as important as Kurosawa's in terms of their influence, visual style and content, yet are not as well known in the West. Gosha's films often portrayed the struggle between traditional and modernist thought and were decidedly anti-feudal. He largely stopped making chambara, switching to the Yakuza genre, in the 1970's. Some of his most noted movies are Goyokin, Hitokiri, Three Outlaw Samurai, and Sword of the Beast.

Kenji Misumi was active making samurai films from the 1950's to the mid 1970's. He directed roughly 30 films in the genre, including some the Lone Wolf and Cub films, and a number in the Zatoichi series.

An excellent example of the kind of immediacy and action evident in the best genre is seen Gosha's first film, the Three Outlaw Samurai, based on a television series. Three farmers kidnap the daughter of the local magistrate in order to call attention to the starvation of local peasants, a ronin appears and decides to help them. In the process, two other ronin with shifting allegiances join the drama, the conflict widens, eventually leading to betrayal, assassination and battles between armies of mercenary ronin.[5]

Recently, another director, Keishi Ōtomo has directed a live action adaption of Nobuhiro Watsuki's manga series Rurouni Kenshin, which tells the story of a former Ishin Shishi named Himura Kenshin (formerly known as "Hitokiri Battōsai" (人斬り抜刀斎?) who, after the end of the Bakumatsu, becomes a wanderer of the countryside of Japan offering protection and aid to those in need, as atonement for the murders he once committed as an assassin. The film was a huge success. Rurouni Kenshin was theatrically released on August 25, 2012 in Japan, grossing over $36 million in that country and over $60 million worldwide as of November 2012. It was released in DVD on December 26, 2012. The film has been licensed for distribution in over 60 countries in Europe, Latin America and Asia. The movie premiered in North America as an opening selection for the 2012 LA EigaFest in December 14, 2012. Two sequels titled Rurouni Kenshin: Kyoto Taika-hen and Rurouni Kenshin: Densetsu no Saigo-hen were released in 2014.


Main article: Zatoichi

A burly masseur and yakuza with short hair, he is a skilled swordsman who fights using only his hearing. While less known in the West, he is arguably the most famous chanbara character in Japan.

Crimson Bat

Main article: Crimson Bat

Four movies were made about another blind samurai, Oichi aka "the Crimson Bat". Her character was a blind female sword fighter, and made in response to the huge success of Zatoichi.

Nemuri Kyoshirō

Main article: Nemuri Kyoshiro

Nemuri Kyoshirō, the master of the Engetsu (Full Moon Cut) sword style, was a wandering "lone wolf" warrior plagued by the fact that he was fathered in less than honorable circumstance by a "fallen" Portuguese priest who had turned to worshipping Satan and a Japanese noblewoman whom he had seduced and raped as part of a Black Mass and who had committed suicide after Kyoshiro was born. As a result, Kyoshiro despised both Christianity (which he considered weak and hypocritical) and the Shogunate government (which he considered corrupt).

Miyamoto Musashi

Main article: Miyamoto Musashi

A number of films were also made about Miyamoto Musashi, a famed historical warrior and swordsman, including a three movie series about his life starring Toshiro Mifune and a six movie series about his life starring Yorozuya Kinnosuke.

Lone Wolf and Cub

Main article: Lone Wolf and Cub

Lone Wolf and Cub, the tale of a samurai traveling Japan with his son in a wooden pram (which is armed and on occasion used in combat) was made into a six-film series starring Wakayama Tomisaburo as Ogami Itto and a live action television series called Kozure Ōkami (1973 to 1976) starring actor Yorozuya Kinnosuke as Ogami Ittō.

Sanjuro / The Ronin with No Name

Sanjuro, played by Toshiro Mifune, is the wandering ronin character appearing in two of Kurosawa's films, Yojimbo and Sanjuro. The character is nameless, but when required gives the name Sanjuro (which means "thirty-ish male"), and then makes up a surname. Mifune later played analogous roles as a nameless wandering ronin called Yojimbo ("Bodyguard") in two films released in 1970: Incident at Blood Pass, and the Zatoichi film Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo.

The Yojimbo figure is sometimes referred to as "the ronin with no name", as a reference to the "Man with No Name" character portrayed by Clint Eastwood in Sergio Leone's "Dollars Trilogy" of Spaghetti Western films.

The Bored/Crescent-Scarred Hatamoto (aka The Idle Vassal)

Played on film by Utaemon Ichikawa, in made-for-TV movies by Kin'ya Kitaōji (Ichikawa's son, who also appeared with his father in some of the films) and in a television series by Hideki Takahashi, this series related the adventures of Saotome Mondonosuke, a hatamoto or direct vassal of Shogun Tsunayoshi, whose 'Crescent-scar' on his forehead signifies his right to kill in the name of the Shogun and rid Japan of corruption and evil. In a series of over twenty films, Saotome craves action to fight the boredom he feels when not pitting his sword skill against those who would corrupt Japan.

Tange Sazen

Main article: Tange Sazen

Tange Samanosuke, a Sōma clan samurai, is attacked and mutilated as a result of betrayal, losing his right eye and right arm, and becomes a nihilistic ronin, using the pseudonym "Sazen". He's been played in numerous films by Denjirō Ōkōchi (大河内傳次郎 Ōkōchi Denjirō), Tsumasaburō Bandō, Ryūtarō Ōtomo, Ryūnosuke Tsukigata, Kinnosuke Nakamura, and Tetsurō Tanba.

Shikoro Ichibei

Played by Wakayama Tomisaburo in three films and later a TV series. In the first film, Ichibei was a secret agent of the Shogun himself sent to investigate a secret deal by the Satsuma clan with a Dutch warship involving repeating rifles to be used in an uprising against the Shogunate; he at first clashed with but later teamed up with Kagero, a female Iga ninja sent by the Shogunate Council on the same investigation. In the next two films, Ichibei had become a local doctor who moonlighted as a bounty hunter to finance his free clinic for the poor; Kagero (who had also turned bounty hunter) and his clinic assistant Chie were the only ones who knew of his double life. In the TV series Shokin Kasegi, Ichibei was now the principal of a free school for orphans and children of local poor folk, but still worked as a bounty hunter to keep the school running, usually on jobs sent on by the Finance Minister; Kagero and Chie (who were still the only ones who knew his double life) worked with him as school staff (Chie in charge of school finances and Kagero as "gym teacher"). Kagero usually accompanied Ichibei on jobs, but many times they would work with other bounty hunters (depending on the skills needed to bring in a bounty). This series was different from most, as both the protagonists and the villains also relied on a number of different repeating firearms.

Himura Kenshin

Main article: Himura Kenshin

Himura Kenshin (緋村 剣心), known as Kenshin Himura in the English-language anime dubs,[6] is the protagonist from the Rurouni Kenshin. Kenshin is a former legendary assassin known as "Hitokiri Battōsai" (人斬り抜刀斎)[note 1]. Kenshin wanders the countryside of Japan offering protection and aid to those in need, as atonement for the murders he once committed as an assassin. In Tokyo, he meets a young woman named Kamiya Kaoru, who invites him to live in her dojo despite learning about Kenshin's past. Throughout the series, Kenshin begins to establish lifelong relationships with many people, including ex-enemies, while dealing with his fair share of enemies, new and old. The character is portrayed by actor Takeru Satoh in three live-action versions of the story (Rurouni Kenshin, Rurouni Kenshin: Kyoto Taika-hen and Rurouni Kenshin: Densetsu no Saigo-hen) directed by Keishi Ōtomo.


A samurai film must include samurai warriors, sword fighting, and historical setting. Samurai warriors, in film, are differentiated from other warriors by the code of honor, bushido, followed to honor the samurai's leader. Bushido did not become codified till the seventeenth century. A samurai must perforce be skilled in warfare and martial arts and ready to defend his honor even to his death. If not able to defend his honor, a samurai may choose to commit self-disembowelment, seppuku, in order to save reputation or "face." Instead, a samurai may exact vengeance in a case of the loss of someone the samurai cared about, such as occurs in the film Harakiri. In Harakiri, Hanshiro Tsugumo takes revenge on the house of Kageyu Saito for the loss of his adopted son-in-law, who was forced to commit suicide by the house of Kageyu Saito. The house of Kageyu Saito refused to give the son-in-law money. Because he had asked to commit suicide he was forced to perform self-disembowelment, with a remarkable twist not revealed in this discussion. Hanshiro knows an example was unrightfully made of his son-in-law in order to discourage the asking by impoverished samurai for donations from the house of Kageyu. In film, motivation may vary but the samurai’s behavior is to maintain honor even in death and is perpetuated by the code of bushido.

Also, looking at the historical setting of the film the audience can take cultural context[9] of the samurai in that certain period. For instance the Sengoku era (1478-1603) saw Japan torn by civil war as daimyo warlords fought for control of land. In the Tokugawa era (1603-1868), peace from civil war meant there were no wars for the samurai to fight and some samurai became ronin, masterless warriors left to struggle to survive. In the Meiji era (1868-1912), we see a decline of the hereditary existence of the samurai and the rise of westernization. In this period the ideal of the samurai and the code of bushido are popularized into the military warrior’s belief. The time frame meant changes in the sorts of conflicts for the samurai to fight and film would capture their resistance against overwhelming odds.

A recurring conflict the ideal samurai encounters is the ninjo and giri conflict.[10] Ninjo is the human feeling that tells you what is right and giri is the obligation of the samurai to his lord and clan. The conflict originated from overwhelming control of the Tokugawa bakufu government over the samurai’s behavior. Often samurai would question the morality of their actions and are torn between duty and conscience. This conflict transcends eras in samurai films and can create the perception of the protagonist as being the moral underdog or steadfast warrior. In The Last Samurai, Katsumoto is no longer of use to his emperor and sentenced to self-disembowelment. He goes against his duty to follow through with his sentence and flees to fight his final rebellion against the central government’s army. Ninjo and giri conflict is dynamic to the character of the samurai.

The samurai warrior is often synonymous with his/her own sword. Although swordsmanship is an important aspect of warfare, idealizing the samurai and the sword as having a bond is an invented ideal, although it is popularized in many dramas. The Tokugawa period saw a change in the type of warfare, as combat shifted from the bow and arrow to close range combat with handheld weapons, and competitive sword competition.

There are a number of themes that occur in samurai film plots. Many feature roaming masterless samurai, seeking work or a place in society. Others are period historical tales of true characters. Others show tales of clan loyalty.[4]

Influence on western cinema

Initially early samurai films were influenced by the still growing Western film genre before and during World War II. Since then both genres have had a healthy impact on one another.[11] Two forefathers of the genre, Akira Kurosawa and Masaki Kobayashi, were influenced by American film directors such as John Ford.[12][13][14]

A number of western movies have re-told the samurai movie in a Western context. Italian director Sergio Leone's A Fistful of Dollars and Walter Hill's Last Man Standing are both remakes of Yojimbo. Clint Eastwood's "man with no name character" was modeled to some degree on Mifune's wandering ronin character that appeared in so many of his films. The Hidden Fortress influenced George Lucas when he made Star Wars. Seven Samurai has been remade as a Western and a science fiction context film, The Magnificent Seven and Battle Beyond the Stars. Other samurai influenced western movies include Charles Bronson and Toshirō Mifune in Red Sun (1971), David Mamet's Ronin (with Jean Reno and Robert De Niro), Six-String Samurai (1998) and Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999).[15] The Zatoichi character was re-made as Blind Fury in the United States, starring Rutger Hauer as a blind swordsman living in the modern US. Most recently, The Last Samurai, the story being loosely based on the true historical French officer Jules Brunet assisting Japanese samurai in rebellion against the Emperor.

List of notable samurai films

Title Director Release Date Comments
Orochi Buntaro Futagawa 1925
Humanity and Paper Balloons Sadao Yamanaka 1937
The 47 Ronin Kenji Mizoguchi 1941
Jakoman and Tetsu Senkichi Taniguchi 1949-07-11
Rashomon Akira Kurosawa 1950-08-25
Conclusion of Kojiro Sasaki-Duel at Ganryu Island Hiroshi Inagaki 1951-10-26 This was the first time that Toshirō Mifune played Musashi Miyamoto.
Vendetta for a Samurai Kazuo Mori 1952-01-03
Gate of Hell Teinosuke Kinugasa 1953-10-31
Seven Samurai Akira Kurosawa 1954-04-26
Samurai Trilogy Hiroshi Inagaki
  • 1954-09-26
  • 1955-07-12
  • 1956-01-01
Throne of Blood or Spider Web Castle Akira Kurosawa 1957-01-15 A Japanese version of Macbeth.
The Hidden Fortress Akira Kurosawa 1958-12-28 A key inspiration for Star Wars
Samurai Saga Hiroshi Inagaki 1959-04-28 A Japanese version of Cyrano de Bergerac.
The Gambling Samurai Senkichi Taniguchi 1960-03-29
Yojimbo or The Bodyguard Akira Kurosawa 1961-04-25 A Fistful of Dollars was based on this film
Tsubaki Sanjuro or Sanjuro Akira Kurosawa 1962-01-01
Harakiri Masaki Kobayashi 1962-09-16 Won a prize at the Cannes Film Festival.
Chushingura Hiroshi Inagaki 1962-11-03
Three Outlaw Samurai Hideo Gosha 1964
Sword of the Beast Hideo Gosha 1965
Samurai Assassin or Samurai Kihachi Okamoto 1965
The Sword of Doom Kihachi Okamoto 1966
The Adventure of Kigan Castle Senkichi Taniguchi 1966
Samurai Rebellion Masaki Kobayashi 1967 This won the Fipresci Prize at the Venice Film Festival.
Kill! Kihachi Okamoto 1968
Samurai Banners Hiroshi Inagaki 1969
Red Lion Kihachi Okamoto 1969
Band of Assassins Tadashi Sawashima 1969
Goyokin Hideo Gosha 1969
Hitokiri (Tenchu) Hideo Gosha 1969
Watch Out Crimson Bat Hirokazu Ichimura 1969
Mission: Iron Castle Kazuo Mori 1970
Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo Kihachi Okamoto 1970
The Ambitious Daisuke Itō 1970
Incident at Blood Pass Hiroshi Inagaki 1970
Shogun's Samurai Kinji Fukasaku 1978
The Fall of Ako Castle Kinji Fukasaku 1978
Kagemusha Akira Kurosawa 1980 Nominated for a best foreign film Oscar.
The Bushido Blade Tsugunobu Kotani 1981
Legend of the Eight Samurai Kinji Fukasaku 1984
Ran Akira Kurosawa 1985 Japanese adaptation of King Lear. Won Oscar for Best Costume Design; won 25 other awards and 15 nominations.
Shintaro Katsu's Zatoichi or

Zatoichi: Darkness Is His Ally

Shintaro Katsu 1989-02-04 Directed, written and starring Shintaro Katsu.
Heaven and Earth Haruki Kadokawa 1991-02-08
47 Ronin Kon Ichikawa 1994
The Twilight Samurai Yôji Yamada 2002-11-02 Nominated for a best foreign film Oscar.
When the Last Sword Is Drawn Yojiro Takita 2003-01-18
Zatoichi Beat Takeshi 2003-09-02 Directed by and starring Beat Takeshi, this film was the Silver Lion award winner at the Venice Film Festival.
The Hidden Blade Yôji Yamada 2004-10-30
Love and Honor Yôji Yamada 2006-12-01
Castle Under Fiery Skies Mitsutoshi Tanaka 2009
13 Assassins Takashi Miike 2010
Sword of Desperation Hideyuki Hirayama 2010-7-10
Ichimei Takashi Miike 2011



See also


  1. "Hitokiri". The term refers to an assassin and translates as "manslayer". Within the Rurouni Kenshin universe "Battōsai" refers to someone who has mastered battōjutsu.[7] Assassins during the bakumatsu adopted professional names; for instance Kawakami Gensai was known as Hitokiri Gensai.[8]


  1. Hill (2002).
  2. 1 2 Silver (1977), p. 37.
  3. Japan: A New Wave (retrieved on 07/13/2008)
  4. 1 2 3 Silver (1977), p. 44.
  5. White, p. 1.
  6. "Rurouni Kenshin TV Series Season One Box". Media Blasters. Archived from the original on July 14, 2011. Retrieved July 15, 2009.
  7. Watsuki, Nobuhiro (2003). "Act 13: The Meaning of the Name". Rurouni Kenshin, Volume 2. Viz Media. ISBN 1-59116-249-1.
  8. Watsuki, Nobuhiro. "Glossary of the Restoration". Rurouni Kenshin, Volume 3. Viz Media. p. 190.
  9. Galloway, Patrick, Stray Dogs & Lone Wolves: The Samurai Film Handbook, (Berkeley: Stone Bridge P, 2005), 16-17.
  10. Galloway, Patrick, Stray Dogs & Lone Wolves: The Samurai Film Handbook, (Berkeley: Stone Bridge P, 2005), 18.
  11. Cowboys and Shoguns: The American Western, Japanese Jidaigeki, and Cross-Cultural Exchange PDF.
  12. Shaw, Justine. "Star Wars Origins". Far Cry from the Original Site. Retrieved December 20, 2015. December 14, 2015
  13. Patrick Crogan. "Translating Kurosawa." Senses of Cinema.
  14. Midnight Eye review: Kwaidan
  15. White, p. 2.
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