To most martial arts movies fans here in America, there are two kinds of movies: dubbed Hong Kong movies, usually shown at late night or cable stations, their latter day and more respectable descendants in the works of Jackie Chan or Jet Li, or the American product from the likes of Van Damme or Norris.
But there is a third genre that is just as important historically, and in my opinion, just as enjoyable, as a Hong Kong kung fu movie or American action thriller.
That genre is the samurai film, or “chambara” as it is more specifically known.
I think of the samurai film as the thinking man’s action genre.
This uniquely Japanese art form often can serve the same purpose as a good science fiction film in that social or political issues can be addressed, disguised and “removed” from the viewer’s everyday world.
All chambara films take place within a historical context, much like the American western.
And many of them, particularly those that were made in the 1960’s, addressed the injustices brought on by the strict adherence of “bushido,” the warrior code followed by the samurai, as well as the abuses that the majority of the historical Japanese population (farmers) endured under the ruling samurai elite.
These movies don’t feature noble, selfless warriors, such as to be found in the Tom Cruise movie “The Last Samurai.” They feature arrogant, bigoted, and sadistic elitists who use idealistic thought to manipulate and abuse those who they consider to be “inferior.” The protagonists (anti-heroes really) are usually those who either don’t want to be a part of that system or are whole heartedly fighting against that system (and usually losing.)
You don’t have to know anything about “bushido” to understand these films, or to glean something from them.
Maybe as Americans, we never had a caste system of elite warriors ruling over farmers, but for a long time, we did have racial prejudice (conceptually the same, since both involve one group being “superior” over another.)
As an American born raised in a strict Catholic household, I never experienced “bushido”, but I did experience a mode of thought that elicited guilt feelings over natural human feelings and behaviors.
So these movies are special to me and I hope that other martial arts movie fans who have yet to experience them will take the time to watch them.
They may not feature wild stunts like in a Jackie Chan film, nor fancy choreography like in a Shaw Brothers “Venom film”, but they can elicit an emotional response that’s at once unique and familiar.
Below is a short list of some, though certainly not all, of my personal favorites.
All of the ones I’m listing have just the right combination of thought provoking themes while having plenty of doses of action.
I chose seven movies for essential viewing (seven, as in “Seven Samurai” which I didn’t list since many American are familiar with that fine film, due to it’s being remade as “The Magnificent Seven”, a fine western in it’s own right.)
They’re all available in dvd in one form or another. Catch them them if you can!
Ninja: A Band of Assassins (1962): The Iga clan of Ninja hire themselves out to fight the warlord Oda Nobunaga when he declares certain sects of Buddhism as “enemies.” These ninja are descendants of these sects and now must fight for their lives. Starring the late Ichikawa Raizo
New Tale of Zatoichi (1963)L The justly famous “blind swordsman” in his second outing. A masseur, he is hired to massage an important noble lord (”daimyo.”) Unfortunately, this daimyo is also insane and any clan that has such a master is ordered to be abolished by law under the Tokugawa shogun , the ruler of Japan. So in order to protect their house, the daimyo’s samurai deem it necessary to murder the very masseur they hired! (And they discover that though blind, killing Zatoichi is not an easy task.) Starring the late Katsu Shintaro.
Harakiri! (1963): An elder, but quite deadly ronin (samurai without a master) forces an arrogant clan to confront the hypocrisy of bushido after they order his son to commit ritual suicide when, in desperation, he essentially begs for employment. Starring Nakadai Tatsuya.
Sleepy Eyes of Death: Full Circle Killing (1964) A psychotic illegitimate son of the shogun “tests” his swords by beheading peasants. Unfortunately for him, the half breed ronin, “Sleepy Eyes” Nemuri has witnessed this and stands in his way. Starring the late Ichikawa Raizo
Zatoichi Challenged (1967) The blind swordsman is back, escorting an orphan to his father. Unfortunately, his artist father is forced by a corrupt clan to make illegal art for foreign trade (Japan was a closed nation until 1853.) Not only must Zatoichi save the boy’s dad from the bad clan, he also has to save him from the Shogun’s agents who feel they have to kill him to avoid “the embarrassment” of having the illegal trade happen in the first place! Starring the late Katsu Shintaro.
Samurai Rebellion (1967) A henpecked samurai is forced by his clan to accept a new “daughter” as wife to his son. The girl was a former lady in waiting for the lord. After his son and new daughter in law actually fall in love (a condition he’s never had in his marriage), his lord later changes his mind and wants the girl back (this after forcing her on the samurai’s family.) She wants to stay. The samurai and his son want her to stay. The rest of the clan wants her to go back to the lord. Expect three misfits to take a just, if doomed stand. Starring Mifune Toshiro.
Baby Cart In The Land of Demons (1973) Remember the old “Rifleman” tv series that featured a gunman and his boy? Well, this is (sort of) similar. Masterless samurai daddy and his boy are hired to kill the lord of a clan that’s imprisoned his rightful heir in favor of an illegitimate heir (the daughter of the lady in waiting he’s fallen in love with.) The catch is, the samurai who hired “The Lone Wolf and Cub” also have to try to kill him in protection of the very lord they want dead…out of “duty.” Based on a popular comic book series, this starred Wakayama Tomisaburo (the brother of “Zatoichi” Katsu Shintaro) and Akihiro Tomikawa as his boy.