In the early 1950s, three Japanese movies won Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film. The first of these was Rashomon (1950), a period drama made by Akira Kurosawa. It is widely acknowledged as the first Japanese film to open the doors to the Western market in the years after World War II. The story opens on an almost mythical time in feudal Japan, at the gate to the city of Kyoto, the imperial capital. The gate is in ruins and the empire is in crisis. This is probably the last half of the 12th-century. A samurai has been murdered and four witnesses testify on how it happened and who is guilty. Each testimony contradicts the others.
There was a second film that shared credit for opening the mind of the West to Japanese cinema, though it was not honored by the Academy. This was Ugetsu Monogatari (1953), from director Kenji Mizoguchi. Both Rashomon and Ugetsu combined scenes of peasant life with themes of samurai honor, and both were appreciated more in Western capitals than they were at home.
Ugetsu Monogatari (1953)
Set in the late 1500s, this period drama follows the fortunes of two peasant couples as they seek to thrive in a land beset by civil war. It is fruitless to detail the action in this movie and much better to let it be discovered as it unfolds. Suffice it to say, there are two peasant brothers attempting to fulfill their ambitions in these dangerous times. Their wives are the victims of their zeal. In the end, both men are undone by impossible dreams.
The winner of the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 1954 was Gate of Hell, also a samurai movie. It had the distinction of being the first color film from Japan to be shown in the West. Set in the 12th-century, it is an intense drama of a samurai warrior and his unrequited love for a married lady.
In 1955, Japan took home the last major Oscar it would see for over fifty years. The winner was Samurai, the Legend of Musashi. It tells the story of Musashi (c. 1584 – 1645), a master swordsman who was instrumental in shaping samurai traditions. He is still revered today.
After Rashomon, Kurosawa began work on two more of his iconic works. Ikiru (1952) was set in modern times, and The Seven Samurai appeared in 1954 after a long delay. It was not nominated by the Academy, but has since become the unparalleled classic among samurai movies. It was set in the 16th-century at the peak of samurai power. The fame of this film increased tenfold when it was used as the inspiration for the American Western, The Magnificent Seven (1960).
Yojimbo (1961) – Akira Kurosawa
It is 1860 and Japan is still a feudal culture. Inspired by classic American films, Yojimbo had a strong influence on a new generation of Westerns that followed. Toshiro Mifune is an aging samurai who is looking for a new purpose in life. The old traditions are dying. He is a ronin, a samurai without a master. Wandering alone, he arrives at a town that is plagued by a war between two smalltime gangsters. The music over the opening scenes parodies American Westerns of this time and provides a note of tongue-in-cheek levity that will not play out through the remainder of the movie. Also in the early scenes, some of the secondary characters are played for vaudevillian comedy. This samurai chooses to serve the weaker side of the village rivalry. After he is betrayed, he returns to neutrality, preferring to watch the factions destroy themselves. The plot complications begin to layer up and the film loses a measure of its charm.
Kurosawa experienced a career crisis at the time that the worldwide cultural revolution shifted into overdrive. In 1968, he was fired from the filming of Tora! Tora! Tora!, and in 1971, he made a determined effort at suicide but failed. The films that followed in the 1970s were disappointments at the box office and Kurosawa felt out of step with his times. He made a retro film in Russia, called Dersu Uzala (1975), and won that country an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. It was only after the success of Kagemusha (The Shadow Warrior) in 1980 that he was able to secure funding for his final historical epic.
In 1985, Kurosawa made his last historical epic with a background of samurai themes. Ran was partly based on Shakespeare’s King Lear as well as legends from medieval Japan. It can be viewed as an allegory of the difficulties faced by Japan’s most famous director late in his career.
The abundance of samurai films, stretching from the 1950s to the present, is a strong indication of what Japanese culture wants to say about itself. This is not to suggest, of course, that all Japanese people are bellicose and devoted to the martial arts. It does indicate, however, that when Japan turned around and looked at itself after the catastrophe of World War II, it had to consider a deeply embedded affinity for ritualized combat. The same thing may be said for the German people, looking over their shoulders after 1945. The difference here is that while the samurai tradition has been glamorized, the Nazi legacy has been thoroughly demonized. And not for a moment, would I want to suggest that American popular culture has any less interest in choreographed violence. With this in mind, it becomes interesting to look at this phenomenon through the Japanese lens.
When this 12-hour miniseries appeared on American television, it was a huge success. Based on the 1975 novel by James Clavell, it was felt that American audiences were educated for the first time to an appreciation for the underpinnings of Japanese culture. It was also suggested that this series was in part responsible for the craze in Japanese restaurants and sushi bars. See Wiki.
Shōgun opens at the beginning of the 17th-century in the time when samurai culture was at its peak. It is the story of British navigator John Blackthorne (Richard Chamberlain), a fictional character, who has an experience in Japan very similar to what Marco Polo faced in China several centuries earlier. He is enlisted to use his Western ingenuity to help his host warlord modernize military tactics and defeat the enemies of the old order. First he is imprisoned; later he is made a samurai.
There is a film called The Barbarian and the Geisha (1958), starring John Wayne and directed by John Huston. On paper, it looks like an interesting treatment of the first incursions of Americans into the isolated Empire of Japan during the 1850s, but in reality, it was a troubled film project that bombed at the box office.
The Last Samurai (2003)
This film, set in 1876-77 and inspired by real events, is a vehicle for Tom Cruise. He plays a dissolute cavalry hero brought to Japan to help modernize the Emperor’s army for a battle against the old guard samurai, who are resistant to change. The background for these events is the Meiji Restoration, which began in 1868. The washed up warrior carries guilty memories of American Indian massacres, though they will not inhibit his killing of Japanese adversaries. Cruise changes sides and becomes a samurai. The medieval dynamics of shame and honor work powerfully in this situation.
A History Channel program on the DVD points out that in its glorification of the samurai code of honor the film misses the fact that the ordinary soldiers with their Western guns were freedom fighters. They wanted an end to the old elitist ways and to bring about a beginning of democracy. The Samurai sword was the symbol of the old code, while the modern gun became the instrument of democratization.