Kurosawa and the Western Samurai

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When most people think of Japan, a few things come to mind, and for many people, one of those things are samurai. They were an elite group of men, and sometimes women, who dominated Japan for nine centuries. The word samurai literally means “to serve”, and they did, serving their lords until their dying breath. From the Tenth Century to the Satsuma Rebellion of 1877, the samurai played a huge role in Japanese history. While they no longer exist, samurai have become icons of Japanese culture and it is all thanks to film. Japanese cinema is where samurai became the icons of Japan, for the films reached audiences around the world. Films directed by Akira Kurosawa and other Japanese directors, have immortalized samurai and even influenced Western directors. Much like other historical figures, samurai have been dramatized for audiences, blurring the lines between history and fiction. The image of samurai the people have today are surrounded by myths, and Akira Kurosawa created the distorted image.
Japanese films involving samurai did not really take off until after the American occupation of Japan after World War II. During the American occupation, the Civil Censorship Detachment put in place bans on thirty-one different topics that could not be made for Japanese cinemas. Samurai were seen as imperial propaganda, and thus were banned from films. Once the Americans left Japan, Japanese film directors were allowed to make the films they wanted to once again. One director who took on the topic of samurai after the war was Akira Kurosawa. Akira Kurosawa was one of the most popular directors in postwar Japan. Kurosawa’s first postwar film was Rashomon, which was released in 1950. While it did not get good reception from the Japanese public, it did win the Venice Film Festival, and afterward Kurosawa’s films began to rise in popularity. Kurosawa’s film are of the jidai-geki genre, or “period piece”. Jidai-geki films are films that focus on the era known as the Tokugawa Period (1603-1868), but it includes other eras of Japanese history. Its main focus is on the people of the time that has been chosen, but this is not always the case, for Kurosawa’s Ran (1985) is a timeless piece and is a retelling of William Shakespeare’s King Lear, but it is considered to be a jidai-geki film.
Akira Kurosawa’s films were quite different, mostly because of his Western spin on them. Growing up, he has watched many American Westerns and silent films, instead of Japanese films. Samurai films with a Western flair were the types of films he wanted to make, however, his ideas were too Western and did not pass Japanese censorship during World War II. He was able to come up with a idea that passed the censors, but then Japan lost the war, resulting with the American occupation. After the Americans left, Kurosawa began working on his Westernized samurai films. It is these Westernized influences that Kurosawa introduced into his films that have clouded the historical truth about samurai, spawning many myths about samurai that many people believe to this day.

Myth #1: Katanas were a samurai’s only weapon

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The first myth that is the most common about samurai revolves around the katana. The word katana was first cited to have been used during the Kamakura Period (1185-1333). They are strong steel sword that are sharp enough to cut through a solid block of ice. Katanas were popular close combat weapons with a blade that comes close to thirty inches in length. In films, there is always a katana by a samurai’s side, and for movie goers, it would seem that the katana is the weapon of choice for samurai. While it is true that samurai had katanas, it is only because they had the money to pay for such a weapon. Katanas were extremely expensive swords and were exclusive only to the samurai class because of their price. The katana was not the only weapon that samurai used in battle. Samurai were trained to wield many different weapons, such as bows, spears, and knives. During the latter half of the Sixteenth Century, samurai began bringing the Western weapons to the battlefield: arquebus and cannons. A prime example of this use of Western weapons on the battlefield was the Battle of Nagashino in 1575, where the infamous samurai, Oda Nobunaga (1534-1582), trained 3,000 of his ashigaru (“foot soldiers”) to use arequbus and fire upon the approaching Takeda calvary in volleys, and ultimately defeating them. Other unconventional weapons were used if the traditional ones were not available. Once such tale of this usage comes from the Fourth Battle of Kawanakajima in September 1561. Takeda Shingen defended himself from Uesugi Kenshin with only a war fan after Kenshin charged into his main camp as part of a surprise attack. The katana is not the only weapon that samurai used, however, because it was a symbol of their class, they did carry katanas, but it was not their exclusive weapon.

Myth #2: Seppuku was only done for honor

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Seppuku, or hara-kiri, is also associated with samurai. Seppuku was a form of ritual suicide that samurai partook in to regain honor after having become dishonored. The man or woman would be thrust a small sword, known as a wakizashi, into the abdomen, twist it, then drag it across their abdomen. If they were lucky, someone would standby with a katana, known as “the second”, and behead them. In films, seppuku is seen as means of honor, and it is a way for samurai to regain their honor when they ended up disgraced. Film has propitiated the idea that seppuku is only performed during these times, but that is not true. People believe that samurai never retreated, but they did when they could. In fact, seppuku was even committed on the battlefield as a last resort as a way to escape capture. One such case of this can be found in history at The Battle of Sekigahara, which took place on October 21, 1600. Ōtani Yoshitsugu, an advisor in the Western Army and who was suffering from leprosy, made the decision to commit seppuku on the battlefield after an ally, Kobayakawa Hideaki, turned traitor. Yoshitsugu told his second to hide his decapitated head from the enemy, which were seen as trophies during this era. His head has never been seen since. While seppuku has been romanticized in film as a means of restoring honor, this ritualistic suicide had other motivations than just honor.

Myth #3: Only men were samurai

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Samurai were not an all male class, contrary to what is shown in film most of the time. Women were also samurai, something that is not really highlighted in Japanese films. In films, women are usually the damsels in distress and are always saved by a samurai. This is quite far from the truth, for women who came from samurai families were warriors as well. Women who were samurai were called onna-bugeisha. These women were only from samurai families, and were trained in the same manner as their male counterparts. They did not wield katanas, however, for those were reserved for men. Instead, many onna-bugeisha fought with either a naginata (a curved spear), or a kaiken (a long dagger). Despite the existence of these female warriors, film does bring light to some truth. Most onna-bugeisha never took to the field of battle themselves. Women from samurai families were only trained to defend themselves and the castle if a samurai’s home had been attacked. Rare was onna-bugeisha who took to the battlefield. The most famous onna-bugeisha was a woman named Tomoe Gozen (1157-1247). She fought in the Gempei Wars (1180-1185) alongside the Minamoto clan. Her biggest accomplishment was at the Battle of Awazu on February 21, 1184, where she rode headlong into enemy forces, found the most powerful officer, and then proceeded to dismount, pin, and decapitate him. Though women were not on the field of battle as often as the men, films fails to recognize that there are female samurai. This issue however, is slowly changing with the times, as females are being portrayed as onna-bugeisha in recent films.

Myth #4: Samurai were honorable because of their code

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The Bushido, “The Way of the Warrior”, has been prominently featured in every samurai film ever made. Bushido is the code that samurai live by, focusing on honor, loyalty, life and death, and respect. Samurai were supposed to follow this code, however, in times of war, the Bushido seemed to fall apart for many samurai. Film sometimes focuses on this through the concepts of betrayal and revenge, but film continues the myth that all samurai were virtuous and followed the Bushido closely. Those who remained loyal to their masters, like the code states to do, sometimes had to do things that were dishonorable, but failing to do what the master asked of them would dishonor them. One such case can be seen with the Siege of Nagashima in May 1571, where Oda Nobunaga’s army surrounded a Ikko-Ikki (Buddhist warrior monk) complex and set it ablaze ordering that no one should escape alive. Twenty thousand men, women, and children died during Nobunaga’s siege. Sometimes, samurai would betray their lords because of an order that they thought was dishonorable and they did not want to go through with the order. Other times, it was a grab for power, much like the Honnō-ji Incident, which took place on June 21, 1582. Oda Nobunaga was betrayed by one of his retainers, Akechi Mitsuhide (1528-1582), while he was staying at the Honnō-ji Temple in Kyōto. Nobunaga’s life ended there and Mitsuhide was shōgun (military dictator) for thirteen days until he was killed at the Battle of Yamazaki. Despite the fact that samurai had a code that preached honor and loyalty, most of the time, orders were dishonorable and loyalty was betrayed.

Myth #5: All samurai remained samurai

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Not every samurai follows the Bushido, and those who do not follow the code are labeled as rōnin, or “men of waves”. A samurai could become a rōnin for many reasons, the first being the unwillingness to follow the Bushido. They could have lost their lord due to death or they had dishonored themselves, but would not redeem themselves via seppuku. These men have their own code in life, and surprisingly gets much recognition in film. The problem is that in most films, they do not elaborate on how a samurai becomes a rōnin. One story from history that gets much attention in Japan is the Tale of the Forty-Seven Rōnin. In 1701, forty-seven samurai who served under Asano Naganori became rōnin after he was forced to commit seppuku after he had assaulted a court official named Kira Yoshinaka. The rōnin planned and pulled off the murder of Yoshinaka as an act of revenge in 1703, and agreed to commit seppuku afterwards. The Tale of the Forty-Seven Rōnin is one of Japan’s most popular historical events, and the graves of the Forty-Seven Rōnin is a popular tourist spot. While most samurai followed the code and remained samurai, others disobeyed the code and followed their own path.

Myth #6: Samurai were only warriors

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A samurai film would not be complete without fight scenes. The swiftness that a samurai has pulling the katana out of its sheath to strike down a foe then conceal it again just as gracefully are some of the highlights in these films. Something would be off if these films did not have their classic fight scenes. It seems like all samurai did were fight in battles, either in the streets or on the battlefield. While audiences believe that a samurai is only a warrior, that is not historically true. Samurai were not always at war, and in times of peace, most were scholars and administrators. One historical example is that of Date Masamune (1567-1636), a samurai who ruled most of the Northern region of Japan. During the Sengoku Jidai (1467-1615), he was a fierce warlord, and was one of the most powerful in the whole country. After the Summer Siege of Ōsaka Castle, however, he focused on many projects around his newly established city of Sendai. Masamune even sent an embassy around the world, with Hasekura Tsunenaga in charge of the ship, Date-Maru. Tsunenaga made stops in the Philippines, Mexico, Spain, and established relations with Pope Paul V in Rome in 1613. The letter to Pope Paul V written by Masamune still sits in the Vatican’s archives. This embassy was the first Japanese voyage around the world. Samurai were not only good in war, but in other academic areas as well.

The myths that have been listed throughout this article have all been brought about by film, mostly by Akira Kurosawa. His Western influence on his films dates back to his childhood, and the influence that American Westerns had on him. Watching a samurai film today seems similar to watching an American Western film. Akira Kurosawa has even influenced directors in the West. In 1954, Kurosawa released Seven Samurai, probably his most well-known film. In 1960, The Magnificent Seven was released, which was a Western film that follows closely to the story told in Seven Samurai. The only difference between the two is that one takes place in in Japan with samurai and the other in the “Wild West” America with cowboys. Kurosawa’s films even influenced a much larger film franchise that has made a comeback in recent years. George Lucas created Star Wars with many inspirations from Kurosawa’s films. Some of the scenes in Star Wars are similar to those shot in Kurosawa’s films. The word “Jedi” comes from the word “jidai”, part of the name of the genre of Kurosawa’s films, jidai-geki. Jedi are similar to samurai, with their lightsabers representing futuristic katana, the Force is similar to Buddhism, the religion that samurai followed, and the code Jedi follow is close to the Bushido. Even a Jedi’s clothing is similar to the clothing that samurai wear in films. Darth Vader’s helmet is even based off of a famous samurai’s helmet.
Akira Kurosawa has changed how samurai are viewed by people today. His Western influence has romanticized the idea of samurai, and it is the idea that many people know today, despite the fact that is idea is nothing but a myth. Kurosawa’s films have not only changed the idea of samurai, but also influenced films in the West. American Westerns have been influenced by Kurosawa, just like he was influenced by them. Star Wars is full of references to Kurosawa and samurai culture as a whole, creating an unique science-fiction fantasy film trilogy that has won the hearts of millions all over the world. Akira Kurosawa has not only changed cinema, but also history, for people view samurai through rose-colored glasses, and it is all because of his influence in films.