16. Cowboys and Samurai: Comparing the Signature Genres of Two Movie-Making Super-Nations (or, My Introduction to Foreign Films)

Chapter One: The Obligatory Ramblings of a Self-Promoting Narrator

The structure of this website is one of narrative: idea by idea, I try to take my readers into the world of film competency.  I write chapters (like the one you are now reading) that introduces and explains a certain element of my film theory.  I then write reviews and lists that accompany the chapter.  Recently, I have attempted to bring to light the golden era of American talkies, the 1930s and 1940s, through an essay series called “The Great American Screenplays.”  I have, during the course of this essay series, written chapters on the screwball comedy and the Western.  I accompanied these essays with reviews on It Happened One Night, Duck SoupThe Philadelphia Story, Sullivan’s TravelsMy Darling Clementine, Stagecoach, The Treasure of the Sierra Madreand Red River.  After completion of these, I would move on to the third of the great American screenplay genres, the film noir.

All seems to be going according to plan, right?

Well, as my avid readers (all three of them) know all too well, I often deviate from my narrative.  The deviations, when they occur, are normally seasonal.  Two seasons came up in the last few months that have paused my progression through film theory and history.  The first season was, of course, the holiday one; I indulged myself and my readers with Yuletide reviews of Miracle on 34th Street, Holiday Inn, White Christmas, Scroogeand It’s a Wonderful Life.  The second season which I deemed significant enough to justify my tangents was what we film-lovers call “Awards Season”.  This deviation manifested itself, as it always does, as a single post selecting my picks for the best in each Academy Award category, but it took a long to time to prepare.  Now that Oscars are officially over, you can compare and contrast my votes with the now-public decision of the Academy.

The deviations, though, must come to an end.  I desire, now, to take you back the narrative of the Film Sage, where we apply his “A Slice of Cake” theory to the multiple elements of great cinema in an attempt to open your eyes to all that is wonderful about the industry and the art.

Chapter Two: Why Talk About Samurai Movies Now?

If you are an avid reader of mine, you either 1) read the previous four paragraphs with focus and determination, or 2) skipped the first four paragraphs altogether, knowing that I have a tendency to talk too much.  You are also probably asking yourself a couple questions.  The questions you are asking go something like this, I’m sure:

“What explains the jump from American movies to samurai movies?  What do Japanese films have to do with screwball comedies and Westerns?  Weren’t you going to talk about film noir as part of your “Great American Screenplays” series?”

Yes, I did have full intention, and still do, on continuing the “Great American Screenplays” series with an essay and reviews on film noir in the 1930s and 1940s.  That is forthcoming.  But, I cannot ignore the incredible opportunity it is to introduce yet another fantastic cinematic genre.

That genre is, as you’ve already guessed by this chapter’s title, the samurai film.  The reason why the samurai film fits so well within the context of these “Great American Screenplays” is because it parallels the American Western so well.  You see, every country makes dramas.  Every country makes comedies.  Every country makes period pieces, family films, animated films, and science fiction films.  But, the Western and the samurai film are incredibly unique.  No other genre is so decidedly American as the Western, just as no other genre is so decidedly Japanese as the samurai movie.  They are literally mirrors of each other, touching on the societal symbolism that cowboys and samurai hold in their respective societies while dabbling in history, fiction and the cultural “dream” of their nations.  They are both patterns of the national mythology.  They both tell stories of loners.  Even their action sequences have a similar demeanor.

The simple truth is, if you want to see the role that samurai film plays in Japanese cinema, one need look no further than the American Western.

I believe that a study of the Japanese samurai genre at this point in my blog can do nothing but benefit my readers.  The purpose is two-fold: 1) it will introduce them even earlier to foreign-language cinema, and 2) it will collaborate and complement their understanding of the significance of the Western.

The remainder of this essay will tackle these points.  First, let’s talk foreign cinema.

Chapter Three: Things to Consider When Watching Foreign Films

I have dabbled briefly in foreign films with my review of Battleship Potemkin, written when I was doing my first wave of movie reviews. If you look at my list of 555 great films (the list from which I select which movies I will review), you will notice that over half of the them were produced outside the United States. I have mentioned great foreign films constantly throughout my blog. You cannot go more than a few paragraphs in this blog without reference to the works of Jean Renoir, Andrei Tarkovsky, Yasujirô Ozu, Federico Fellini, Robert Bresson, and countless others.  I have learned that you can’t put off foreign films if you’re going to be competent in the realm of film.  You need to be immersed in the works of foreign lands if you are to appreciate the works in your own nation of origin.  A true film connoisseur does not differentiate American-made and non-American-made movies.  They recognize that equal excellence comes from equal sources, that the human—if only by nature of being human–can create art regardless of birthplace.

The art, though, can be incredibly varied.  There is no question that there are significant cultural forces at work when one watches the work of, say, Ingmar Bergman, and then watches the work of David O. Russell.  You can see, at first glance, that a director like Russell cares a lot about one-on-one conversations, quicker edits, and has a heavy emphasis on method acting.  Comparing his work with Bergman’s, who has a heavier emphasis on aesthetics, script, and long takes, one can see that Russell has far different goals in mind when he goes about making his movies.  The question that a competent film connoisseur then asks him- or herself is this:  “Why?”

Remember, as you watch foreign films, the words of Roger Ebert, words that I have quoted often in this blog: “Most good movies are about the style, tone, and vision of their makers.”  The world of the filmmaker should be reflected in the films that he or she creates.  When a director tries to create a reality that other people live, you can almost feel the tangible fraud of it all.  A movie, like all works of art, tells us more about the creator and his or her ideas than it does about anybody else. Factors like religion, art, politics, family, climate, and history compound piece by piece, day by day, and generation by generation to influence what a person becomes.  These factors create a different cosmology for each individual, leading to different outlooks and opinions on life.  This gives flavor to cinema.  You don’t have to agree with a certain creator’s ideas, you must merely understand them.  Great cinema works to get you there.  These are what give life to an English-speaker’s viewing of a non-English language film.

I think that a lot of casual film-watchers say that subtitles make it difficult to watch foreign language films.  The reality is that you can get used to those subtitles very early, just spend 5 minutes.  The true difficulty, I think lies in these cultural barriers: foreign films are just different.  But, again, when you try to understand the world that the artist sees, these differences bring life to your viewing.  In this regard, foreign films, when well-made, are incredibly tasty “slices of cake.”  They give is another reality that can be ours for a moment.  That reality can touch us emotionally or politically, or maybe it can just trigger our imagination.  Either way, it is not our reality.

I think that crossing that barrier is easiest done a piece at a time.  One does not just watch Godard’s Week End and all of a sudden understand the audacity of the French New Wave.  I will try to take you into the world of the foreign film in pieces, starting with the samurai film of Japan.

Chapter Four: The Japanese Samurai Film as a Springboard into Foreign Films

Go look online.  Search “best foreign films.”  Some more enlightened websites might give you a healthy variety of responses to that query, but most of your run-of-the-mill, poll-driven lists will almost always be topped by Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. (You’re going to read “Akira Kurosawa” a lot for the next few weeks, so might as well memorize the name now).  Is it a bad thing that Seven Samurai tops all these lists?  Not at all.  Seven Samurai is, without a doubt, one of the finest films ever made and is very high on my own list of great movies.   The point here is not to argue the merits of this, the most famous of all samurai films.  The point here is to show you that there are a lot of Americans that connect with Seven Samurai.  It speaks to them; far more that Fellini’s 8 1/2 might speak to them or Parmajanov’s The Color of Pomegranates might speak to them.  It entertains them; far more than Godard’s Vivre sa Vie or Antonioni’s Red Desert might entertain them.  Somehow, the cultural barrier that can, at times, discourage the casual film watcher from viewing foreign films is smaller when it comes to this special movie.

Why?  Well, that’s the point of this chapter.  I believe that this movie is so much easier for the casual American film-goer to watch because of its haunting similarities to the American Western.  There is something about the Western—and I have tackled this concept in an earlier post—that rings true for the American viewer, and much of its resonances are shared with the samurai film genre, most particularly Seven Samurai.

Let’s take the next bulk of this essay to looks at the parallels between the two signature genres of these two movie-making super-powers, the United States of America and Japan.

Chapter Five: Parallels Between Samurai Films and Westerns

The cowboy and the samurai are idealists and loners.  They fight against an oncoming incursion of a new world order by fighting for the traditions of the past.  They are national symbols of a founding myth: one based on agrarianism, loyalty, patriotism, and spirituality.

These two soldiers of self, the cowboy and the samurai, touch film in the same ways because they are, for the most part, the same people.  They are harbingers of virtue, not in the sexual sense, certainly, but in the sense of undying honor to the codes of their people.  For the American cowboy, those codes of honor parallel the Jeffersonian ideals of freedom and agrarianism, a conflict of man versus an untamed frontier.  His democratic honor is focused on people and their abilities to grow and be independent, to harness the land and use it for their own benefit.  Their virtue is seen in an undying loyalty to order.  In their case, that “order” is the Constitution of the United States, the law that will tame the virgin land.

The Founding Fathers often referred to something called “republican virtue”.  This was all based on these Jeffersonian ideals: reverence to the Constitution and the American experiment, complete fealty to self and country, and a focused determination to expand into a frontier in which they can live the perfect, agrarian life.  This was the code of the cowboy, and remains, to this day, the symbol he holds for society.  A symbol of times past, and ideals not forgotten.

For the Japanese samurai, he held different codes of honor.  But, they were, like those of the cowboy, codes that focused on a cultural virtue.  I don’t profess to be an expert in samurai history, and, to be honest, you don’t have to be an expert to understand their role in cinema.  This isn’t a history website, and these aren’t documentaries.  These are works of fiction, and we are talking about these characters in the context of their symbolic contribution to the genre.  And, in the cinema of Japan, these samurai were even more romanticized than the cowboys in America.

The conflicts that these characters face find their common ground in a war against modernity.  The invitation of an urbanized and industrial world with its city centers and corruption is a threat to the virtuous way of life of both the samurai and the cowboy, and both are found locked in a duel with the inevitable.  They both play out as loners as a result.  They are singular champions against a societal wave.  Of the two, the samurai ronin–the masterless wanderer–is the most lonely.  He embraces an honor that he holds above all other things, despite the fact that, for some reason or another, in a scene unseen, they have list that honor.

This battle against modernity automatically makes both the cowboy and the samurai “old-fashioned”, no matter how right or wrong they are.  They symbolize the past and traditions and origins.  They represent the first edition of the culture, before it’s renewal in the baptism of iron, steel, oil, and banks.

They begin, by their own literary merit, to make up the pantheon of their own nations’ founding myth.

Because these movies deal with such similar themes, they play out in an incredible parallel.  Even their action sequences are almost identical.  Unlike the marital arts films of Japan’s neighbor or the spy thrillers of America and Great Britain, they don’t often have drawn-out, high-flying, no-holds-barred fight sequences.  No, their closing violence consist, instead, of the quick-draw shootout and the quick-draw samurai swordfight.  Both are characterized by a single, fluid movement.  Whoever makes that movement faster, wins.  Whoever does it slower, loses, normally with his life.  The excitement in the scenes does not come from the action itself, but rather from an astute utilization of build-up through plot and film editing.  Interchanging shots will cut from one combatant to the other until that final, fateful moment of truth.  This principle of montage is covered thoroughly in my essays on the topic.

Cinematographically, the construction of the images are equally shared.  Both cowboys and samurai are often photographed pitted against nature. And while the contrast of man and terrain is more defined in cowboy films, they certainly aren’t lacking in the samurai ones.  Complex cinematographic endeavors defined samurai cinema, as directors like Akira Kurosawa and Masaki Kobayashi would construct intricate tracking shots through trees and grasses.  Often samurai were introduced within a natural context.  The opening sequence of Kurosawa’s Yojimbo comes to mind: we see the samurai first from his boots (cowboys wear boots too), walking on a sandy part forged through desert grasses.  As his feet move forward, so does the camera, and it gradually moves upward until we see his face against the sunny sky.  The samurai, in this image, seems to grow from the earth itself, as if born of the land.  Is there any better way to portray a national myth than to show him born of the land?

For both the cowboy and the samurai, their virtue is not necessarily found in chastity, but in conflict.  Already in this blog I have quoted the great André Bazin, who had cited the importance of women in the American Western.  The cowboy, or any man in the context of the genre, is naturally flawed, and can only find redemption through two media: the perfection of a companion female, and the overcoming of a greater evil through his own appeal to courage.  For the samurai, the female element is gone, so the aspect of overcoming is all the more significant to the samurai’s quest for virtue.

As a result, both the cowboy and the samurai have an intimate relationship with death.  The cowboy, once his virtue is found (and in some cases, in order to find that virtue) must go down in a blaze of glory.  The samurai was even more extreme, as it needed to be considering the added importance of courageous victory in their code.  Each samurai carried two swords: a longsword for dueling, and a short one for harakiri.  The blaze of glory for the samurai was more than just a ride into the firestorm. It was a willingness to disembowel the self rather than betray the codes of virtue.

The parallels between these two genres go on, but I think I have discussed it sufficiently.  Perhaps no better example illustrates the parallels than the example of the Western remake.  Seven Samurai was remade as The Magnificent Seven (and Three Amigos!, A Bug’s Life, and others).  Rashomon was remade as The Outrage.  Yojimbo was remade as A Fistful of Dollars and Django.  One cannot ignore the translate-ability of the western and the samurai film.

Chapter Six: The Role of the Samurai Film in Japanese Culture 

The real difference between these two genres comes in the perspective.  Where the American Western is focused on perpetuation of a tradition—in particular, the tradition of the American Dream.  The expansion westward was part of the American experiment and its role in the Western is one of preservation.  They move in order to continue the agrarian tradition, allow each individual their own spot of earth wherein they can live in liberty, raise their family, and create a community wherein they can exercise their rights independent of an encroaching urbanity.  The Western films are about these microcosms of the American expansion.

The samurai film, though, is not about looking forward and preserving a tradition.  It’s actually about quite the opposite.  The samurai film looks backward, at a period of honor that is already lost.  It’s about the reasoning behind its failure.  It’s about the flaws and the strengths of an old system, now overwhelmed by a modernity that embraces the Eastern ideals of community rather than individualism.  Often, these flaws are commented on through satire and outright criticism.  Sometimes, the romance of the old samurai ways is integrated into its wrongness, in movies such as Kobayashi’s masterpiece, Harakiri.

When it comes to the discipline’s glorification, though, there stands Hiroshi Inagaki’s Samurai Trilogyamong other things.  There seems to be this striving for the things of the past in movies like those, which implies a recognition that those things are gone.  The American Western never makes these concessions; at all times there seems to be an admission that patriotism and the American Dream are still alive, if only, at times, in vestiges.  But, the samurai film is fully invested in the past, with little translatable elements in the future.

In the 1950s, this desire for the past was probably at its strongest in Japan, a nation not only suffering from its post-war wounds, but also teetering on the edge of a knife with its neighboring nations (the USSR, China, and the Korean peninsula) being central players in an international Cold War with the United States.  Japan’s role in this global dynamic was one of pawn in many ways, struggling to find its post-war identity.  Its transition to democracy would lead it to untold fortune in the 1980s, but the transition, particularly in the 1950s, was not easy.  Undoubtedly, there was probably some real hostility towards the West in the minds of many in the Japanese intelligentsia, particularly the United States.

Due to this, there were several directors whom we here in the States now deem as masters who actually faced a lot of backlash from the cinematic elite in Japan.  Perhaps the most significant of these auteurs was Akira Kurosawa, whose immense popularity in the States with such films as Seven Samurai, and Yojimbo (as well as non-samurai pictures like High and Low and Ikiru), led him to be considered “too Western” for Japanese audiences.  Certainly the domestic antipathy toward Kurosawa did not last forever; it can likely be chalked up to this transition-based animosity toward the West before the full embrace of democracy later on.  He is, today, considered by many across the globe to be the greatest of the Japanese directors.

(Note: the Film Sage has a different selection for the greatest Japanese director.  That award goes to Yasujirô Ozu.  However, I will uphold the decision that Kurosawa is the greatest of samurai movie makers).

Kurosawa is well represented in my list of the greatest films of all time.  Of his eight films in the list, five of them are samurai masterpieces: Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, Sanjuro, Ran, and Roshomon.  Additionally, a sixth film, Red Beard, is a period piece set in the same time.  He isn’t the only one who shows up on the list representing this genre.  Other directors reached immortality through their dabblings in the genre, like Kenji Mizoguchi (Ugetsu), Masaki Kobayashi (The Samurai Rebellion), and Hiroshi Inagaki (Musashi Miyamoto).

But directors weren’t the only people who reached stardom through the samurai film.  Perhaps the greatest movie star in the history of Japan is Toshiro Mifune, who really was Japan’s version of John Wayne.  Like Wayne, he would star in movies that were not of his signature style, but he would be forever remembered for the genre that made him a legend.  Mifune’s co-star in Seven Samurai, Takashi Shimura, would also reach super-stardom.  If Mifune was Japan’s Duke, then Shimura would don the every-man hat much like Jimmy Stewart did in the States.  Despite the fact he was in far more non-samurai pictures than samurai ones, his role as the stoic leader of the Seven Samurai remains one of his most hallowed.

Together, these movie stars and these directors built up a genre that would come to dominate international cinema in the 1950s, just, coincidentally, as the Western was reaching its peak.

Chapter Seven: Conclusion

Sometimes I have the tendency to talk a point to death, but please indulge this last paragraph or two.  Now is the time in the voyage of the casual film-goer to move into the realm of samurai movies.  Truly, there are few nations that can lay claim to an entire genre.  But, in Japan, there exists just such a realm of topic, plot, and setting.  The samurai film is Japan’s signature genre, just as the Western is the United States’.

There is no better way for an American movie-lover to start watching foreign films than to start with the samurai genre.  The ideals of individualism, loyalty, and virtue are emboldened and accentuated in their violence, drama, and action.  So much of their content touches on those principles of mythology and heroism that we love in our movies, while simultaneously engulfing us in touching dramas about human frailty and loss.  I have said at many points of this blog that the world of cinema is broad and, occasionally, daunting.  Just like our own world, one learns to appreciate by learning its history and visiting its beautiful places.  I try, through this blog, to introduce you to the history of this world, and tell you the best I can about its landmarks.  But, you have to go visit the landmarks on your own.  Hopefully, this chapter will prepare you for some of those landmarks, which I will be introducing to you in a series of film reviews that are forthcoming.

4 thoughts on “16. Cowboys and Samurai: Comparing the Signature Genres of Two Movie-Making Super-Nations (or, My Introduction to Foreign Films)

  1. Pingback: The Samurai Trilogy (1954-1956) | A Slice of Cake

  2. Pingback: Seven Samurai (1954) | A Slice of Cake

  3. Pingback: Rashomon (1950) | A Slice of Cake

  4. Pingback: Gone With the Wind (1939) | A Slice of Cake

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