A look at the downward trajectory of samurai films and the swelling tide of irrelevancy.
Samurai movies are some of my favorite genre pictures and also the hardest to convince people to watch. In adolescence, my nerdy fascination with samurai films gave me a sense of uniqueness but, as with all things, that disappeared several years later as I came to realize that I wasn’t as special as previously thought. It was as humbling as the moment I realized other people had also seen Good Burger. I have continued to sneak in a samurai movie every once in a while, when no one’s around to override my choice. Now there is a new contribution to the fading genre from Japan- 13 Assassins, a remake of a 1963 film, the newest addition to a substantial samurai canon that includes Seven Samurai, 47 Ronin, Legend of the Eight Samurai, and other movies titled after numbered groups of sword-wielding warriors.
The chambara, i.e. swordfight movies, rose to prominence in post-war Japan as a kind of historical sandbox within which different types of filmmakers worked, often tossing in lots of blood for the masses. An offshoot of period dramas (jidaigeki), samurai cinema generally gives more attention to the killing and action, rather than politics and social dramas of feudal Japan. The ultimate auteur of the genre, Akira Kurosawa’s movies extend beyond the boundaries of chambara or jidaigeki, achieving a space on the shelves of the Mount Olympus film collection. Unfortunately, the history-heavy chambara flicks are the hardest to sell to someone looking for light-hearted entertainment. The names of clans and shoguns and other intricacies of Japanese culture are often an impenetrable wall that reduces the overall effect of the movie for Western audiences. If I was one of the people that sees “Criterion” as a stamp of approval, calling samurai movies “tedious” would be sacrilege. But I’m not. Audiences raised on fast-paced action will doze off as the corrupt local councilman discusses a new trade route with a merchant while sitting perfectly still on tatami mats for twenty minutes- and the scene is in subtitles.
I would understand the average person’s aversion to samurai movies. They’re often ridiculous fantasies about a distant and irrelevant cultural moment, on par with pharaohs and gladiators as simple, ready-made images. One of the strong points of Takashi Miike’s new 13 Assassins is that it combines the drab, politics-heavy aspects of chambara plots with more contemporary fight choreography, art direction, and editing. The end result is a reach towards postmodern pastiche along the lines of Tarantino, but Miike holds back from making a fully satisfying postmodern samurai film akin to Grindhouse, which took shitty genre films with great titles and updated them into extremely watchable movies. Instead, the film is a vague homage to the genre, lacking Miike’s absurdist humor and carefully serving up a comfortable samurai film with familiar characters. The choice to go “arthouse” is evident throughout and Miike’s subdued perversity and violence seems to pander to cultural arbiters and festival judges more than audiences appreciative of a good action movie.
It would be fantastic to have a samurai movie that is a) not overhyped (13 Assassins was carted to most major film festivals and nominated for various awards, including the Golden Lion) or b) glanced over and approved based on little more than its concept and/or the parties involved. There are only a handful of samurai films made in a year, and none of them are circling the idea of reinvigorating the genre. Instead, they pay homage to works past, a banal self-referentiality that has helped shoot the genre off into obscurity. The Twilight Samurai is the only other samurai flick to receive substantial Critic’s Pick treatment in the past ten years, and suggested a resurgence of jidaegeki austerity, a Japanese drama set in feudal Japan. Exaggerated comic book interpretations of samurai would be fine by me- anything to increase enjoyment while watching. As it stands, the genre is just going through the motions. Do normal people really care about the insider reference to another movie contained within the frames of the one they’re watching? Sure, those people exist (I probably qualify as one of them) but we are not the people that you should be making your movie for.
Chambara is not the only form of art to suffer from odious self-referentiality. Everything suffers from self-referentiality, but when a genre as compelling as chambara can be is held inert by pseudo-intellectual Criterion jockeys and critics too lazy to actually look at a foreign film’s merits before churning out a three-star review, the increasingly obsolete genre will most certainly go the way of the dodo. When the newest, edgiest samurai film by arguably the most edgy director in Japan ends up being a single-note remake, something needs to be done. For now, we have a remake of 47 Ronin to look forward to.