Shoot ‘Em Up & Slice ‘Em Down: A Cross-Cultural Examination of Western and Samurai Cinema

Seven Samurai Poster

Seven Samurai (1954) poster

At first glance, one may look upon films such as Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961) and Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and think that the two are wholly aesthetically different, coming from two separate genres.  The samurai and western genres, however, are more correlated than one might believe.  The samurai film, and other forms of jidai-geki (period piece), is “singularly Japanese in that it draws upon the peculiarities of Japanese history and myth just as the Western [has drawn] upon those elements in America” (Nolley 232).

The similarities are various, even amongst their histories, but which ones would have helped Japan and the United States latch onto the other’s traditional genre, especially in the case of the United States?  First, it will be necessary to examine how influences have not been just a one-way street.

American Influence on Japan

Akira Kurosawa, arguably one of Japan’s most important filmmakers, may have started his career with other forms of jidai-geki and cemented his legacy with Rashomon (1950), but he is most notable for being the greatest auteur that samurai cinema has ever seen.  Films such as Seven Samurai (1954), Throne of Blood (1957), Yojimbo (1961), and Ran (1985) have received international acclaim, multiple awards, and remain some of the most influential pieces of cinema to come from Japan.  He admits, however, that the influence for his films, specifically Yojimbo, was born “out of a love for the Hollywood Western” (Frayling 122).  He points out that “Westerns have been made over and over again, and in the process a kind of grammar has evolved” and that he has “learned from this grammar of the Western” (Frayling 122).

What Kurosawa says about the western not only applies to Japan, but also to the rest of the world.  The image of man in a cowboy hat with a pistol at his hip is recognizable the world over and the “explanation for the astonishing popularity of the Western can be contained in one word: Hollywood” (Buscombe 15).  Hollywood has always been the dominant force in the global film industry, and even during its turbulent history, the Western genre always seemed to find its way into theaters or television screens.  Whether or not anyone calls themselves a fan of the genre, anyone can recognize the iconography.  The influence has been global, and the effects are certainly visible in samurai cinema.

pp32043-fistfull

A Fistful of Dollars (1964) poster

Japanese Influence on the U.S.

There are certainly a fair share of westerns and filmmakers that owe their thanks to samurai cinema.  John Struges remade Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai as the western The Magnificent Seven (1960), and the ‘Man with No Name’ character popularized by Clint Eastwood was the product of Toshirô Mifune’s ‘Samurai with No Name’ from Yojimbo.  The history is present, although the influence is perhaps a little more speculative.  From 1930 to 1968, the Motion Picture Production Code, a set of strict guidelines by which filmmakers had to follow in order for the censors to approve their films, dominated Hollywood.  The originators of the Code were concerned with the effects that film might have on the moral standing of the American people, and one of their chief concerns was the depiction of violence.

Among many other stipulations, the Code essentially told filmmakers not to depict violence in a graphic or excessive manner.  As long as the violence was central to the plot, it was deemed acceptable.  By 1960, however, the American public became more liberalized and the Code’s authority began to crumble.  Filmmakers, such as Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone, were slowly able to get away with more brutal depictions of violence.  With American – although perhaps Western, because of Leone’s identity as an Italian – directors finding influence from samurai cinema, it is entirely possible that depictions of violence from Japan, whose film were not affected by the Code, inspired them to push the bloody boundaries of what could and could not be shown.

As previously stated, numerous aesthetics of samurai cinema were an influence on the western genre, but which aspects do these two share that Americans would have been able to identify with most?

Ties to the Landscape

Although potentially a less obvious reason for an American embracing of samurai cinema, the presentation of the Japanese landscape in these jidai-geki bears a few similarities to other depictions of the landscape in the western.  Admittedly, however, not very many samurai films “present the wide open spaces of the old-style Western.  The Japanese setting has always tended to close in on the swordsman” (Anderson 9).  Some westerns may do the same with the right intimate setting, but ultimately the territory remains too important a piece of iconography to ignore.

As J.L. Anderson points out, for the most part, the “expansive natural landscapes with the body of a Western film contrast with the closer views of blossoming flowers, pools of reflecting water, butterflies soaring in the wind, and solitary naked bushes of the conventional jidai-geki” (10).  What this quote from Anderson points out, however, is a similarity in the romanticizing of the landscape that the samurai film presents.  The iconography and how it is depicted may differ, but the presentation from both reveals nostalgia for images of nations of old, and could instill as sense of national pride in the viewers.  American viewers may have embraced the samurai film as a means of Orientalizing Japan, but there is no denying the similarities between the western and the samurai film and the influence it had.

There is, however, a more obvious reason for an American embracing of the samurai film, and it lies with the protagonist.

All a Man Needs is a Weapon and His Morals

Whether the hero uses a sword or a pistol, American audiences embraced samurai cinema because of its traditional depictions of powerfully masculine protagonists resembling the loner heroes of the western.  Kenneth S. Nolley accurately states that films from both genres “are about how a group of people with a great deal of expertise (as fighters) employ their expertise in the defense of a group of people weaker than they” and these groups of people are mostly, if not always, strong men (233).  These men have been used to exploit graphic violence in both sorts of cinema, and their use has reinforced traditional ideas of masculinity, in terms of physicality.

For both sorts of films, however, honor and the inner battle between duty and morals have been essential narrative qualities, even in the seemingly lawless Wild West.  Just as the samurai have the code of bushido – at least, in those that do not attempt at being revisionist – and the inner struggle between giri (duty) and ninjo (personal morality), the West and its characters, mostly, abide by an unspoken code of honor and experience the same struggles.  For instance, to attack a person from behind “is to violate, if not the code of the real West, then the code of the Western movie” (14).  Some outlaws, such as Billy the Kid, may break this rule, but for the most part protagonists in westerns uphold whatever honor they have.  Additionally, some western protagonists, such as Pat Garrett, experience the same inner struggle as those in samurai films, as he struggles with having to kill longtime friend and outlaw Billy the Kid.

Discussion Questions:

1. Western and samurai films have been one of the most successful and popular genres for each respective country’s film industries, but have equally turbulent histories experiencing rapid booms and steady declines.  They may not be as popular anymore, but can we still call them culturally relevant?  Is there any chance for a resurgence in popularity in contemporary cinema?

2. One of the reasons that makes western and samurai films so unique is that each is immediately recognizable based upon the iconography that has been instilled in the minds of viewers for decades.  If there is any chance to save both genres from falling into obscurity, does the iconography need to be updated to modern times?  Has the traditional setting for each been so engrained in cinema that audiences need these familiarities to recognize a film as belonging to either genre?

Sources:

Anderson, J. L. “Japanese Swordfighters And American Gunfighters.” Cinema Journal 12.2 (1973): 1-21. Film & Television Literature Index with Full Text. Web. 5 Apr. 2015.

Nolley, Kenneth S. “The Western As Jidai-Geki.” Western American Literature 11.3 (1976): 231-238. America: History & Life. Web. 5 Apr. 2015.

Frayling, Christopher. Sergio Leone: Something to Do with Death. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012. Print.

Buscombe, Edward, ed. The BFI Companion to the Western. New York: Atheneum, 1988. Print.

Links:

Samurai Cinema 101 – http://www.midnighteye.com/features/samurai-cinema-101/

The Motion Picture Production Code of 1930 – http://www.und.edu/instruct/cjacobs/ProductionCode.htm

“How the Western Was Lost (and Why it Matters)” by Michael Agresta – http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2013/07/how-the-western-was-lost-and-why-it-matters/278057/

Comments

  1. Interesting article!

    I never really considered a correlation between the American Western film and the samurai film in Japan. It is an interesting concept that the two have similarities in not only their themes but also their character development. You mention in your post that Americans accepting samurai movies may be due to efforts to orientalize Japan but do you think that this is because Americans are trying to make sense of another culture and thus trying to fit it into something they are more comfortable with or do you think they really do find similarities between Western films and samurai films? You also mention that influence from samurai films may have pushed the boundaries of violence in American films. Do you think that this violence can be a cultural mark of the Japanese film or just a feature that American films have picked up on?

  2. I really enjoyed reading your analysis of Japanese Samurai films and Hollywood’s Western movies. I personally don’t watch movies often or know a lot about them, but I agree that traditional notion of masculinity and moral values are core components of both the movies. I find it interesting that even though they solve interpersonal or intra-personal problems in a rather physical (violent?) way, the protagonists at least have always been seen as someone noble and honorable.

    What you mentioned about the use of landscape in both movies was very interesting, too. Again, I cannot say I have seen any of the Samurai or Western genre movies to contribute much, but I can definitely see your point there. In Wild Western context, I guess the land has a significant meaning and value to the people, as it meant an opportunity, hope, prosperity, adventure, etc. to name a few, and thus it seems reasonable for the movies to frequently present and emphasize the open landscape in contrast to Samurai movies. Recently, I learned in cross-cultural psychology class that western cultures tend to focus more on an object whereas Asian cultures tend to put more emphasis on the overall background. So it was really interesting to see a counterexample, if it can count as one.

    Thank you for sharing your keen insight on this topic.

  3. mazuschlag says:

    I had known about the influence the samurai genre had on American westerns, but I hadn’t realized the influence was a two way street. Both seem to not only reinforce the masculine hero trope, but they both also seem to rely on a certain degree of lawlessness. In an age where complex government bureaucracies keep a nation at relative peace, it’s easy to see how both societies would desire media that contains more personal action and danger. It also makes me wonder if ultra-nationalists from Japan see such films as a generally positive thing, considering it romanticizes both a nation’s past and the warrior mythos.

    This may be a bit off topic, but in modern times I can’t help but see a connection between super hero comics (Batman, Superman, etc) and the incredibly popular shonen manga (Naruto, Bleach, etc). These genres also contain masculine heroes and combat, much like their forerunners in samurais and westerns. Is it possible that samurais and westerns continue to influence these pieces of media? Does the tradition of Japanese-American cinema influencing one another continue today, but in comics? Although the western and samurai have diminished in popularity, maybe the same sorts of tropes have simply re-branded themselves.

  4. lflucerocarter says:

    Cool topic, I didn’t know that American westerns and Japanese samurai films had these connections. Do you think Japanese samurai films are comparable to Japanese anime as far as influence goes? As far as romanticizing the past goes? Or is it worth comparing the two?
    It’s interesting that the portrayal of men in samurai films mirror one another. Is this the same for the way women are portrayed?

    Looking forward to your presentation, thanks for sharing.