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Return of the Jidai: Yamada Yoji and the Post-Modern Samurai Film

Written by Mike Crandol Tell a Friend

Director Yamada Yoji has won quite a bit of praise over the past few years for his trio of samurai dramas, The Twilight Samurai (2002), The Hidden Blade (2004), and Love and Honor (2006). These fine films are all the more remarkable given that Yamada's previous directorial efforts consist almost entirely of Tora-san movies. Between 1969 and 1996, Yamada wrote and directed over forty installments of the long-running but lightweight series which followed the adventures of a perpetually unlucky-at-love traveling salesman in contemporary Japan. When the director began work on his first jidaigeki (period drama) a few years after shooting the final Tora-san movie, he raised more than a few critical eyebrows. Could a man who spent almost three decades churning out innocuous slice-of-life romantic comedies tackle something with as venerable a history as the samurai film? Could he breathe new life into a genre that had been more or less dead on its feet since the 1970s?

Well over a thousand jidaigeki were produced in Japan during the pre-war era; most were destroyed by American bombing raids during the closing months of World War II. The typical pre-war jidaigeki retold familiar samurai legends such as Chushingura (The 47 Ronin) that sang the praises of the samurai who faithfully serves his lord, sacrificing everything in the name of bushido, or "the way of the warrior". After the Japanese surrender in 1945, the Allied Occupation banned production of jidaigeki for fear that such portrayals of "feudal values" would stifle efforts to democratize the country. With the end of the Occupation in 1952, filmmakers returned to the genre in earnest, and the 1950s saw an explosion of samurai movies, with studios like Toei putting out well over fifty jidaigeki a year. While directors like Kurosawa Akira and Kobayashi Masaki used the genre to produce some of the most artistically accomplished and thought-provoking works in the history of cinema, most postwar samurai movies were cheaply produced, formulaic entertainment for a mass audience. The stories and characters were largely interchangeable, but the films consistently delivered what was expected of them - a guaranteed good time at the theater.

Contrary to the Occupation's concerns that samurai movies would create nostalgia for the feudal past, postwar jidaigeki are typically highly critical of the samurai institution. They are almost invariably set during the Tokugawa Era (1600-1868), a long period of peace in which the practical application of bushido was increasingly obsolete. The hero is often a noble and loyal warrior whom the system has failed. In Kobayashi's Harakiri (1962) and Samurai Rebellion (1967), the rigid and outdated bushido code clashes with the peace and well-being of the samurai's home life, ultimately forcing the hero to choose between duty and family. Harakiri concerns the moral dilemma of an impoverished samurai torn between his obligation to commit ritual suicide and the wife and small child he will leave behind. Kobayashi makes it quite clear that the only true dilemma is the stubborn warrior's code that destroys lives in the name of "honor". Although not as technically polished as Harakiri, Samurai Rebellion examines this same theme in even more detail. The great Mifune Toshiro stars as Isaburo, an aging samurai who reluctantly takes in the disfavored concubine of his lord. Isaburo's son marries the woman; the two fall deeply in love and soon have a baby daughter, only to have the lord decide he wants his mistress back. Isaburo must choose whether to do the "honorable" thing and obey his lord's wishes, or fight to keep his family intact. Once again, Kobayashi is rather unambiguous about which is the right choice.

Kobayashi's disillusioned "anti-samurai" make for memorable jidaigeki protagonists, but far more common is the melancholy figure of the ronin - the samurai "laid off" by his master and reduced to a wandering sword-for-hire, a man fighting to maintain his warrior ideals in a world that has no use for them. Unlike Kobayashi's characters, who ultimately reject the system that fails them, the typical ronin film hero upholds the code of bushido to the bitter end. The title band of Kurosawa Akira's Seven Samurai (1954) and the roving anti-hero of his Yojimbo (1961) and Sanjuro (1962) are among the most famous examples of the ronin archetype.

The rise of television in the late 1960s and 70s dealt a fatal blow to the samurai movie, one from which the genre never completely recovered. Families - once the target audience of jidaigeki - were now staying home, and the movie studios had to cater to the (much smaller) demographic that was still going to the theater: young, single males. Not only did the number of films produced decrease dramatically, the content grew increasingly exploitative and violent, although this "late period" of the genre did produce some memorable and noteworthy additions to the samurai movie canon. The pulpy Zatoichi, Lone Wolf and Cub, and Lady Snowblood series all hail from this era. Nonetheless, production of jidaigeki all but ceased completely by 1980. While the odd samurai picture would occasionally pop up throughout the 80s and 90s, it was not until Yamada's Twilight Samurai in 2002 that genuine interest in the genre reemerged.

Like the great jidaigeki of the 1950s and 60s, Yamada's samurai films are set in an exotic past, but speak directly to the times in which they are made. The postwar samurai film, in which the faithful samurai is seldom rewarded for his blind obedience to bushido, reflects the sense of betrayal and frustration many Japanese viewers felt towards the wartime government that led its people down the road to ruin - a government that had made flagrant use of the bushido code in justifying its means. As Japan gradually put the specter of the war to bed, samurai films lost much of their dramatic weight. Zatoichi and other more action-oriented chambara ("swordplay") films from the 1970s are tremendously enjoyable but lack the dramatic resonance of the great postwar jidaigeki. Yamada's great service to the genre was in finding a new voice for the samurai in the 21st century. If Kobayashi and Kurosawa are the masters of the postwar samurai movie, Yamada might be called the father of the "post-modern samurai film".

The Twilight Samurai caused such a sensation on its release in Japan, not for its action sequences (there are only two brief swordfights in the entire picture), but for the way it made the samurai relevant to the modern era. On the surface, the film evokes the old Edo of the Tokugawa, but post-bubble economy Japan can be found peeking around every corner. Actor Sanada Hiroyuki stars as Iguchi Seibei, a low-ranking samurai working a steady bookkeeping job in a cramped storehouse that recalls today's office cubicles. Struggling to make ends meet, he spends his evenings doing piecework with his two young daughters instead of going out for drinks with his co-workers. Not that he would rather be doing anything else. Completely uninterested in the workaholic world around him, Seibei finds greater fulfillment in more simple pursuits, like fishing with his best friend on his day off, or teaching his eldest daughter to read Confucius. The joy Seibei takes in spending time with his family puzzles his more business-minded associates. His attitude reflects the sentiments of many modern Japanese salarymen who, in the face of economic recession, are finding out that fourteen hours a day, six days a week on the job is not all it's cracked up to be - especially when it comes at the expense of a happy home life.

But this is a samurai movie after all, and eventually Seibei's peaceful domestic routine is threatened by his obligations as a warrior. His reaction to the call of duty is a strikingly contemporary one. When Kobayashi's postwar samurai were asked to choose between family and duty, it was an agonizing, difficult choice to make - only after much soul-searching does Samurai Rebellion's Isaburo decide to disobey his lord's orders. For Seibei, there is no question that family is more important - honor be damned. Only under the threat of expulsion from the clan - which would leave his already poor family even more destitute - does he agree to undertake a mission that will likely result in his death. The postwar samurai film laments the hopelessness of resolving the conflict between a samurai's duty as a warrior and his interests as a husband and father. Yamada's postmodern samurai faces the same problem, but it's no longer an internal crisis. Bushido is, at last, beside the point.

Tellingly, the same audience that adored The Twilight Samurai was largely put off by the following year's The Last Samurai (2003), Hollywood's bid for jidaigeki box office gold. The Tom Cruise vehicle, in which a battle-weary American Civil War veteran discovers bushido in Japan even as the samurai class faces extinction, is a throwback to the nostalgic ronin pictures of the 1950s that still hold out hope for the ideals of the samurai code. The Last Samurai tells yesterday's samurai story, Yamada Yoji tells today's.

Yamada expanded on the same themes and motifs in his two subsequent samurai outings, The Hidden Blade and Love and Honor. Nagase Masatoshi's Katagiri, the hero of The Hidden Blade, cuts a more traditionally minded figure than Seibei, and he takes some convincing before he too rejects the bushido dogma. In this way, Katagiri is a closer cousin of Kobayashi's disillusioned samurai, and The Hidden Blade is the most conservative of Yamada's jidaigeki. But when Katagiri finally becomes thoroughly fed up with the way of the samurai, his reactions are every bit as post-modern as Seibei's - the climax and resolution of The Hidden Blade would be unthinkable in even the most radical of Kobayashi's works.

Love and Honor returns to the more plainly allegorical territory of The Twilight Samurai, telling the tale of another low-ranking samurai with very contemporary concerns. Like Seibei, Love and Honor's Shinnojo holds a somewhat less than exciting job for a samurai, serving as his master's food taster. Struck blind after eating some poisoned sashimi, Shinnojo must not only give up on his dream of opening a kendo school but face the possibility of losing his job and - even worse - his wife's love. Again, Yamada tackles themes and issues familiar to a modern audience by dressing them up in period trappings. Portrayed with incredible pathos by SMAP member Kimura Takuya, Shinnojo is a modern Japanese everyman who suddenly finds himself financially insecure, his home life fractured, and his youthful dreams unfulfilled. He is more desperate than The Twilight Samurai's resigned hero, but, much like The Hidden Blade's Katagiri, strives to draw inner strength from the samurai code that is largely failing him. Love and Honor builds on the best elements of its two predecessors and emerges as the most complex of Yamada's samurai trilogy. Once again, the director's effort was well rewarded - like The Twilight Samurai and The Hidden Blade, Love and Honor was a resounding critical and commercial success at the Japanese box office.

The immense popularity of Yamada's jidaigeki created a ripple effect in the Japanese film industry, paving the way for all sorts of exciting new interpretations of the samurai genre. Some solid films followed in the Yamada mold, including Takita Yojiro's When the Last Sword is Drawn (2003) which tells the story of another humble samurai who, like Yamada's Seibei, is more interested in his family's well-being than his own sense of honor. Kore-eda Hirokazu's Hana (2006) takes Yamada's themes and runs with them in a more comedic direction. Young samurai Sozaemon, portrayed by Okada Junichi, initially buys into the bushido code, but soon finds life's pleasant pursuits more rewarding (which include wooing Twilight Samurai's Miyazawa Rie). Although Sozaemon's revised approach to the way of the samurai is played largely for laughs, Kore-eda is just as serious as Yamada in his depiction of a warrior's code that has been rendered completely obsolete in the modern world.

Maverick director Kitano Takeshi's 2003 remake of the classic Zatoichi series may not have the topical relevance of Yamada's or Kore-eda's work, but it isn't meant to. The new Zatoichi is a brilliant bit of pulp that makes yesterday's pulp cool again for today's audience. Kitano's quirky sense of humor and MTV filmmaking sensibilities not only carried the movie to box office success, it ensured that the reemergence of the samurai genre would not be limited to imitations of Yamada's house style. In its own way, Kitano's Zatoichi was just as important as The Twilight Samurai. Recent jidaigeki have included such diverse offerings as the manga-inspired special effects fantasy Dororo (2007) and Ring director Nakata Hideo's recently released samurai horror movie, Kaidan.

Ten years ago no one would have predicted that samurai movies would enjoy such a successful comeback at the box office. The genre's incredible popularity in the postwar years and subsequent near-extinction with the advent of television has been likened to the Hollywood Western. But the Western rode off into the cinematic sunset, never to return. Phoenix-like, the samurai film has risen from the ashes to enjoy a resurgence in popularity without parallel in the history of Japanese cinema. No one can say what the future holds for jidaigeki, but thanks to Yamada Yoji, Kitano Takeshi, Kore-eda Hirokazu, and the other creative minds behind the samurai renaissance, that future is well assured.

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Published September 3, 2007

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