By the time the samurai film genre, along with Japanese cinema itself, announced its presence on the world stage in the early 1950s with Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, thousands of stories about the legendary warriors had already been filmed. Their popularity has seen ups and downs in the 70 years since, but samurai have never left the screen.
Now a new series of productions explores both new and traditional themes, taking new perspectives and interpretations on the genre. Meanwhile, 21st century technology, retellings of classic tales and protagonists with modern sensibilities promise to find a new audience for the world of crested, sword-wielding warriors.
Part of the samurai film’s appeal is its thematic diversity and vast historical era that spans the genre. Rashomon was unusual not only for its groundbreaking narrative structure, but also for its setting in the 11th century, the early days of the samurai. But the term jidaigeki — which translates as “period drama” and also applies to TV dramas — for many conjure up images of stories from the Edo period, which began with the unification of Japan in 1603 and ended with the abolition of the samurai class in 1868 During that time Over time, many samurai became ronin – masterless warriors with no lord to serve, ideal fodder for stories of heroes and anti-heroes. Some see a more prosaic reason for the predominance of Edo-era storytelling on screen, rather than the bloody century and a half that preceded it.
“In those 260 years there were no major wars, so it’s much cheaper to include productions from that period,” said Yoshitaka Ishizuka, producer of We’re broke, my lord, a samurai comedy directed by Tetsu Maeda that will hit Japanese theaters in June. “Akira Kurosawa’s time had bigger budgets, so he could do Warring States-era action films.”
From the 1910s to the 1930s, Japanese studios produced more than 100 samurai films annually. The production was dealt a major blow in the 1940s – first during World War II and then by the occupying US authorities, who banned almost any depiction of feudal values as they sought to erase any trace of ultra-nationalism that had echoed in the spirit of the samurai as Japan marched to war.
Once recovered after the end of the occupation, samurai stories became a mainstay of Japan’s golden age of cinema in the 1950s and 1960s. But as cinema attendance declined in parallel with the rise of television, they suffered doubly as remaining audiences drifted to other genres.
Meanwhile, the genre started to feel its presence on the small screen, not least through the years of taiga dramas produced by public broadcaster NHK. Not all historical dramas feature samurai, and NHK made others jidaigekibut the scale and scope of the taiga productions are self-contained in television terms.
“When taiga drama was launched in 1963, television series were generally seen as low-level entertainment compared to movies or stage plays,” explains Yukie Okamoto, head of drama production at NHK.
“Taiga drama was NHK’s attempt to create a large-scale production that would be comparable to movies and entertainment of the highest quality in Japan.”
The 1987 taiga drama Dokuganryu Masamune (One-eyed dragon Masamune), based on the life of a northern Japanese warlord, remains the most popular movie ever and broke through its 50 episodes to become an actor who would later become the global face of Japanese cinema.
“Dokuganryu Masamune recorded a truly incredible 39.7 percent average viewership while airing every Sunday for a year. Ken Watanabe, who started a globally successful career, really made a name for himself in that series,” notes Okamoto.
Such numbers put it comfortably ahead of the 26.3 percent average scored by the 1980 hit Shogun miniseries in the US Shogun introduced samurai to mainstream American audiences and starred Kurosawa’s muse Toshiro Mifune as a character based on Tokugawa Ieyasu, the warlord who finished unifying Japan. a Shogun remake starring Hiroyuki Sanada in the role of Mifune will premiere on FX on Hulu this year.
The taiga drama What are you going to do, Ieyasu?currently airing on NHK, charts the life of the same warlord, but with an image that speaks to some of the shifts the genre has undergone in recent years.
Stoic warriors ready to face death at any moment can still be found on screen. However, there are more often images that are much less symbolic of the samurai ideal. Okamoto relates this to the change in social values that has taken place in Japan since the end of the era of rapid economic growth, and with it the worship of a win-at-all-costs mentality.
“In what are you going to do, Ieyasu? the Ieyasu character is indecisive, hesitant and very weak,” says Okamoto with a chuckle. The protagonist of We’re broke, my lorda bastard son of a lord who suddenly inherits his father’s fief only to find it drowning in debt is also far from a classic samurai figure.
“He’s kind of a hero for today; he is attentive, gentle, does not get angry with people. The director, Maeda, wanted him to be the kind of leader that is needed now,” explains producer Ishizuka.
Other contemporary details include the fact that a young woman from outside the samurai class offers advice at his side, an element that was not in the 2019 novel on which the film is based.
Ishizuka points to the Rurouni Kenshin movies produced by Warner Bros. Japan via local production outfit Studio Swan, as “breaking new ground” in terms of changing the idea of how samurai food could appeal to young audiences. Directed by Keishi Ohtomo and starring Takeru Satoh in the lead role of the same name, the five films (based on a manga series about a somewhat sensitive, romantic former warrior trying to avoid assassination) grossed approximately $200 million worldwide between 2012 and 2021.
Stories that reflect the lives of ordinary people during the samurai era are also more common. Released in Japan at the end of April and presented almost entirely in black and white, Junji Sakamoto’s Okiku and the world tells of a class-crossing romance between the daughter (Haru Kuroki) of a fallen samurai (Koichi Sato) and a trader (Kanichiro) who makes a living collecting human waste and selling it to farmers. Intertwined with elements of tragedy, humor and romance, it explores the sustainability of the economy of Edo (now Tokyo), a theme also addressed in We’re broke, my lord (in which Sato also appears as a samurai who has seen better days).
Baian the Killer MD is another fictional story of a non-samurai character in Edo, in this case an acupuncturist with a sideline in contract killing. Previous screen adaptations include a 1990s TV series starring Watanabe as the titular character. Directed by Shunsaku Kawake, the first movie in the two-part story hit Japanese theaters earlier this year and had its international premiere on streaming service Samurai vs Ninja, launching April 1 in 40 countries. A YouTube channel of the same name that carries a rapidly growing library of movies and drama series, accessible for free, came online last year. Samurai vs Ninja is run by Remow, a company founded in 2021 that has among its 20 shareholders many of Japan’s leading TV networks and publishing houses, as well as Toei and Shochiku, two of the studios with the richest history in samurai films.
The streaming service (which is geoblocked in Japan for licensing reasons) and YouTube channel are intended to appeal to global action movie fans in general and those who appreciate the “very distinctive look: the kimono, chonmage (topknot hairstyle) and katana swords,” of jidaigeki, says Shuta Hirata of Remow.
In addition to the duels and mass battles, the appeal of heroes who “dedicate themselves to others is part of the uniqueness of Japanese historical dramas,” says Hirata.
Despite the way values have changed, the warriors are still held in high esteem and are an ideal to aspire to in many circles, according to Hirata: “The national baseball team that recently won the WBC (World Baseball Classic) is called Samurai Japan, and we call Japanese who take on overseas challenges ‘samurai’.”
And for all the tales of gentler samurai and commoners in times of peace, there’s still room for epic tales of betrayal and death from some of history’s bloodiest days. Takeshi Kitanos Kubi premieres in Cannes with a narration of the downfall of Oda Nobunaga, one of the unifying warlords who was known to be ruthless and sadistic even by the standards of the time. According to Kadokawa, the studio behind the film, it harks back to Kurosawa epics, such as his 1980 Palme d’Or winner. Kagemusha.
As for the future of samurai cinema, Shochiku’s Ishizuka believes there are many bright years ahead. “Essentially, every Japanese director wants to make a jidaigeki at least once,” he says. “There are many famous directors who have yet to make one, including younger filmmakers, such as Ryusuke Hamaguchi, Michihito Fujii and Kazuya Shiraishi. With these directors in their 30s and 40s, I’m excited about the new elements they’ll bring to the genre.”