For most of us, chanbara (Samurai Cinema) is the quintessential Japanese movie. After all, what could be more Japanese than samurai and ronin fighting wars? Maidens dressed in kimono? And katana swords clashing together?
Interestingly, the clashing together of swords is probably the first thing most Japanese people think of too. The word itself, chanbara (チャンバラ), is an onomatopoeia for the sound of blades striking together. That fact alone probably tells you everything you need to know about the amount of fighting in these films.
However, the excitement and violence is not the only appeal of these films. To the Japanese, these movies hold a similar place in the nation’s heart to the Spaghetti Westerns that many Americans were raised on. Except in this case, sword fighting, samurai and Akira Kurosawa replace gun slinging, cowboys and Sergio Leone!
These films may seem shallow, but a lot of the themes that appear in these movies tell us about hidden aspects of Japanese culture that still continue to influence the lives of Japanese people. The writer Patrick Galloway has written a series of books attempting to explain these influences to the Western audience. He tells GaijinPot,
“[Chanbara contain] universal qualities that appeal to people of any nationality including honor, loyalty, and bravery. Specific to Japanese culture are elements of Buddhist and Confucian thought; the rigorous adherence to (or perhaps treacherous subversion of) the path of bushido (The ‘way’ of the samurai); and a uniquely Japanese appreciation for the “noble loser”: the hero who’s bound to die but refuses to compromise his sense of righteous purpose for the mere sake of his own life.”
On top of these ideals, many of the movies deal with the very nature of being Japanese. One of the most common themes that emerge frequently in these movies is the conflict between 義理 (giri- one’s obligation to one’s group) and 人情 (ninjo- One’s true emotional feeling/ desires).
In the chanbara world, this often causes the samurai to try and balance the things he is expected to do and what his conscience really tells him to do. Examples include falling in love with the daughter of a rival clan or deciding whether to kill an honest man.
Modern Japanese people feel this pressure at all times in their real lives too. At its most basic level, the conflict can be seen whenever a person gives a souvenir to someone they dislike at work, just to ensure that the harmony of the office is maintained.
At its most complex level, it includes every frustrated salaryman who works a job he hates because he wants to support his family while secretly regretting not following his dreams. For these people, the samurai movies offer a cathartic way to rationalize their problems, after all at least their conflicts don’t lead to their death!
Another conflict that appears in a number of samurai movies is the fight against modernization and Western influence. For these reasons, it is not surprising that these movies enjoyed a golden period during the uncertain 1950s and 60s. After all, maintaining the traditional while being met with overwhelming Western influence has pretty much defined the Japanese cultural struggle for most of the 20th century!
“The samurai ultimately represents the good man, the man other men aspire to emulate, if only in their imaginations.” Patrick Galloway says. Perhaps that is the main appeal of the chanbara dramas: the samurai represents a kind of idealized version of ourselves, determined to follow their own path even if it costs them their life. We too, like the samurai in the movies, have to fight through many conflicting forces in order to find some kind of place in the world.
Although admittedly with a lot less sword fighting to the death.