Hello all, this is the first five sections of a book I am trying to get published. It is about Samurai films and loyalty and justice within them, and cover such films as Gohatto, Bunraku and the original 47 Ronin film. Anyway, feel free to look it over and comment, if you feel like it. And this is only the first few sections, so this is not the whole thing, so let me know what you think. Cheers!!
Examining Loyalty and Justice in Samurai Film
By Shara Maude
First 4000 words
Samurai film comes under the heading of Jidai-geki film, which basically means a film based before the Meiji Restoration, or a film involving samurai. Galloway points out two genres within Jidai-geki that are in fact very important. Sengoku-jidai is based during the Sengoku period, better known as “the Warring States period”1, which was a violent time within Japan where multiple factions were fighting each other for supremacy. A good example of a Sengoku-jidai film would be The Hidden Fortress, which was set in this era and shows the malice between states as the Princess’s clan has been completely destroyed by the neighboring state.
The other genre is the Tokugawa-jidai, or Edo-jidai, a film set in the Tokugawa or Edo period.2 A good example of a film from this period would be Sanjro, or Chushingura (The 47 Ronin)3, even though these films deal with corrupt officials, they are set in a time of relative peace where states very seldom went to war with each other. It is also a time when the act of revenge was not allowed, which will mean ruin for the 47 Ronin when the time comes.
Within these genres there are also sub-genres of film. Desser describes several samurai film genres, starting with The Nostalgic Samurai Drama4 a good example of a nostalgic film being The Twilight Samurai, being more about the story than the action. Another genre Desser describes is the Zen Fighters5 genre that pits men of faith against enemies. A good example would be Princess Mononoke, and the warrior monk Gigo. Sanjuro could probably be considered a Zen warrior film as well. Finally there is The Sword Film6 also known as Chambara. Since every film for this project involves some kind of swordsman, it is difficult to find a film among them that is not Chambara. The Twilight Samurai would probably not be considered Chambara. Since the only real action in this film is in the last 20 minutes, Chushingura (The 47 Ronin) would not be Chambara, but would be considered drama along with Twilight. Also Gohatto is more about drama than action, so it also would be thought of as Nostalgic and not Chambara.
Some of these films are difficult to fit into a time category as well. Princess Mononoke appears to take place during the Sengoku period, but the guns and the mention of “Lord Asano” in the film makes me think otherwise, as Asano is a name that does not appear until late in the Sengoku period and early in the Tokugawa period. I say this because in Chushingura (The 47 Ronin), there is Lord Asano, a young man readying himself to meet the Shogun. The Last Samurai7 actually takes place during the Meiji Restoration after the Shogunate has been dissolved. Would this be considered to be a Tokugawa-jidai film? Bunraku8 is not a period film at all, but features a samurai in a post apocalyptic world where he is forced to team up with a cowboy to find a medallion and revenge. This being the case, the only genre it can really fit under is Chambara. Then it is not hard to place it in a time period as it is obviously a modern film, but it does complicate genre a bit.
Bunraku—Justice Through Revenge
Bunraku9 is an interesting film to talk about because it is not a conventional samurai film. The film, set in a post-apocalyptic world, in a land ruled by a ruthless gang leader. Two strange visitors come to his city one day, a lonely Drifter and a samurai names Yoshi. Together they must bring down this evil gang leader before he takes over the world. Woody Harrelson who plays the bartender says it best, “a cowboy in a world without guns and a samurai with no sword team up to fight a common evil.”10 Yoshi the samurai11 does not originally come to the land of Nicola The Woodcutter for revenge. He has come on behalf of his dead father who wants him to retrieve a family heirloom.
This is all well and good until he runs into trouble with Nicola’s gang. When the vicious Killer Number 2 kills his uncle and kidnaps his cousin, it very much turns into a story of revenge. Now Yoshi must fight and defeat Killer Number 2 if he is going to go any further. This follows the classic outline of Desser’s outline for the sword film12. There is a scene of violence, Nicola’s men defeating another faction. The hero is identified when we see Yoshi on the train. The heroes circumstance is that he has come to reclaim his families heirloom. The victim is both the city, and Yoshi’s uncle and cousin, but actually we meet both the villain, Nicola the Woodcutter and the henchman, Killer Number 2, very early in the film. Yoshi does not actually meet Killer Number 2 until late in the film, but the audience is introduced to him early, so 2 knows about Yoshi, but Yoshi has never met 2. This leaves Yoshi at a disadvantage. There is the interlude, the slaughterfest and the spectacular duel where Yoshi helps eliminate Nicola’s army and his other killers. Then Yoshi kills Killer Number 2, the evil henchmen, bringing the story of the samurai character full circle. He does not get to kill Nicola though, as that is part of the Drifters story, but he does retrieve his cousin, the heirloom and avenge his uncle, which means the sword film story arch has come to a successful end for our samurai.
While Bunraku may be an unconventional samurai film, it follows the basic story arch of what a samurai film is. Yoshi also is not the main character in the story, but his story does end with a relatively happy ending, as Asian cinema goes. He and the Drifter walk off into the sunset, leaving to go on other adventures. The narrator in the film tells the audience, “revenge is an act of style”, and this film is very full of style.
This film can be odd to watch because it is an action film and not a traditional samurai film. It is also completely shot on sets in the studio, no kinds of exterior shots whatsoever. The film has a very distinct look to it, and while interesting, the art effects can be quite dizzying at times. It is a film that was very clearly made with the action fans interest in mind. This is the first action film written and directed by Guy Moshe who had only done shorts before. As a first attempt at a feature length action film it is not a bad film. It is merely a different style of film, and was made with cost very much in mind. Not that that is a bad thing, as many low budget films have done amazingly well. It is quite clear however that this was made for a Western audience and for lovers of samurai and martial arts films in general. The samurai values and honor are very alive in the character Yoshi though. As a samurai in a modern film, he is an interesting representation, and the fact that he is going on this mission to find something for his dead father means that he is placing family honor very much before his own well-being.
Chushingura (The 47 Ronin)–Extreme Loyalty and Justice through Revenge
Chushingura (The 47 Ronin)13 is an interesting film to watch because it is based on true events. There really were forty-seven men who sought vengeance for their lord. Young Lord Asano is chosen to receive the Shogun for a visit. Sadly is is tricked by a trick from Lord Kira into drawing his sword within the Shogun’s castle. It all begins with Lord Kira feeling he is being slighted because Asano fails to give him a satisfactory bribe.
Asano’s celebrated refusal to bribe Lord Kira because such action is forbidden by the Kemmu Shikimoku, the legal code established by the Muromachi shogunate in 1336, becomes more an act of anachronistic stubbornness than existential revolt against Tokugawa policy in 1701.14
Basically bribery was expected at this time, and young lords who refused to give into such things were praised by some for their honest, but the person expressing the bribe feels slighted, and will seek out their own revenge, so to say. In this case, Kira refuses to tell Asano how he should receive the Shogun, as there are traditional behaviors and customs that need to be met and Asano does not know what they are, and it is Kira’s job to tell Asano what to do.
Kira seems to be a very vindictive man, as he refuses to tell Asano anything, and insults Asano by saying that he is no better than a commoner15, which is considered a great insult to even a young lord. He draws his sword and his fate is sealed. He must commit seppuku or be executed for his crimes, which is a great dishonor. “…everything leading up to Lord Asano’s seppuku—is fully detailed and consumes a major portion of the narrative. Certainly Asano’s prideful behavior up to his interrogation and the Shogun’s clipped comment (“the rules are clear. Keep to the rules.”) serve as ironic undertone.”16 It is a rather over dramatized moment leading up to Asano’s seppuku and the seppuku itself17. This is because Asano is a young man who made a minor lapse in judgment and decided to act upon an insult rather than keeping his temper.
This is where the story of the 47 ronin really begins. Asano is dead, but his men want to avenge what they think is an injustice toward their lord. Because of Asano’s death, they all become masterless samurai, and must find other means of living. Then again, that is part of the plot, to make the Shogunate believe that they have accepted the death of their lord and have moved on as ronin. However, at one point in the film, Oishi, the chamberlain tells one of his men who is about to die by seppuku that, “we are going to deceive the shogunate.” This means that they will take on roles that will make them seem like they are no threat to Kira, but Kira still fears them.
The 47 ronin did exactly as Oishi said they would. The deceived the Shogunate and took their revenge upon Kira, the man responsible for their lords death. Turnbull says,
What is extraordinary about the story is the fantastic lengths to which they went in order to make Kira think that they had all split up, had no communication with each other, and had all abandoned the profession of samurai. Their leader, Oishi Yoshio, even divorced his wife, and kept the facade of drunken, dissolute pleasure—seeking. One snowy night in December 1702 the ronin, dressed in homemade armor, struck at Kira’s mansion in Edo….Kira Yoshinaka was eventually found hiding in an outhouse.18
In the end, the samurai got their revenge, but it was bittersweet. The act of revenge was actually forbidden at the time, and all forty-seven men, though they had survived, had broken the law. The only way for them to repent for this sin, was for all of them to commit seppuku. Victory and revenge sometime come with a heavy price.
The fact that this was based off of a true story is interesting. While most Western audiences might not be familiar with the story, Japanese audiences certainly are. In a way, this could be considered a historical text because it deals with an actual historical event. This film more than any of the others, is a real story about people that actually existed. Not only that, but this film stays very close to the actual events that took place, as it showed Oishi as the drunkard, and in the end, the fear of Kira as he is found shivering in the outhouse.
There is also the fact that all the men who participated in the raid on Kira’s mansion had to kill themselves. A Western audience might not see the sensibility in this action, but a Japanese audience knows that these men have broken the rules of the Shogun who has forbidden revenge killing. Again, the question would be “why would they do it then?” The answer is simple to some audiences. They had total commitment to the lord they served and loved. It made sense to these men to continue to serve their lord even well after his death. This dedication to one’s lord was what made a truly good and loyal samurai. While some might have just accepted the death of Asano and walked away, the loyalty of these men, and their need to seek vengeance was greater than any need for self preservation. Since this is a very typical Asian film, it requires that in the end, the men must die or face dishonor. In the film, while many men swore to protect Asano’s good name, after well over a hundred men said they would help, only forty-seven showed up for the event. So there were some samurai in the film that did not show up out of fear, and probably a need for self preservation, but it was Oishi and his men that became legends, and their story still survives today.
If a Western viewer is looking for action in this film, they will be hard pressed to find it. While the film is a film about samurai, it is a very non-violent drama. The film is certainly about the adventures of the forty-seven ronin, not all of those adventures require violence. It is actually a very “true” samurai film, as it shows the ronin in their day-to-day lives which are actually kind of boring, but this is part of their deception. If they had acted in a violent manner from the beginning, their plan would not have work because everyone would know what they were trying to do. To lull the enemy into a sense of false security was a great strategy and it worked perfectly. The only really great action sequence in the film happens in the last twenty minutes19 when they actually put their plan into action.
Gohatto—Justice and Loyalty to One’s Self
Gohatto20 actually means taboo, but as the subject of homosexuality might be taboo for us here in the West, it was not at all a taboo subject for the people of the Tokugawa era, in which Gohatto was set. Right at the moment though, the focus is loyalty and not homosexuality, which will be discussed later. Sozaburo Kano is the son of a wealthy merchant, but he decides to join the Shinsengumi, which Alain Silver describes as a “new group of select [men]”; citizen militia, quasi-unofficial police and vigilantes for the Tokugawa in Kyoto during the bakumatsu.21 Since the Shinsengumi are not technically samurai, they do not serve any lord, but they are pro-Shogunate, meaning that their loyalty is to the Shogun22. Kano, being only eighteen is one of the best candidates for the job, but his love for men and the unwanted attention he gets from the other men sometimes hampers his abilities.
The fact that he is chosen for the Shinsengumi, which was actually an elite squad means that he has to prove himself. The thing holding him back though is the constant speculation about who he’s sleeping with, whether or not he’s ever been with a woman, and basically every other sexual query the leaders of the squad can think of. Kano, while being the youngest and most beautiful is very susceptible to being taken advantage of. So in this film, his greatest loyalty has to be to himself, and there also has to be that loyalty to the Shogun, but he must watch out for number one in the end. In the end of the film he is the only one who can protect and champion for himself. This is because, while Kano is good at what he does, he cannot say no to a superior and keep his place in the Shinsengumi. He is his own greatest protector.
In the end, Gohatto is a film about gay samurai and how Kano solves his relationship issues in the end. This is however, a very taboo subject for Western audiences who may be scared away by the “gay sex” in the film. It is also a very dramatically heavy film, and it relies on the drama to push it forward. While it certainly has an interesting storyline, Western audiences might not appreciate it as much as Eastern audiences might. Even Eastern audiences might find it a little difficult to handle, as there are people in Japan who are still very conservative. This film is intended then for the open minded drama lovers out there. It is what a viewer might consider an arthouse film, or a film made for a certain Western audience.
Gohatto does have one love scene in it between Kano and another man, Tojiro Yuzawa, and there is another implied scene earlier in the film where the viewer knows what is happening behind closed door, but we are not allowed to see it. This is just one of the matches they believe Kano Sozaburo is involved in. They have also seen a man named Hyozo Tashiro sniffing around Kano. Despite the fact that homosexuality was practiced in the late Tokugawa era that Kano lives in, the film makes us wonder if Kano really wants the attention of these two men who are pushing themselves on him.
The first night that Kano sleeps in the same room with Tashiro, Tashiro asks Kano in his sleep, “have you ever killed a man? Have you ever made love?”23 Kano is only eighteen years old, which suggests that he may be a virgin in more than one respect. Tsuneo Watanabe and Jun’ichi Iwata say in the book The love of the samurai : a thousand years of Japanese homosexuality24
the term which designated the object of pederastic love changed from chigo (literally:young child) to wakashu (literally: young man). This corresponds to the change in the age suitable to be loved: the chigo would have been from about ten or eleven to sixteen or seventeen years old; the wakashu was now from about thirteen or fourteen to eighteen or nineteen, sometimes even more than twenty years old. There appeared a homosexuality of a military type comparable to that of the Spartans. This kind of pederasty was called shudo.25
Kano is just about the right age to be somebodies beautiful wakashu, but neither man who is attempting to seduce him really ask him if he wants to be a willing participant. In some areas in the film, you get the idea that he is an unwilling participant in what is happening to him. When he and Tojiro have sex during the film, afterward, Tojiro threatens Kano twice, once with a hand around his throat and another when he says he will “kill”26 anyone who is in their way, but when he first says it, it sounds as if he is saying he will kill Kano, but he says “no, not you”.
While Kano has to be loyal to his comrades, he also has to find a way to protect himself. This is a very complicated situation that could end in his death, so the need to tread carefully is important. Again, he is his own best friend, and he has to try and figure out how to deal with the situation without threatening his place in the Shinsengumi or putting his own life in danger. This is easier said than done, and Kano must find a solution on his own. If he tells someone within the Shinsengumi that he is an unwilling participant in sex with these two men, it will make him look weak in front of his superiors. If he does nothing, he will continue to be the victim, which is equally unacceptable. Finding his way out of this without making it clear what is truly happening is a must.
Kano, being smart young man knows exactly how to fix his problem of having two unwanted suitors. Kill Yuzawa and frame Tashiro for the murder. Thankfully for Kano, everything falls into alignment and he is chosen to execute Tashiro when he’s been duly framed. Tashiro doesn’t realize until they are dueling that he has been set up, and when he does realize, he tries to kill Kano. Kano knows what to do and says “forgive me”.27 Tashiro falls for this, his heart softening, and Kano takes this moment to kill him. In her book The Waves at Genji’s Door: Japan Through Its Cinema28, Joan Mellen says that Kurosawa’s women in film are, “angel on the outside and demon within”.29 Can the same possibly be said for the young wakashu Kano who does not even have to try to get attention? Could he be the victim of those who take advantage, and is merely taking revenge against those who have hurt him? It is hard to say, but in the end, he took care of his problem. Justice has been served because Kano has dealt with his antagonists. He stayed true to himself and his his plan and everything turned out for the best. He came out of it without help and without looking weak. It can therefore be seen as a triumph over the wills of evil in his life.
The love/hate triangle going on in Gohatto might be difficult for some American audiences to understand, as it is an odd and different sort of relationship going on between Kano and the two other men involved. Basically Kano is trapped in two relationships that are being forced on him. While he can’t object to them, they have no idea that they might have to fear him. Kano does not love these men, they love him and look on him as some sort of lovely pet, or something. This was very much the way it was in Japan between samurai and wakashu in the Tokugawa era. Sometimes a young apprentice did not choose to be in a relationship but ended up in one anyway. There is definitely a social pecking order in this case where Kano, the son of a merchant who joined the Shinsengumi at the age of eighteen, is at the mercy of the samurai and higher ranking men within the Shinsengumi. His solution is to set up his enemies and destroy both of them while making himself look like the innocent. In some ways he is, and in some ways he is not. When the audience figures out what has happened, they will judge him and decide whether justice has been done.