This winter, Metrograph presents Live by the Sword, Die by the Gun: Samurais & Cowboys, a series of action-packed hits by master directors including Akira Kurosawa, Masaki Kobayashi, John Ford, and Sergio Leone, full of swift, sensational fight scenes and steely-eyed heroes (and anti-heroes) gazing off into the horizon on three different contintents. Critics and fans have often remarked on the many ways that samurai films, or chambara, and Westerns overlap, and in honor of this series we’ve put together this primer on these two cross-pollinating, ritual-defined genres and their many parallels and points of contact, so you can properly arm yourself before seeing Live by the Sword, Die by the Gun: Samurais & Cowboys on the big screen.
SAMURAI AND COWBOYS, NOT SO DIFFERENT?
The samurai and the cowboy—each towering icons of their respective “national” cinemas, the Japanese chambara, and the American Western—are frequently compared, both being elite fighting heroes who roam across a lawless landscape where violence and villainy run rampant, guided by a personal code that must be upheld at all costs. The two genres were born out of vastly different cultural contexts, and each has its own discrete iconography, most notably the samurai’s swords swords (daisho) and the Westerner’s six-shooter. Looking past surface differences, however, we can see two genres both concerned with principled warriors who frequently find themselves facing off against corrupt enemies in steely showdowns, confronting their own inner demons along the way. Like their Chinese counterparts in wuxia films—period-set martial arts movies depicting high-flown feats of derring-do, many of these influenced from the chambara—these warriors are resolute in purpose and indifferent to pain. They are willing (in theory, at least) to sacrifice their own lives to fulfil their duty with honor intact.
Curiously, the many films that represent and celebrate these heroes contain echoes, homages—and uncredited rip-offs—as over the years the two genres have reciprocally influenced and re-shaped one another (and world cinema), producing many classic movies beloved across the globe.
WHO WERE THE SAMURAI AND WHAT EXACTLY IS A SAMURAI FILM?
The samurai were a skilled warrior class of hereditary minor nobles, approximately equivalent to the knights of Europe, who formed a prestigious elite in the armies of Japanese feudal leaders from roughly the 11th to the mid-19th century, being of particular importance during the chaotic Sengoku period, also known as the “Warring States period” (1467-1590), and the relatively peaceful Tokugawa period (1603-1868) that followed. Retainers who were expected to display unflinching loyalty to their daimyo (feudal lord), they were paid handsomely, granted significant political influence as well as the best in arms and armor, and were expected to act as exemplars of moral virtue, following a code of conduct, bushido ( “The Way of the Warrior”), that shares much in common with the chivalric ideal as developed in the Middle Ages. Though the samurai class was abolished in 1876, having largely been rendered obsolete by the emergence of modern militaries—and even in Kurosawa’s 16th century-set Seven Samurai, we can see gunpowder beginning to change the battlefields of Japan—they remain a staple of Japanese culture and cinema in particular, never long absent from the country’s screens from the silent period onward.
Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto (1954); Seven Samurai (1954)
Samurai films are generally referred to as chambara, meaning sword-fighting films, an onomatopoeic word that suggests the clanging of quicksilver blades. The origins of the genre lie in filmed performances of Japanese theater, which shifted from the 1920s onwards to narratives written and staged specifically for the screen. In the years of mounting nationalist and militarist fervour that led to the Japanese entry into World War II, a subsequent defeat, the samurai film was often a vehicle for propaganda, a means of mythologizing the country’s martial tradition. After 1952, the genre saw a renewal with the lifting of censorship by American occupying forces in Japan, with studios beginning to mass-produce chambara. The innovations of Hishori Inagaki’s Samurai trilogy (1954-56) and Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai began a Golden Age for the samurai film, introducing a level of period detail, realism, and brutality previously unseen in the chambara—as well as a new postwar circumspection regarding the fabled “nobility” of the feudal past. The films of directors like Kurosawa, Kobayashi, Hideo Gosha, and Kenji Misumi introduced audiences to a new kind of samurai, characters in pursuit of justice—or vengeance—who find themselves faced with insoluble decisions between sworn duty and personal morality, ethical quandaries that sometimes called bushido’s doctrine of blind fealty into question. For the many parallels between these chambara and the Westerns being made in the US around the same time, there’s one notable difference: oftentimes the samurai didn’t survive to walk off into the sunset.
WHAT DOES IT MEAN, ‘LIVE BY THE SWORD’?
Tatsuya Nakadai considers seppuku in Harakiri (1962).
The samurai were armed with two swords (the daisho), generally a wakizashi (short sword) and a katana (long sword), both of which were immensely important, sometimes likened to the warrior’s very soul. The daisho were symbols of the samurai’s position and exquisitely crafted weapons that had formidable killing power in the hands of an expert swordsman—and kenjutsu, the technique of Japanese swordsmanship, was considered an artform unto itself. Possession of these weapons and mastery of them is as crucial to the cinematic samurai as the sidearm and quick draw to the cinematic Westerner, though for the samurai they have another potential function. Included in the bushido code is the grisly ritual of seppuku, or harakiri (coming from hara, meaning belly, and kiri, meaning cut), a form of suicide by disembowelment that was seen as far more respectable than being killed by one’s opponent. While the Westerner will sometimes sacrifice himself to keep his honour intact, as the outlaw ensemble of Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969) do, he never does the job himself.
WHAT’S ALL THIS GOT TO DO WITH ‘DYING BY THE GUN’?
Westerns, as the name suggests, are set on the frontiers of the American West, the vast majority of them taking place in the territories beyond the Mississippi River either during the US Civil War or the 30 years following, as some idea of American civilization struggled to find a purchase amidst an epidemic of outlawry and the various desultory skirmishes and dismal massacres that comprised the Indian Wars. (The Wild Bunch, set in the modernizing West of 1913, is an unusual outlier.) They traditionally depict the struggle between a dawning law-and-order and lawlessness, as well as the clash between the constraints of society and individual freedom. Their heroes, most often, are men poised somewhere in-between. Spur-heeled ranchers who were also talented gunslingers, cowboys were romantically etched into American popular culture through the popularity of Wild West Shows in the 19th and 20th centuries, dime store adventure novels, and, of course, the Western genre.
Beginning with the New Jersey–shot The Great Train Robbery (1903), the Western gained widespread popularity, peaking in the 1950s and ’60s with famed directors including Ford, Howard Hawks, John Sturges, and Peckinpah. Their cowboys were men of bold action and typically few words—though there exist delightful exceptions, like Victor Mature’s Shakespeare-quoting outlaw Wyatt Earp in 1946’s My Darling Clementine. They often were forced to kill other men—or sacrifice themselves—in order to live up to their own moral philosophies.
ENTER THE RONIN
Whereas the samurai typically stands inside the aristocratic power structures of Japanese society, playing a role concerned with maintaining order and preserving the peace, the stories that are spun around samurai get more complicated with the character of the lone ronin (a name which means literally “wave man,” suggesting a figure adrift on the open seas). Ronin were samurai sans masters. Thanks to Japan’s strict class system, they commonly found it difficult to fit into society—a freelance misfit condemned to wander town to town, much like the impoverished, starving hero in Yojimbo played by the legendary Toshiro Mifune. The ronin also proved a neat avatar for Japanese filmmakers who wanted to represent what they saw as the growing tension between the traditional hierarchical and communal values of Japan and the morally loose, modernizing influence of the West.
Toshiro Mifune in Yojimbo (1961), playing the master swordsman who arrives to a town that is caught in a power struggle between two crime lords competing for supremacy. When asked his name by one of the rival gang leaders, Mifune gazes out the window at a mulberry plant and replies, “Kuwabatake Sanjuro“ (meaning 30-year-old mulberry plant), suggesting he invents the name on the spot.
REMIND YOU OF ANYONE?
Clint Eastwood’s “Man with No Name,“ the anonymous, poncho-wearing gunslinger who arrives at a Mexican border town where two smuggler families are vying for control in A Fistful of Dollars (1964).
or better yet...
did you know akira kurosawa loved john ford?
The Westerns made by Ford were revered by Kurosawa. “From the very beginning I respected John Ford,” said Kurosawa. “I have always paid close attention to his films and they have influenced me, I think. I finally got to meet him. It was in a London hotel and I was having a quiet glass of wine. He came over and he said, “Hey, Akira!”—bought a bottle of scotch and poured us out really stiff drinks. He’d remembered me from when he came here after the war with a group of Occupation people. In London he was very nice to me, sent me chrysanthemums, and treated me just like his own son. I liked him—he is so mature, and besides he looks just like one of the cavalry generals in his own pictures.”
OKAY, SO WHAT HAPPENED NEXT?
When Yojimbo was remade a few years later as A Fistful of Dollars (1964) by the Italian director Sergio Leone—without the permission of Kurosawa, who would sue Leone for infringement, eventually settling out of court—the success of the film saw the Spaghetti Western genre flourish. Characterized by a fully-fledged cynicism, the hero, still wearing traditional cowboy garb, is re-envisioned in these movies. Hired out to the highest bidder, the cowboy becomes an increasingly alienated, mercenary-like figure, a gunfighter whose personal code amounts to little more than self-interest, in a world marked by ever-present suspicion and betrayals.
Once Upon a Time in the West (1968); Meiko Kaji in
Along with this heightened cynicism, directors like Leone and Sergio Corbucci displayed a goggle-eyed fascination with violence for violence’s sake. A similar trend, meanwhile, was playing out in Japan over the late ’60s and ’70s, as chambara, also influenced by manga comics, steadily shed any sincere interest in celebrating a lost past and transformed into increasingly nihilistic, blood-soaked spectacles—for example, check out the frenzied slaughter of an entire army by Ogami Itto’s vengeful assassin that caps each title in the Lone Wolf and Cub series (1972-’74).
It’s perhaps little surprise that these films delighted a young Quentin Tarantino, whose Kill Bill (2003), for example, is indebted to Lady Snowblood (1973); and who has often declared Leone to be his all-time favorite director. “When I decided to become a director, it just came on TV, Leone’s Once Upon A Time in the West (1968),” said Tarantino. “It was like a book on how to direct, a film so well designed. I watched to see how characters entered the frame and exited the frame. Those were my cinema teachers.”
THE LASTING APPEAL OF THE samurai and the cowboy
While we can trace the web of interlocking inspiration between samurai and cowboy films most clearly through re-makes—such as Sturges’s Western revision of Seven Samurai, The Magnificent Seven (1960), which was then reworked by Tarantino as The Hateful Eight (2015) —the influence is far-reaching through cinema today.
Clear echoes of canonical chambara are found in surprising places, such as the plot, costumes, and lore of Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress (1958) that one spots in George Lucas’s Star Wars (1977). Meanwhile, unique takes on the Western abound around the world, including, from Niger, Moustapha Alassane’s pop cowboy pantomime The Return of an Adventurer (1966); from India, Ramesh Sippy’s classic “Dacoit Western“ Sholay (1975); or, from Australia, Mad Dog Morgan (1976), featuring Dennis Hopper as a wild-eyed, booze-soaked bushranger on the run.
Contemporary filmmakers do continue to create exuberant odes, like Takashi Miike’s Sukiyaki Western Django (2007). But these days they’re more likely to adopt a critical eye to history, as in revisionist Westerns like Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1992), Kelly Reichardt’s Meek's Cutoff (2010), and Jane Campion’s Power of the Dog (2021)—films which view the violence of the era through far less rose-tinted glasses than their predecessors. No matter the treatment, it is clear these vanished heroes are not going away any time soon.
Meek’s Cutoff (2010);