The Dark Side of Bushido: Four Subversive Samurai Films

The idea of Bushido has been romanticized in both Japanese and Western society, this idea that one can be a warrior and still retain a sense of honor. The book Bushido: The Soul of Japan written by Inazo Nitobe in 1900 solidified the philosophy and gave it eight virtues: Rectitude, Courage, Benevolence, Politeness, Sincerity, Honor, Loyalty, and Self-control. Popular media has reinforced the concept with many films such as The Last Samurai (2003) and James Clavell’s book Shogun depicting self-righteous samurai who are loyal to a fault. 

The truth of the matter is that Bushido as it is now known is a relatively new concept that has been retroactively applied to Japanese historical events and figures. While there definitely could have been men who wanted to live by a code of honor, the reality was that feudal lords abused the people they ruled over and their loyalty was used to subjugate them. In modern day, Bushido has a nice ring to it and it's thrown around in suburban dojos and espoused by businessmen who fancy themselves modern financial warriors (same thing with The Art of War). The contradiction between the romanticized notion of Bushido and how it was actually used in practice did not escape some Japanese filmmakers, however, and I have chosen four films that I think are thoughtful critiques on the subject. 

Harakiri (1962)

Masaki Kobayashi's Harakiri (1962) is a anti-chambara film that subverts the idea of the honorable samurai and calls into question the very tenets of Bushido and authoritarianism. It won the Special Jury Award at the 1963 Cannes Film Festival and is considered a masterpiece for many.

The film takes place in Japan during the beginning of the Edo period and concerns the fate of Tsugumo Hanshiro (Tatsuya Nakadai) a ronin who has come to the estate of the Ii Clan to request use of their courtyard to commit harakiri. In order to dissuade him the Daimyo's head counselor tells him the story of a previous samurai who requested harakiri that ended badly. It had become commonplace for ronin to come to the clan to ask for services and rather than provide the ceremony the clan would give them money in exchange for leaving their domain. 

Hanshiro pushes on with his request, but before he does so he asks to relate his life story before killing himself. This is where the narrative of the film becomes important as Hanshiro's tale re-contextualizes the anecdote that the head counselor initially relayed to him. What really happened is revealed piece-by-piece by Hanshiro until the shocking revelations in the third act blow everything apart.

Director Kobayashi was a pacifist and his work definitely has an anti-establishment thread running through it. Hanshiro spends the entire film deconstructing the very idea of Bushido and the meaning of honor. The Ii Clan say they are honorable but their actions do not demonstrate it--they value the appearance of nobility more than actual nobility. Government and authority abusing their power is nothing new, and this subtext makes Harakiri feel relevant even in modern day. In most samurai films they are portrayed as heroes but in Harakiri they are depicted as hypocrites who preach an ideology that they do not follow.

Harakira is a gorgeous film with its careful panning shots and contemplative close-ups. Although it is a narrative-driven film, the last third has some incredible action set-pieces with beautiful choreography. Toru Takemitsu's traditional score is rather sparse, but when it comes in, with its foreboding chords and hard percussion, it almost feels more befitting of a horror film rather than a samurai picture. Tatsuya Nakadai's performance is intense as he goes from bemused resignation to a snarling beast through the course of the film.

Both a thrilling character piece and a scathing take down of authority, Harakiri is a tour-de-force and a compelling look into the facade of institutions.

Bushido: The Cruel Code of the Samurai (1963)

Tadashi Imai's Bushido: The Cruel Code of the Samurai is perhaps the most direct take-down of the myth of Bushido. It covers 350 years of Japanese history and spans seven generations of a single family. It starts out in modern day Japan and concerns a young salaryman named Iikura (Kinnosuke Nakamura). His fiance has tried to commit suicide by taking sleeping pills (for a reason unknown to the audience) and he is beside himself. He seems to feel guilty about something he did, and to take his mind off the situation he reads his family records that have been discovered at a temple. Each entry he reads is depicted as a short vignette with Nakamura playing the role of one of his ancestors in each tale.

These tales are sordid affairs and depict a number of unsavory situations. These include sexual slavery (both men and women), castration, gruesome executions, rape, suicide, murder, and theft. The theme that runs through all of these terrible actions is a misplaced feeling of loyalty. In all of these stories people are tricked into doing things they don't want to do by living by the tenets of Bushido, even though the masters they serve do not respect the same code. 

As the timeline progresses from the Keicho era in the 1590s to the 1960s in Japan it's easy to see the gradual transition from feudalism to imperialism and how these two ideologies have much in common. The samurai have been replaced by soldiers but the ideologues who adhere to Bushido are still the same. Bushido was co-opted by the Imperial army as a way to make people think that giving their lives for their country was an "honorable death" but at the end of the day, death is a waste, honorable or not. The film does end on a hopeful and uplifting note as if to say that even if a practice has been accepted for generations it only takes the actions of one person to break the cycle.

Bushido feels like a horror movie at times complete with foreboding music cues, staging, and lighting. While there isn't much graphic violence shown, the implications are enough to make one's stomach turn. Nakamura is amazing--he plays seven different roles and each one is completely believable. The film won a Golden Bear Award at the 1963 Berlin Film Festival and it's easy to see why--it dares to lift the romanticized veil that has been draped over the concept of Bushido.

Samurai Rebellion (1967)

The role of women is often overlooked in samurai period pieces and they are usually slavishly devoted to their husbands and forced to suffer in silence. Not so in Masaki Kobayashi's Samurai Rebellion (1967). The Japanese title is Jōi-uchi: Hairyō tsuma shimatsu which roughly translates to Rebellion: Receive the Wife and that is much more fitting considering the themes.

Samurai Rebellion takes place in 1725, in the Edo period, and revolves around Isaburo Sasahara (Toshiro Mifune), a vassal of the local daimyō (feudal lord). He is incredibly loyal to his lord and is one of the most skilled swordsmen in all the land. One day his eldest son Yogoro (Go Kato) is told that the daimyō wants him to marry his concubine Ichi (Yoko Tsukasa) who has displeased him. Ichi has born the daimyō a son, but her conduct in the court has made her unfit to live there. Yogoro initially refuses, but due to pressure from his family and thinly veiled threats from the lord he accepts. Yogoro and Ichi eventually fall in love and have a daughter together.

Much like in Kobayashi's previous film Harakiri (1962), there is a plot point that at first is perceived to be one way until a character reveals the truth behind what happened and it takes on a whole new meaning. Initially, we are told that Ichi was kicked out of the court for attacking one of the daimyō's concubines and slapping him in his face. Later on in the film Ichi reveals that she was forced to sleep with the much older feudal lord at the tender age of 19 because he had taken a sexual interest in her, which she bitterly whispers "was like dragging a silk kimono through the mud" after which she became pregnant. Upon delivering her son she goes to another district to recover and when she returns she discovers that the daimyō has taken another concubine in her absence. Overcome with rage she attacks them both and is exiled from the court as a result.

The men who lived under the thumb of feudal lords didn't have much agency but the women had even less so, often being used as bargaining chips by men trying to gain favor or promotions. Women were told to bear these tragedies in for the good of the clan, but Ichi does no such thing. No matter how much she is demeaned or threatened she does not budge one inch in her convictions. The daimyō's primary heir dies suddenly and that makes the son Ichi bore him the heir. He tries to break up her marriage and make her return to the court but she adamantly refuses. She is delicate in stature but her determination is rooted firmly. Kobayashi often centers her character in the frame and zooms in the camera close to her face to show her defiant expression. She is not alone in her rebellion, as her husband Yogoro and her father-in-law Isaburo decide to challenge the status-quo and fight for Ichi's rights as a human. She is not property, she is a person with with wants and needs. 

Ichi subverts the usual depiction of women in samurai films, and though Samurai Rebellion doesn't end on a happy note, her strength in the face of injustice is inspiring. She, not the clan, is the true representation of Bushido.

Bohachi Bushido: Code of the Forgotten Eight (1972)

Bohachi Bushido is a nudity and blood filled chambara film that plays out like sleazier version of the Lone Wolf and Cub franchise. The story concerns a nihilistic ronin named Shiro who tires to kill himself by throwing himself into a river. He is rescued by the nefarious Clan of the Forgotten Eight, so-named for their disregard of the "eight virtues": god, servitude, loyalty, trust, propriety, justice, conscience, and shame. They essentially practice "anti-Bushido". The clan take him back to their hideout and show him the horrible deeds they perpetrate upon their helpless victims. Basically, they run a prostitution ring and "train" young women to become sex slaves. Most of these women are either kidnapped or taken as payment from families who owe them money.

Shiro doesn't seem to be offended at these practices and the gang decides to hire him as an assassin to murder rival prostitution rings. As a protagonist, Shiro is an interesting choice because he doesn't have the strong sense of morality that most do in other films. He seems to have no pity for others (or himself, for that matter) and just drifts around doing whatever is needed of him. It's extremely off-putting to experience the narrative from his point-of-view and he doesn't have any sort of character arc.

The stylized direction by Ishii is what keeps this film from diving too far down into soft porn/exploitation territory despite the copious amounts of sex and violence. His shot composition is beautiful and the fight scenes, while not on par with more mainstream samurai classics, are still quite good and dynamic. In the third act of the film Shiro ingests a large amount of opium and the visual aesthetic becomes very surreal and dream-like. 

There are sex scenes set to neon lighting interspersed with dream sequences set in a misty forest. This all culminates with an insane battle between Shiro and a large group of assailants with him having to stab himself repeatedly to counteract the effects of the opium. It's a bizarre nightmare atmosphere and it ends rather anticlimactically. I find that this fits with the theme of nihilism well, because according to Shiro nothing he does has a point and there is no end to his suffering whether in life or in death.

--Michelle Kisner