The Way of the Blade 

Local fest cuts a swath through the Japanese samurai genre

Like the Western, the samurai film exalts masculine honor, the defense of the powerless by the strong, and tests of skill and superiority with social order in the balance.

“Gunslingers are not samurai.” That was said, in 1980, by no less an authority than Akira Kurosawa—20 years after his 1954 classic The Seven Samurai became a tip-top Hollywood Western called The Magnificent Seven. Perhaps he still rankled at the reviews he’d received back in the day from condescending U.S. critics. In the mid-1950s, less than 10 years after Hirohito’s surrender, a few treated his matchless epic as if it were some made-in-Japan transistor radio—a skilled but inferior knock-off of American goods.

Nobody would dare today—not because of any increased cultural sensitivity, but because The Seven Samurai’s influence on American movies is so profound. Put it another way: a red-handed thief can’t accuse others of stealing. Slow-motion violence? The team-building structure? Kurosawa got there long before Peckinpah or The Dirty Dozen. And yet it’s impossible not to look at The Seven Samurai without seeing the mirror image of that most American of genres, the cowboy movie.

The parallels ripple throughout the seven-film “Samurai Film Festival,” which starts Friday at the Belcourt. Backed by the Wills Foundation, the series offers the kind of genre-specific immersion that Nashville moviegoers never get. It’s a chance not only to see The Seven Samurai on the big screen, which is cool enough, but to see samurai cinema as part of a cross-cultural give-and-take—a global conversation that includes German expressionism, Nouvelle Vague innovation and, yes, the American Western.

Like the Western, the samurai film exalts masculine honor, the defense of the powerless by the strong, and tests of skill and superiority with social order in the balance. As in the classic Western gunfight, when two men reach for their blades in a samurai film, moral absolutes are at stake. In keeping with the bushido code that governed the conduct of Japan’s warrior class from the 11th century onward, the sword tempered by “rectitude” (i.e., justice and morality) prevails in the long run, even if its wielder dies.

In the Belcourt’s terrific series, the differences between the samurai movies are more striking than the similarities. Say “Western,” and you picture Stetsons and showdowns; watch several back-to-back, and you find an art form with myriad shades of nuance—wide enough to include the barely stifled hysteria of Nicholas Ray along with Ford and Hawks. The most exciting finds in the samurai series are by lesser-known directors who expand and complicate the genre Kurosawa defined.

Where the Kurosawa films of the 1950s restore order, the two movies here by director Masaki Kobayashi defy the sanctity of feudal loyalty. (This stance is tougher than it sounds: as samurai-film authority Chris D. writes, the Japanese government encouraged samurai films throughout World War II to extol servitude to the emperor.) The two Kobayashi films, 1962’s Harakiri and 1967’s Samurai Rebellion, are twin marvels of delayed gratification. When the servile heroes finally unsheath their swords against their unworthy rulers, the brilliantly staged violence is eruptive, volcanic: it shakes the rotten system to the foundation.

If Kobayashi favors narrative clarity and horizontal compositions as rigid and formal as a prison cell, director Kihachi Okamoto puts his foot through the genre’s paper-screen conventions in his radically dissimilar The Sword of Doom and Kill! The former tells the downfall of a psychotic swordsman whose existence becomes a hellish loop of movie-rupturing bloodbaths; the latter kids the samurai movie with an absurdist humor that swings from Beckett to Mel Brooks. Perhaps because they’re so blatantly disruptive and self-aware, Okamoto’s films seem startlingly contemporary. From the wholesale slaughter of Kill!, it’s just a jump to Kill Bill.

If one can find fault with the Belcourt series, it’s that the films have been programmed chronologically backward: it starts this weekend with Kobayashi and ends with 1950’s Rashomon. Commercially, and arguably artistically, it’s easy to see why the series closes with sensei Kurosawa. But the order reverses the development of the “rebel samurai” subgenre.

It’s a petty complaint, though, for a series that raises the bar sky-high for movie programming in Nashville. Those who attend all seven films will get to watch two screen giants crisscross paths like evenly matched rivals awaiting a title shot: the great Toshiro Mifune, readable at a glance, and his shape-shifting opposite Tatsuya Nakadai. Their careers first intersect—for a few seconds—in The Seven Samurai, and from there they shuttle back and forth, from lead to villain, from Kurosawa to Kobayashi. By the time they face off, in Samurai Rebellion, the audience is primed for screen fireworks, and Kobayashi doesn’t disappoint.

Which actor kicks more ass? Which director emerges supreme? Such discoveries, and arguments, are the joy of a festival like this. 

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