The Cinematic Code of the Samurai

In celebration of Samurai Cinema: The Way of the Warrior, Head of Film Programs, Richard Sowada, explains how samurai films are among the most influential in cinema, and  include some of the most important features ever produced by masters filmmakers.

Lady Snowblood

Lady Snowblood

The Bushido code outlines seven attributes of the samurai:

To die when it is right to die, to strike when it is right to strike.

 It is true courage to live when it is right to live, and to die only when it is right to die.

 Benevolence brings under its sway whatever hinders its power just as water subdues fire.

 In its highest form politeness approaches love.

Propriety carried beyond bounds becomes a lie.

 Dishonor is like a scar on a tree which time, instead of effacing only helps to enlarge.

A samurai was obliged to appeal to the intelligence and conscience of his sovereign by demonstrating the sincerity of his words with the shedding of his own blood.

These virtues propel the samurai film and are the central elements that give the genre such great integrity, honesty, truth and enduring resonance.

One of the wonderful things about the obeyance of this code by the characters is it completely defines and guides them – either in the rejection or adherence to them. It’s all or nothing. But perhaps above all it’s the simplicity of the code set against the complexity of the world – a binary opposition around which all manner of stories, from comedy to drama to high adventure, can be formed.

There’s no question that films like the mighty Rashomon, The Seven Samurai, Yojimbo and many others soar into the film canon through these high ideals that embrace strength and intellect – qualities we all aspire to.

There’s also no question that these very simple ideas proved irresistible to Hollywood of the ‘50s and ‘60s. The explosion of samurai films at the time, their fresh approach and the code they embody provided nothing short of a blueprint for a new kind of (anti)hero, primarily in the Western genre.

13 Assassins

13 Assassins

Like the samurai films, the Westerns of Sergio Leone remain today as lively, enjoyable and playful as the day they were made. The action and characters are still great on the big and small screen but they owe more than a tip of the sombrero to Kurasawa and Mifune – Kurasawa’s actor of choice.  A Fistful of Dollars (1964) is almost a scene for scene remake of Yojimbo (1961). Likewise The Magnificent Seven (1960) against the Seven Samurai (1954) and the similarity between Star Wars (1977) and Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress (1958) is astonishing if not shameless.

Nonetheless, all the films live and work in their own right. This is of course testament to the strength of the original Japanese films but also to noble Bushido code that provides such fundamental character direction and natural conflict with the often unnatural social and political environment.

Of the American Western heroes, Shane (George Stevens, 1953) perhaps epitomises the samurai ethic at its most pure. Noble and humble, gifted with great humanity and bravery, and polite as you like – unless there’s killing to be done, and when there is, adversaries are dispatched faster than you can say “soda-pop” – without remorse or anger. The best any samurai (or anyone who lives by the sword) can hope for is to die. It is what you do. It is what you need to do. It is what you are destined to do.



Still, for the samurai the stuggles are lovely to watch – the character of Hanbei Kitou (played by Masachika Ichimura) in Takashi Miike’s 13 Assassins – is visibably shaken by the acts of his master, but the samurai code keeps him bound to his master to the last. The characters in The Magnificent Seven and Seven Samurai are all drawn to the roots of the village, and the unexpected tenderness of the man with no name in Yojimbo and A Fistful of Dollars is really the motivation of the character.

The enormous influence of these films aside (Yojimbo, The Seven Samurai and Rashomon regularly find themselves in top ten lists of the most important films ever made), they are beautiful, surprising and lots and lots of fun. Simple, clean and classic in their lines yet surprisingly complex and artful in their folds.

Richard Sowada, ACMI Head of Film Programs

Samurai Cinema: The Way of the Warrior screens at ACMI from Friday 16 May – Sunday 1 June 2014.

Book any ticket or pass for Samurai Cinema: The Way of the Warrior online and go in the draw to win dinner* at Izakaya Den
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One Response to “The Cinematic Code of the Samurai”

  1. Ben Laden 13. May, 2014 at 12:56 pm #

    In heaven. Was investigating a similar concept for FTI in Perth before I came over. Had Kobayashi’s ‘Kwaidan’ (1964) and Oshima’s ‘In the Realm of the Senses’ (1976) in mine, but this is an impressive list. ‘The Wages of Fear’ a great choice. Definitely will be seeing as much as I can of this wonderful collection of films.

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