The Way of the Samurai
A CultureMap®
by Cam Terwilliger
Published on 12/23/13

Much as Tom Cruise did in The Last Samurai (2003), Keanu Reeves revives the American samurai in 47 Ronin (2013), a revamp of the revered Japanese legend about an honorable, devoted band of warriors. But how did samurai come to be? This map investigates Japan’s original tough guys in their noblest cinematic appearances, exploring their ferocious history, their famous swordplay and Bushido, the code that governed their life and death.

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to  The Book of Five Rings  (Miyamoto Musashi | martial arts text | 1643–1645)

Japan’s brutal feudal era, which extended from the end of the 12th century well into the 19th, was ruled by territorial lords slugging it out for dominance. Within such a prolonged state of warfare, soldiers became uniquely venerated and eventually formed an aristocratic caste known as the samurai. Similar to medieval European knights, samurai behaved according to a strict behavioral code called Bushido (“way of the warrior”). This doctrine obligated samurai to act honorably and bravely and to put their lords’ needs above their own, even in the face of death. Samurai were honor-bound to die for their lord—and with him if necessary—even up to the point of ceremonially disemboweling themselves.

But the samurai lifestyle wasn’t all blood and guts. Drawn from Confucianism and Zen Buddhism, Bushido commanded samurai to be respectful and wise, and they were expected to be educated in the arts. Both Renaissance men and stone-cold killers, samurai produced paintings, poems and works of philosophy that shaped Japan’s culture. Miyamoto Musashi, a folk hero and swordsman extraordinaire, wrote one of the most influential samurai works, The Book of Five Rings. Today even businesspeople read Musashi’s life musings and teachings on martial strategy and Bushido ethics.

to  Ronin

Although samurai were supposed to commit seppuku (ritual suicide, also known as hara-kiri) if their masters died before releasing them from service, some ignored this Bushido tenet. Because of strict social mores, finding a new lord or even entering a different line of work was considered shameful for these samurai. Masterless warriors earned their keep as mercenaries, bodyguards or assassins—or became bandits. These samurai, accountable to no one, were called ronin, literally “wave men,” societally adrift.

In the feudal era, ronin were considered disgraced, and those who became criminals were frowned upon as thugs. In the rosy light of retrospection, however, the ronin has become a popular character type in Japanese literature and cinema. What could be more compelling than a solitary warrior making his way in the world, an antihero struggling with his own disgrace? Among the most popular depictions of ronin in recent decades is Lone Wolf and Cub. Originally a graphic novel by Kazuo Koike and since adapted into movies and TV series, the story follows Ogami Itto, an official executioner who is framed by rivals and forced to travel the country, pushing his infant son in a wooden cart, doing battle to restore his honor.

to  Seven Samurai  (Akira Kurosawa (dir.) | film | 1954)

Cinema’s most famous ronin are those assembled in Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, which centers on a farming village under constant siege by bandits. Anticipating the next strike, the peasants decide to retain a group of unemployed samurai to protect them. Unfortunately, the motley squad they hire includes at least one questionable choice—the boastful, alcohol-swilling Kikuchiyo, a loose cannon with stolen identification papers, who is really a farmer’s son masquerading as a samurai.

Widely ranked among the greatest films, Kurosawa’s masterpiece has enjoyed lasting influence over generations of directors. According to film scholar Michael Jeck, it was the first movie to gather a band of heroes to accomplish a task too difficult for any one of them, a movie trope since borrowed for countless revenge, heist and great-escape pictures, such as Ocean’s 11 (1960) and The Dirty Dozen (1967). In 1960 Seven Samurai was adapted as a Hollywood Western, The Magnificent Seven, directed by John Sturges. A slew of East-meets-West productions based on samurai films followed, including Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy of spaghetti Westerns (1964–1966), starring Clint Eastwood as a taciturn outlaw known as the Man With No Name.

The Book of Five Rings  (Miyamoto Musashi | martial arts text | 1643–1645)
to  Samurai Trilogy  (Hiroshi Inagaki (dir.) | film series | 1954–1956)

The hero of countless tales of bravery, Miyamoto Musashi (c. 1584–1645) was a samurai’s ideal of a swordsman. Yet it’s difficult to separate the historical personage from the myth, because most of what we know about Musashi comes from his seminal work of martial strategy and philosophy, The Book of Five Rings. He wandered the Japanese countryside through the early part of the 17th century, dueling with other samurai and perfecting his skills. Unsurpassed in his technique with the katana (long sword), Musashi claimed to have won his first duel at age 13. He once trounced an entire school of samurai by wielding two long swords at once, launching a new and lasting fighting style.

Musashi has been depicted in dozens of movies, novels and comic books, most indelibly in Hiroshi Inagaki’s Samurai trilogy, which follows different periods in the swordsman’s life. Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto, introduces an undisciplined warrior who wins fights by going berserk. In Samurai II: Duel at Ichijoji Temple, Musashi discovers martial discipline but still lacks spiritual peace. Finally, in Samurai III: Duel at Ganyru Island, he becomes the god among men we know from Japanese lore—laconic, serene and possessed of flawless physical grace.

Samurai Trilogy  (Hiroshi Inagaki (dir.) | film series | 1954–1956)
to  Seven Samurai  (Akira Kurosawa (dir.) | film | 1954)

Actor Toshiro Mifune was to samurai movies what Humphrey Bogart was to film noir. In Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, Mifune steals the show even while playing a character, Kikuchiyo, who only pretends to be a samurai. “Mifune had a kind of talent I had never encountered before in the Japanese film world,” enthused Kurosawa, who worked with the high-energy actor on 16 films. “It was, above all, the speed with which he expressed himself that was astounding.”

Although strongly associated with Kurosawa in the public imagination, Mifune appeared in numerous great films by other directors, most notably Hiroshi Inagaki’s Samurai trilogy. In the trilogy’s first segment, echoes of Mifune’s character from Seven Samurai resound in his portrayal of a young Miyamoto Musashi—an often drunk, always pathos-filled braggart. As Musashi’s fighting talents mature in the later installments, so do his principles. By the end of the third film, the reserved Mifune hardly resembles the bumbling Kikuchiyo from Seven Samurai. In another testament to his incredible range of abilities, Mifune’s sword-fighting sequences influenced several samurai film tropes, such as the set pieces with flashing steel familiar from Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003).

to  Ghost Dog  (Jim Jarmusch (dir.) | film | 1999)

Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai is a gangster movie with a samurai twist. The film follows a Mafia assassin known only as Ghost Dog, a mystery man who lives in an inner-city shack with a rooftop pigeon coop. Though armed with 20th-century weapons, Ghost Dog is a strict follower of Bushido, particularly as presented in Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai, written in the early 1700s by the samurai Yamamoto Tsunetomo. Hagakure teaches that only by embracing his own death does a samurai become truly empowered. Throughout the movie, passages from the book appear on-screen, providing insight into Ghost Dog’s psyche as he battles the mobsters who once retained him but now think he has outlived his usefulness.

Directed by Jim Jarmusch, Ghost Dog is a tribute to Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1967 crime film Le Samouraï, which also begins with a quotation from Hagakure. But Jarmusch undergirds his version with a hip-hop soundtrack engineered by Wu-Tang Clan superproducer RZA (who also has a cameo in the film). Jarmusch is famed for his meandering, atmospheric films, and this movie combining mobsters, French New Wave cinema, Wu-Tang beats and samurai philosophy feels both familiar and altogether new.

Ghost Dog  (Jim Jarmusch (dir.) | film | 1999)
to  Seven Samurai  (Akira Kurosawa (dir.) | film | 1954)

Bursting with references to samurai culture, Ghost Dog pays particular homage to the work of Japanese short story writer Ryūnosuke Akutagawa. The film opens with Ghost Dog assassinating a mobster without realizing the man’s lover is also in the room. In an off-kilter exchange typical of Jim Jarmusch films, the young woman does not scream. Instead she calmly lends Ghost Dog the book she’s reading, Akutagawa’s Rashomon and Other Stories. Thematically, the collection suits Ghost Dog perfectly. Its most famous story, “In a Grove,” recounts a murder from several points of view, with each narrator altering the events to suit him- or herself, leaving us guessing at the truth. Similarly Ghost Dog—played with eerie aloofness by Forest Whitaker—is a cipher seen differently by everyone he meets.

Jarmusch isn’t the only filmmaker influenced by Akutagawa’s fiction. Though Akira Kurosawa is often remembered for Seven Samurai, his first international success was Rashomon (1950), which adapts “In a Grove” and frames its action within the setting of the story “Rashomon,” at a dilapidated Kyoto city gate. The star of Seven Samurai, Toshiro Mifune, plays Rashomon’s randy bandit, who ignites the conflict that ends in the mysterious death.