Chanbara and Wuxia and Podcasts, Oh My!

This is a rumination based on an interchange with the podcast Jianghu Hustle. The podcast is a consideration of wuxia and adjacent cinema in regards to RPGs. I love it because the hosts are really great at critically and enthusiastically examining wuxia movies and what we can learn from them for application to the RPG design realm. It’s a consistently excellent podcast and I would strongly recommend anyone who finds that description interesting, to check it out.

Image by Igor Kovalchuk / 123RF Stock Photo

Anyway, there was an interchange about chanbara or samurai movies and the intersection with wuxia. Yes, these are very different genres with very different needs, expectations, tropes and paradigms, but I think the main characters – at least of the movies I have seen and remember – are very, very similar. That isn’t surprising, because it’s also true of chivalric romances and Westerns – the heroes are wanderers who serve a higher morality and operate within a society linked to but separate from the civilization in which they live.

The issue is the conception of the samurai as a warrior serving a lord and the representation of the samurai in mass media, which is generally a wandering hero – often a ronin. Is there a movie that represents the samurai rather than the ronin, one that places the samurai in the milieu in which we expect to find him?

What follows is my ruminations on this, and I am far from an expert, so this is also a call for counsel and direction – let me know where I am wrong and how because I would be very interested to learn more.

The bottom line? Just as wuxia is not about individuals in China acting within their expected roles and undertaking expected tasks, most chanbara isn’t about samurai doing their job or following their societal role as expected – just as most action movies aren’t about police officers in a routine investigation and most swashbucklers aren’t about ships’ crews getting tea to market during an uneventful voyage.

by Wan Chiang Tan / 123RF Stock Photo

That’s kind of the TL, DR – and this is way, way too long, so understood if you bail right here. . . however, here are my thoughts on samurai cinema as I understand it, and I am very far from an expert. Please read everything as caveated with “to my knowledge” and “as I understand it” so that I don’t have to constantly repeat that.

One aspect of this that I think is enlightening if not entirely explanatory is that the idea of bushido as the code of the samurai comes from a time when the samurai’s main tasks did not involve war. I’ll write on that later, but for now, rather than belabor you suffering readers with my imperfect historical knowledge, I’m going to move forward with that as a “given.” I will present my “proofs” – as it were – later in another post so they don’t get in the way.

Even more than the a-historical nature of bushido as it relates to the samurai of cinema is the idea of a tale about officials doing their job as expected. Movies and stories tend to be about heroics or about black sheep. The Three/Four Musketeers were rebels who constantly created problems for their captain. Zorro isn’t about a Spanish nobleman governing Spain’s American domains. John McClane doesn’t Die Hard during his day at work, but rather is an unexpected wild card in a situation explicitly outside his regular capacity. Captain Blood is a freakin’ pirate . . . which leads to questions about his application of the Hippocratic Oath, but that’s for another time.

In the same sense, there are movies about samurai’s fighting and dying for their lord, but usually these are movies about that lord – whether it’s Throne of Blood (Kurosawa’s take on MacBeth) or Ran (his take on King Lear), we see the samurai fight and die for their lord, but they are not the anomalies, so they aren’t exciting. Even in the theatre of the Edo period, popular kabuki – the theatre of the masses – wasn’t about samurai serving lords and dying in their beds, it was looking back to earlier periods in which samurai bloodied their swords or it looked at extreme examples that removed the samurai from their common frame.

And that leads us to the 47 Ronin, which honestly is about samurai even though it is about ronin. It is about samurai because it is focuses on martial prowess and loyalty to one’s liege. This is – to me – the most pure samurai tale I can think of (with standard caveat that I am not an expert). Forget the recent movie 47 Ronin with Keanu Reeves – though I think it has elements that would be very gameable and is bad because it stole the name 47 Ronin and then did not deliver a movie about the 47 ronin but about 47 other ronin who fight sorcerers and monsters.

In conclusion, I would not expect movies to be made about samurai acting within the expected role of a samurai except perhaps as a postmodern deconstruction of that conceit, something more like Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead than Seven Samurai.

You can find the Jianghu Hustle patreon here.

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