Kurosawa’s Samurais

Toshiro Mifune was an aerial photographer for the Japanese Imperial Army, where he saw numerous eighteen-year-old conscripts fly off on kamikaze missions, an experience that gave him a lifelong hatred of the war. Later in his career, when he was typecast as an Imperial military officer, he was asked in an interview what he personally thought of the war. Departing from his on-screen persona, but still remaining true to his style, he said curtly “That war was nothing but pointless genocide”.

He was infamous as an insubordinate soldier, talking back to his superiors and exposing their contradictions. That tells you something about Mifune’s balls. Not many people had the guts to talk back to an officer of the Imperial Army during the Second World War. Needless to say, he got (and bravely took) the consequences that inevitably came to him. He also built a substantial name for himself as a photographer in the army. After the war, he applied for a job as an assistant photographer at Toho studios. What happened next is a matter of legend. For one reason or another (there are several theories) he got into the wrong interview. It was an audition to select a new batch of fresh actors for the studio. He was seated in front of a panel of judges and was told to smile, to which he replied “I have nothing to smile about”. The judges were not amused. But the soon-to-be-famous actress Hideko Takamine was electrified. She ran to Akira Kurosawa, who was filming in a nearby soundstage, who came in and saw the same thing the actress saw. The young assistant director made a case for Mifune and the reluctant applicant was hired as an actor.

You cannot separate the careers of Mifune and Kurosawa. Kurosawa made Mifune and Mifune made Kurosawa. When the two had a falling out, it had ill effect on both their careers. Kurosawa became the entry point for almost everyone in the West who is interested in samurai fiction and Japanese history. Yet only eight of the movies they made together are historical period pieces. One, Rashomon, depicts the Heian era, a time before the samurai class even existed. One, Red Beard, is about doctors (though technically they belong to the samurai class). That leaves six, and Mifune plays a samurai, or a sort of samurai, in only five. These five movies, more than any other medium, projected the concept of the samurai to the rest of the world. They were The Seven Samurai (1954), Throne of Blood (1957), The Hidden Fortress (1958), Yojinbo (1961), and Sanjuro (1962). In all five movies, Mifune plays an unconventional samurai, leaving his co-stars like Takashi Shimura to play the straight, by-the-book type of samurai.

So much has been written about Kurosawa movies, it is pointless to add any more movie criticism. But what these movies said about the samurai shaped the image of the samurai the world over. In The Seven Samurai, the Sengoku era is nearing the end and warriors are unemployed and impoverished. Some have turned to robbing farmer villages and some are hired by farmers to protect them. Each must struggle to maintain their dignity in their circumstances. In Throne of Blood, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the main character, played by Mifune, throws his loyalty to the wind in order to attain his ambition only to see the loyalty of his own men erode in the end. In The Hidden Fortress (aka the inspiration for Star Wars) a noble samurai of a defeated clan must live disguised as a bandit in order to transport the princess and her treasure to safety. In Yojinbo and its sequel Sanjuro, Mifune plays a masterless samurai traveling on foot across Japan. He has no destination. When he comes to a crossroad he tosses a stick in the air to decide which road to take. When he finally finds employment, he abandons it without taking so much as a new set of clothes. In every movie, the samurai were fallible men struggling, and sometimes failing, to live up to their ideal. But the ideal is always there, and very palpable in every movie. So why did the image of Kurosawa’s samurai captivate Western audiences so much? How did his heroes cross the cultural barrier and project an unique identity different from any other?

Let me digress for a moment and give you a description of an American hero.

There’s this guy. World-renowned billionaire. Tech genius. Inventor and entrepreneur. Athletic and talented and handsome with a jaw so chiseled it looks like Zeus came down from Olympus and carved the fucker himself. This guy’s got a small fleet of sports cars, a few yachts, and when he’s not giving millions of dollars to charities, he’s changing out supermodel girlfriends like other people change their socks. This guy’s smile can melt the damn room. His charm is so thick you can swim in it. Half of his friends were TIME’s “Man of the Year.” And the ones who weren’t don’t care because they could buy the magazine if they wanted to. When this guy isn’t jet setting around the world or coming up with the latest technological innovation to save the planet, he spends his time helping the weak and helpless and downtrodden.

This is Mark Manson’s description of Bruce Wayne, aka Batman. And Batman is the imperfect, damaged, dark counter-hero to Superman.

Western heroes are perfect. The Knight in Shining Armor does not have a kink in his chainmail. Prince Charming does not have cavities. The Marlboro man never falls off his horse. Is there someone out there struggling desperately to live up to the ideal of the Marlboro man? If there is, he is an imposter. Perhaps an actor hired to play him. But then again, part of being an American hero is that they don’t give a fuck. They never aspire to be something they are not. They just are.

The samurai are people burdened with impossibly high expectations. And they are educated from birth to trudge on and live up to those expectations even when it literally kills them. This is probably deliberate because if you are the sort of person who will give up battling impossibly tough demands heaped on you by your friends and family, how can you be expected to fight an impossible battle with a deadly enemy?

This part of the samurai code still lives on in Japan. This is why, when after the great earthquake and tsunami of 2011, when whole cities were leveled yet none of the survivors looted or rioted, and people who found cash wash up on the beaches delivered a total of tens of millions of dollars to police stations, people of Japan are still bemoaning that the general morality of the Japanese public is not up to par. And they are serious.

The unspoken code is, it is impossible to be perfect, but you must never forgive yourself for not being perfect. Westerners would call such a futile quest tilting at windmills. The Japanese call it bushido.


The Sakai Incident 1868

When the Americans took Bagdhad in the Second Gulf War, the residents of the city took to looting stores, warehouses and museums in a state of total chaos. In bygone years, such anarchy was enough justification for foreign powers to take over any given city, harbor or even nation on the pretext of restoring law and order. Many cities and ports across Asia were thusly taken and occupied. Some cities in Japan came quite close.

In January 1868, the forces of the last shogun of the Tokugawa Shogunite, Tokugawa Yoshinobu abandoned Osaka as their troops crumbled in the face of the Imperialist Alliance. Police forces disappeared. To restore order and maintain peace, forces of Satsuma were assigned to patrol the city of Osaka, forces of Nagato were assigned to Hyogo (now Kobe) and forces of Tosa were assigned to Sakai.

The city of Sakai is one with a proud history. During the Era of the Warring Lords (Sengoku Era), Sakai was a free city governed by a guild of merchants. The city, unlike most other cities in Japan, was a fortified harbor protected on three sides by moats, the forth side facing the sea. The city eventually fell into the rule of the shogun. Up until the first half of the Tokugawa era, however, it remained one of the most prosperous cities in Japan.

When the troops of Tosa reached the city, the two captains, Sugi and Ikoma, assigned to Sakai dug up seventy three former subjects of the shogun and put them to work in the offices, thus freeing their troops for guarding the streets.

The foreign powers were not unaware of the situation. A total of 16 French, British and American war ships were anchored off Osaka carefully monitoring the situation. The French sent troops to Sakai hoping to find sufficient chaos to justify occupation of the harbor. Unfortunately for them, order had already been restored quite efficiently. But that didn’t stop them from marching into the city.

On February 15th, a small number of French scouts were stopped at Yamato Bridge at the enterance of Sakai. If foreign troops were permitted to travel within the territory, there should have been some communication of this matter from Lord Dateh of Iyo, the Authority of Foreign Affairs. Even if the communication could not be made in time, the troops should be carrying passports issued by relevant authorities. The Tosa soldiers demanded to see the passport through an interpreter. The French didn’t have any and since they were only scouts who faced with a larger force, they were forced to turn back.

Later that same day, twenty boats full of French sailors landed in the harbor. They were at first not particularly unruly. But they intruded upon shrines and temples, went uninvited into private homes, chased and harrassed the women and generally behaved like foreigners usually did. Sakai was not a port open to foreigners and the residents were terriblly frightened. The captains of the Tosa troops tried to talk them into returning to their ships, but there were no interpreters and they ignored their gestures. Then a French sailor took the Tosa regiment banner and ran with it. A chase ensued. The Japanese flag barrer caught up with the Frenchman, hit him hard on the head with a staff and took back the banner. At this, the French troops started shooting at the Japanese. The two captains ordered to fire back. Thirteen Frenchmen died in the skirmish. The French pulled out of Sakai.

On Feburary 18th, the French formally accused Japan of wanton murder of French troops. French consule Leon Roche made the three following demands: 1) An apology from the Lord of Tosa who is to appear personally in front of the French command aboard the French warship Venus 2) the excecution of twenty Japanese soldiers and 3) a reparation of 150 thousand dollars was to be paid by the Lord of Tosa. Faced with the superior military power of the French, the Japanese government caved in to their demands.

Thus with apology made and reparations paid, what needed to be done was to execute the soldiers. When asked which of them fired, twenty nine soldiers answered that they did. They drew straws to decide which ones would be executed. By custom, it was decided to be ritual suicide. These men, being Tosa soldiers, were technically commoners, conscripted to service for the first time in centuries, but since they were to die in samurai fashion, it was arranged that they and their posterity would be elevated to the caste of samurai. The French were soon to face more than they bargained for.

The execution took place on the 23rd. The first man to die sat down at his place and spoke to the French delegation there to witness the execution. “Frenchmen! I do not die for you, but for the Imperial Nation. Behold! The formal death of a true man of Japan!” With this, he stuck his knife into his stomach, his eyes fixed on the Frenchmen, and pulled out his own intestines for them to see. The executioner, who was to chop off the man’s head to give him a quick merciful death, swung down his sword but missed the neck, inflicting only a small wound. The doomed man spoke to the executioner, his eyes still on the Frenchmen “What’s the matter, Mr. Baba. Calm down.” The second swing bit deep into the neck and loudly cracked a vertibre. “I’m not dead yet!” the man screamed, “Cut deeper!” At the third swing the head was finally lopped off. And the next man was called.

One by one, the men came to their deaths. Each time the men glared at the French up to the moment they died. The French consule was soon nervously standing up and sitting down, his honor guards, who were initially standing at attention, were soon whispering to each other. Decipline seem to melt away and all the French soldiers lost their military demeaner and fidgeted unbearablly. When the 12th man was called out, the French consule stood up and left without so much as a bow. The execution was suspended for lack of an official French witness. Unable to find a suitable replacement for the witness, the French pardoned the remaining nine soldiers. The survivors, furious that they missed their opportunity to die heroes and become elevated to samurai, stayed imprisoned for the remainder of their lives waiting for the French to return and resume the execution.

Thus, Japanese sovereignty was preserved in the face of superior military might. The dead soldiers were eventually enshrined in the Yasukuni Shrine.

That is a story that might make a good samurai novel. It was published in Japanese as a short story by Mori Ogai in 1914.

The Samurai Novelist

I write under the nom de plume Akira Fuyuno.

I am a professional with a full time job, but I have dreamed of becoming a novelist since childhood. I hope to meet other aspiring novelists and discuss writing and its difficulties. I am Japanese (living in rural Japan) and English is my second language, but my language of choice.

I thought writing a novel set in Japan (past or present) might give me a niche. But it is very difficult to write a good samurai novel in English. Please follow me if you are interested in my endeavor. Thank you.

(The ivory dragon on my avatar is a netsuke by the carver Rakuchu. I also carve netsuke as a hobby.)

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