Samurai films are all made in Japan, right? Wrong! Americans have made samurai films as well! When I was very young I wanted to be Batman when I grew up. As I grew older, I realized this career choice was silly. In later years, I wanted to be a samurai. I lived in an all white middle class suburb and there weren’t a lot of samurai sensi wandering about. Sure I had studied judo but I knew I needed more skills than that to be a samurai. Films about samurai filled the gap. In pre-cable, pre-DVD, pre-internet, pre-everything days, Japanese samurai movies were hard to find and even an American made samurai film was better than nothing. I never did become a samurai but I did end up moving to Asia and even lived in Japan for a while:
I was reminiscing and surfing the internet I was amazed to find out there was very little on this topic on the internet. The brave, cross-cultural and pioneering American made samurais deserve better! I write this post to honor their memory!
This article will try to compare made in America samurai with their Japanese counterparts in two areas. First, I am going to focus on the sword fighting scenes since this is a critical aspect of what makes a samurai film a samurai film. If I watch a samurai film then I want great sword scenes as part of the package. I have dabbled with kendo and kenjutsu. I did attend some Society for Creative Anachronism sword fighting classes at Michigan State University a hundred years ago. I am aware that cinema sword fighting is about entertainment not authenticity in general. However, I think part of the entertainment value of samurai sword fighting, as opposed to a kung fu phooey film, or a Hollywood CGI epic, is some attempt to make the viewer have the illusion that they are seeing a real samurai fight or at least this was the case in the older samurai films.
Secondly, a code is what makes a samurai a samurai. Bushido is the code that samurai’s live or rebel against in the case of rōnin. Without bushido then a samurai is just a guy waving a sword. Because of bushido, there is a tension between ninjō (compassion) and giri (duty) in most Japanese samurai film and I wonder if made in America samurais have a similar dynamic.Swords provide the external drama of a samurai film. Bushido provides the internal drama of a samurai film. If the film has samurai in the title but absolutely no samurai elements then I would argue it’s not a samurai film. For this reason, a film like Samurai Cowboy with no samurai elements is not on the list and also the film is Canadian. Overall this article will attempt to answer the question, how much impact have Japanese samurai film conventions had on made in America samurai films?
47 Ronin (2013)
A recent movie that has nothing to do with my teenage memories but perhaps will be a bad memory for future generations. This movie is a confusing mélange of fantasy that almost has nothing to do with the original 47 Ronin story. The original 47 Ronin is a story about giri not a CGI exercise like this Hollywood version. Keanu seems to be stuck in this one acting mode these days. Internal conflict expressed as intense confusion would be the term I would use. Keanu Reeves is playing Neo with a sword not a samurai! However, there are giri elements in the movie just poorly expressed and take a back seat to the CGI. The sword scenes are pure CGI and this was interesting once upon a time but no longer.
This is a low budget film that marks the acting debut of Mark Dacascos. As bad as this film is one cannot say it’s the worst American made samurai film to the heavy competition for this title.The film has mediocre action. There isn’t much in the way of psychological development of the characters.
This is a blaxploitation film that has some pretty good karate action but has the word “samurai” in the title for marketing purposes. The character development of the hero Jim Kelly is his evolution from being one cool cat to being an even cooler cat in the eyes of the audience. Still, Jim Kelly is always fun to watch.
You have to love Jim Kelly’s double front kick! Jim Kelly’s trademark was kicking with one leg and then the other while in the air. The more common flying double front kick is hitting two opponents at the same time which makes more sense from a combat point of view but is less fun to watch. For all fellow would be samurai I found the following tutorial video:
I guess you can use a lot of the same training methods to do the Jim Kelly kick. I am retired and will skip the entire process. I did Karate in my twenties no problem. I tried again at fifty and almost died!
Laura Gemser is in this film and she has a sword! Laura Gemser was just about the only SE Asian sexy gal in mainstream, and not so mainstream, Western film for about twenty years and persons of a certain age will remember her fondly. Why wouldn’t you watch this film! I couldn’t find an English version of the film on YouTube but I have to say the German version below really grows on you.
There is a good sword fight between Frank Converse, as Captain Lawrence Hawk using a sabre, and a samurai. Sword fights work even if you don’t understand German which I don’t. As stated, there really is no such thing a “realistic” sword fight in movies but this scene has zero CGI and wire acrobatics and is a reasonable attempt to imagine how such a fight would play out while being entertaining. The katana and the sabre are both swords that emphasize slashing but allow for thrusting as well. I have handled both weapons and the weight is comparable. A katana is generally held with both hands and a push/pull movement adds to the power of the cut. However, Miyamoto Musashi did use two swords, one in each hand and was probably the greatest sword’s man in Japanese history. The sabre’s guard means the sabre is strictly a one handed affair. A knife, iron gauntlet or even a cloak with weights sewn into the bottom were sometimes used in the other hand. A person who had used a sabre would not be totally lost using a katana and vice-versa. There is some discussion between Laura Gemser and Frank Converse as to what being a samurai is all about.
There is even a pretty good verbal critique of kenjutsu compared to military sabre technique by Frank Converse. Actually, Frank just tears into kenjutsu. I was a little surprised way back then since this was just about the first time I had ever been exposed to the idea that maybe Asian martial arts weren’t just totally superior to Western martial arts. Someone involved this movie had studied both sword fighting techniques at least a bit and this is reflected in the movie.
Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai
This offbeat story has a believable hero. Ghost Dog is black man in America that becomes a samurai and the why and how actually make sense. The whole revenge as origin hero story was old when done with Batman. The origin story in this movie goes in a different direction. The choice of the hero is perhaps existential? The hero has grown up in a world of chaos and the samurai code forces order on his internal chaos. There is a bit of this existential origin in the Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller. There is not so much a struggle between good and evil but between meaning and meaningless existence.
The movie is funny and poignant at the same time. The fight scenes are believable and interesting. The hero uses a nice mix of kenjutsu, wing chun and eskrima. This is a film that operates at various levels and you can watch it more than once and pick up on all sorts of metafictional layers. The conflict between ninjō and giri permeates the story. Bushido is dealt with explicitly. Mafia style gang loyalty is compared directly with bushido and the two are found to be very similar. The absurdity of a samurai world view in modern America is also dealt with and the answer is that perhaps in a chaotic America some code is needed and bushido is not the worst choice. One of my favorite American made samurai films.
Hirokin: The Last Samurai
A collection of sword fights in a Tatooine like landscape with just a thread of a plot to link the sword fights together. The sword fights aren’t terrible but not all that great either. The lack of comprehensible dialogue, plot structure and logical consistency means that this is possibly the worst American made samurai film ever in a subgenre that has lots of awful films to compete with.
Kill Bill 1 & Kill Bill 2
I love these films! A giant homage to Japanese samurai films and every other cheesy subgenre produced in Japan and Hollywood since the sixties. Does such a flurry of homage make the film metafictional? Uma does talk to the third wall directly in Kill Bill 2 and describes the film as a “’roaring rampage of revenge”. The sword scenes are bloody, fun and over the top! Uma Thurman is a warrior in this film and you believe it! Uma Thurman has been betrayed by her clan and now has an obligation as a warrior to kill them and makes a list of who has to be killed. Uma Thurman hesitates a bit when Copperhead is found to be a mother with a daughter but in the end Uma chooses giri over compassion and kills Copperhead. The main villain is her ex-lover and mentor Bill. Bill introduces him to a daughter they had but she never knew about. Maybe Uma will let bygones be bygones and they will raise their daughter together. No way! Uma kills Bill but sends him off to die on the beach after her fatal blow, the five point palm-exploding heart technique, with a sad forced smile. Uma even straightens Bill’s suit before he staggers off to die. Uma cries afterwards as her newly discovered daughter watches television but she has done her duty.
Cowboys play with samurais. Charles Bronson, Ursula Andress and ToshirōMifune are all top actors that combine to make a cocktail that doesn’t quite work but is fun to drink anyway. Charles Bronson slowly learns about bushido from Toshirō Mifune and learns to respect Toshirō Mifune and his code. Not a lot of sword play but what is in the movie is competently done.
The scene below shows a combination of bad dialogue and bad delivery rarely seen in even a straight to video film. Incredibly, there was a sequel to this film (Samurai Cop 2)! The samurai cop is not a samurai but a bad actor with a sword.
Samurai Girl is a made for TV mini-series. Jamie Chung is the very pretty heroine and a lot of fun to watch. This show is basically a teen drama with a thin samurai veneer. There does seem to be a lot of girl on girl violence! There is a seppuku scene but overall bushido elements are ignored.
Samurai Jack is an immensely popular cartoon series. I would say the best cartoon that the Cartoon Network ever made and I like their cartoons in general. This show is the winner of many awards. Samurai Jack is probably the best American made samurai cartoon. Actually, the only American made samurai cartoon but still fantastic.
Saturday Night Live Samurai
This was a series of skits in TV series Saturday Night Live. John Belushi did several skits in which a samurai is forced to do various pedestrian jobs such as working in a hotel and a delicatessen. The Belushi version of the samurai does not speak English but uses made up Japanese with lots of guttural sounds and screams that capture the speech patterns of chanbara films. I have copied Belushi’s mannerisms and have been known to do a comic version of seppuku with a pencil or whatever impromptu prop happens to be around. These skits are still hilarious now as they were then.
This is a TV miniseries about samurai. Shōgun had a huge positive influence on how Americans viewed samurai and Japanese culture in general. I watched every episode in B&W on my TV in Howland House with my girlfriend as the episodes aired. I can safely say this is the made in America samurai film that really made me curious about Asia. Yoko Shimada played Mariko and because of her performance, having a Japanese girlfriend someday was put on my bucket list. Perhaps if I had never seen this series then I would have never moved to Asia.
The Silver Samurai was not a film but a character in The Wolverine: The Path of a Ronin. The character is a giant robot unlike the human mutant version in the comic book. The fight between the Silver Samurai robot and Wolverine is probably the best action scene in a film that has little going for it but action scenes. Wolverine is arguably an American samurai, a ronin specifically, despite the fact he doesn’t use a sword.
This film had excellent sword action. If there were any bushido elements in this film then I missed them. This is more an homage to American popular music than to Japanese samurai movies.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III
Ninjas are the natural enemies of the samurai. Why not have the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles go back in time and play at being samurais? This is a silly but amusing film.
The Last Samurai
The Last Samurai is a very controversial film from a historical point of view. Liberties are taken with historical events. The heroic samurai of the film may in fact have been petty warlords.
Regardless of the historical debate associated with the film, the scenes in which poor Tom Cruise learns to use the katana with a bokken give the audience a good feel as to how kenjutsu is not kendo! The bokken is a wooden sword that can be used as a weapon in its own right. Kendo uses a shinai. The shinai is a bamboo weapon which actually causes the user to learn bad sword fighting habits due to its lightness compared to the steel of a sword. A shinai is for practice purposes only and quite useless as a weapon. Practicing with a bokken is a dangerous affair and the shinai was a safe substitute for the bokken when kendo was created for none samurai. Despite the title of the video below, Tom Cruise is practicing kenjutsu not kendo!
Probably the best American samurai film when it comes to lavishness, large scale battle scenes and high production standards.
The Silent Stranger
In Red Sun cowboys meet samurai. In this film a spaghetti cowboy meets many samurai. The sword action is amusing and tons of action. The hero is a cowboy. Cowboys don’t have any duty versus compassion dynamic as a rule or do they?
The word samurai is often inserted in the title of made in America samurai films for marketing purposes with little regard to prior Japanese samurai conventions in the area of Japanese style swordsmanship or some nod to bushido. The worst culprits are American Samurai, Black Samurai, Hirokin: The Last Samurai, Samurai Cop and The Silent Stranger. Interestingly, the better films overall are also the films that deal with Japanese samurai conventions and include: Bushido Blade, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, Kill Bill, Red Sun, Samurai Girl, Samurai Jack, Saturday Night Live Samurai, and Shōgun. I would single out Ghost Dog, Kill Bill, and Samurai Jack as the best films in this category. Both Ghost Dog and Kill Bill have a metafictional dimension. In Ghost Dog the metafictional dimension is partly directed towards samurai cinema in Japan.