Recently I came across a book on Samurai films in my local library. Entitled ‘Stray Dogs and Lone Wolves: The Samurai Film Handbook’ and written by Patrick Galloway, it seems to be pitched at newcomers to the genre. I wonder if any of my online friends (some of whom boast considerable knowledge and deep appreciation of the chanbara genre) have come across this book and what they think of it? As far as these films go, I consider myself neither expert or novice – I have seen more of these movies than the average man on the street but I know that there are many seminal films in the genre I have yet to see, and I have much to learn about this genre. The book is OK, but the following passage struck me:
“Perhaps no country on earth has a deeper cultural reverence for nature than Japan. Shinto, Japan’s ancient pre-Buddhist religion, has as its central focus the spirituality of the natural world. With the arrival of Buddhism in the seventh century, contemplation of nature carried over to become a central facet of the contemplative life of the Buddhist monk.
The Japanese have traditionally to nature for retreat and respite from the intense pressures of society. The minimalist poetic form of the haiku is based on immediate, transcendental impressions of nature; the art of ikebana (flower arrangement), bonsai (miniature trees), and Japanese architecture itself, integrating the garden as a central feature of the dwelling, all reflect this awareness of the importance of nature and the need to incorporate some aspect of it into one’s daily life.
Therefore, it’s no surprise that the natural world is perpetually present in the samurai film. Even in the bloodiest sword films, one is struck by the beauty of the settings. A sword duel on an idyllic beach at dawn, a massacre in gently falling snow, murder and betrayal in a sunny glade, these confluences stem from an artistic tradition that has long dominated the visual landscape of Japanese film. Forest, ocean, river, mountain, sand and surf, wind and flower, one is never far from some vision of natural beauty. This tends to elevate the experience of the samurai film, as well as place the human drama in a larger context. Sometimes the trees stand in mute witness to the bloody folly of men and their swords. At other times the wind and rain whip the scene into a frenzy to match the desperate battle of, say, ronin fighting in an army of bandits.
Nature imagery is more often than not used symbolically to provide subtext. This symbolism is sometimes lost on Western viewers; it is an encoded language of metaphor familiar to every Japanese filmgoer, but we in the West need to be aware that a shot of a river can be referring to the impermanence of life, or falling cherry blossoms might symbolize the fleeting nature of youth or the suddenness of death. Seasonal shifts indicate change, and often point out development or decay in characters and their relationships to one another. Weather always means something: rain can signal the onset of a plot development or simply add emphasis.
One complex, water-based symbol that pops up periodically in the films discussed here is that of an old mill next to a river with a big water wheel driving the machinery within (usually pounding equipment for grain). Keep an eye out for the water mill in Seven Samurai – what does it symbolise? Perhaps agrarian harmony with nature? Its destruction by bandits then takes on a deeper significance. In other films, such as Sword of Doom and Lady Snowblood, the punding, grinding machinery of the mill reinforces the brutal act of rape, thus pointing out something unnatural; the mill becomes an aberration.
In any case, aside from making these films more pleasing to the eye, the nature imagery that fills them is usually there to tell us something. Just being aware of this fact adds another fascinating dimension to the experience of watching a samurai film.
Stray Dogs and Lone Wolves: The Samurai Film Handbook