‘Bushido’ and the Celluloid Nation

22 May

Japan’s National Myth and the Samurai Film: Ran (1985), Zatoichi (2003) and The Last Samurai(2003)

Though Japan’s economy has taken a break in recent years, the stereotype of modern ‘samurais’ decked in the business attire of the quintessential Japanese salaryman continue to circulate the global marketplace. We know how these things work and we often blame the white man for the perpetuation of these reductive images. (Aaiiieee! Blame the white man!) More often than not, the concept ‘bushido’ gets thrown around rather too frivolously by both ‘outsiders’ as much as the Japanese themselves. (Though I should probably add, at least not to the extent that ‘postmodern’ has.) In fact, the cinematic representations of both the ‘bushido’ ideal and of the samurai figure in the three films will be read against the backdrop of Japan’s history in order to understand why some of these misrepresentations are deliberately worked on the cinematic screen in order to foster Japanese nationalism.

As a form of popular culture, cinema is or can be a site of collective imagination for the masses. In Benedict Anderson’s definition of a ‘nation’ as “an imagined community”, he suggested that such a collective imagination is sustained and facilitated by printed literatures (124). While film is not exactly a “printed” literature in the traditional or strictest sense of the word, it is arguably one of the most ubiquitous forms of popular culture and mass media. As such, I believe that the cinema becomes an important site for the masses to imagine their ‘nation’ on screen. Mette Hjort and Scott Mackenzie explain:

Films … do not simply represent or express the stable features of a national culture, but are themselves one of the loci of debates about a nation’s governing principles, goals, heritage and history. (4)

In other words, cinema is a powerful tool that can be used to either challenge or to further perpetuate the national imagination (or at least the dominant narrative and myth of the ‘nation’).

Samurai Films and Japan’s National Myth

Ian Littlewood, claims that the issue of stereotypes is “not so much that stereotypes are inaccurate as that they are partial” (41). Therefore, a stereotype is a representation that is clearly a misrepresentation to the extent that it is a partial truth taken out of its context – all in hope of replacing the ‘whole’. Consider Littlewood’s further claim: “In the interest of a simplified and more manageable reality, they [stereotypes] ignore conflicting evidence and invite us to take the part for the whole” (41).

In a way, such a practice can be located in the cinema as well, insofar as filmic narratives are or can be used to mediate certain misappropriations of history in order to facilitate a simplified image of the nation. Of particular interest to this paper is the Samurai film genre and how it is deliberately used to redefine or re-imagine Japan as a nation. According to David Desser, these samurai films are not simply “cinematic translations” of history but tended to “mark an almost complete break … a ‘remythicization’” (Samurai Films 20, emphasis mine). The point here is that these samurai films accentuate certain truths or notions from the past and re-imagines them on screen in order to fit the national myth of Japan – imagined in and of itself. In short, samurai films have been used to disfigure history insofar as to configure Japanese nationalism, producing stereotypes around the samurai figure or of the ‘bushido’ ethics in order to sell the myth of the Japanese nation.

By ‘bushido’, I mean to refer to the popularly-consumed ideas and values appropriated from the earlier bushido ethics, in no part thanks to the influence of Nitobe Inazo’s 1899 book Bushido: The Soul of Japan. To sum up Karl Friday’s explanation, ‘bushido’ was “at best only [a] superficially derived” version “preached” by the government of Japan, sold to the people as “the essence of Japanese-ness itself” with the intention of creating a “unified modern nation out of a fundamentally feudal society” (342). As such, “the abolition of the samurai class [in the process of Japan’s birth as a nation] thus marked not the end of bushido, but the point of its spread to the whole of the Japanese population” (Friday 342). What this then suggests is the following: the national imagination predicated on this appropriated ‘bushido’ is played out via the warrior figure (the samurai) on the screen. In other words, the samurai film and its screen becomes the site for the performance of Japan’s imagination of itself as a nation.

Loyalty and Strategic Betrayals in Ran (1985)

One of the first things to strike the audience in Akira Kurosawa’s epic film Ran is the explicit theme of betrayal. After all, the film being an adaptation of Shakespeare’s King Lear also drives its narrative plot through a series of calculated betrayals. But particularly important is how such a discourse on strategic betrayals problematizes the ‘bushido’ ethics of absolute loyalty embodied in the samurai. And just to illustrate how deep the theme of betrayal runs in the film, consider the iconic sequence in Ran in which a massacre occurs as a result of both Taro’s and Jiro’s betrayal of their father Lord Hidetora and their attempts to wrestle power away from him. In this highly dramatic sequence, we are presented with a flurry of chaotic images with no sound save for the ominous theme looming as the sequence’s background music. But essentially, sound and image are from two different ‘worlds’ or, in cinematic terms, two different diegesis. Put simply, sound has betrayed the image. This dramatic tension only leads to an intensification of the betrayal theme in Ran.

In a film whose plot is driven by planned usurpations and calculated betrayals been made between samurais and their lord-masters, strategic allegiance and contractual relationships dominate rather than a vague notion of absolute loyalty discoursed by the ‘bushido’ ethics. Ikoma’s betrayal of his lord-sovereign Hidetora that saw him deflect over to Lord Jiro’s ‘winning side’ suggests a calculated move to effect one’s will for pragmatic self-preservation rather than a perpetuation of some lofty idealism of absolute loyalty. In other words, Ikoma merely performed what G. Cameron Hurst, III has observed about the history of samurai behavior (contrary to what Japan has essentialized as a value of ‘bushido’ ethics): “samurai frequently changed masters to improve their immediate and future circumstances” (518).

Furthermore, paying close attention to a conversation between Lord Jiro and his samurai-retainers reveals something problematic of this myth of absolute loyalty from the servant to the master. In their discussion of a planned usurpation of Lord Taro from the throne of power, Lord Jiro’s retainers reminded him that he owes it to them to accumulate power – if not for himself, at least for them. They added that “dogs will abandon a master who abandons a chase,” therefore reminding him that their loyalty to him is on a contractual basis: their loyalty is performed and promised to him insofar as he kept to his bargain of accumulating power. Immediately, what is made clear here is that absolute loyalty certainly did not exist but rather that “loyalty was a highly personal and contractual agreement between samurai and lord, conditional on both parties fulfilling their mutual obligations” (Hurst 518). Betrayal, in the world of the samurai, is therefore a reality never too far removed from the bonds of loyalty.

Yet, where does this preoccupation of betrayal in Ran gets us in terms of the national myth perpetuated by a modernizing Japan? Sure, loyalty certainly did exist for the samurai but the idealism of ‘absolute loyalty’ seems to be born from a separate agenda. As Hurst observes:

Loyalty is indispensable to state-building, and the entire Japanese structure of legitimacy … originally designed to achieve acquiescence to this absolutist rule, that is, to inculcate loyalty in the Japanese [to their imagined ‘nation’]. (516)              

By that, Hurst is claiming that the valorization of absolute loyalty in the ‘bushido’ ethics is a means to achieving the end of a Japanese national solidarity. But what is important here is the gross misrepresentation of bushido and an oversimplification of loyalty in samurai history aggrandized for the effect of strengthening nationalist sentiments. Therefore by continuously reminding his audience of betrayal in his film, Kurosawa, I argue, wishes to problematize the national myth of Japan embodied in the ‘bushido’ ethics of absolute loyalty. As such, I suggest that in the final analysis of the film, the ultimate betrayal is located in the ultranationalists’ betrayal of history for their own interest of Japanese nationalism. Ran becomes a sort of counter-discourse in the Japanese cinema; one which alerts its audience to the betrayal of history done so to ‘dupe’ the masses into a collective (mis)recognition and re-presentation of the modern Japanese nation. That is to say that Ran is a piece of cinematic fiction designed to rescue its audience from the lived fiction of Japan’s national myth.

Challenging the Samurai Iconography in Zatoichi (2003)

Takeshi Kitano’s Zatoichi arguably finds itself defined within the subgenre of the “sword film” with its exuberant displays of violence. It is a subgenre which, according to Desser, critics love to hate for its “vast wasteland of formulaic pulp” despite the subgenre’s “huge commercial appeal in Japan” (“Towards a Structural” 155). Yet, to dismiss Zatoichi as a further sign of Japan’s cultural wasteland might be an oversight, as a closer reading of the film reveals several counter-discourses to the iconography of the samurai. Here, I believe that the film actually turns the table around and leads us, as audience and consumers, to question if the ‘wasteland’ did not belong to the inadequate imagination from those who no longer want to imagine beyond the conventional image of the samurai – that is, its iconography.

As with what has been discussed in the paper earlier, ‘absolute loyalty’ embodied in the samurai warrior and espoused by the ultranationalists in Japan has been somewhat of a sleight-of-hand: this ideal of loyalty held up as part of a national essence inherited from the time of the samurai warriors. Karl Friday explains of this historical misrepresentation and uncritical assumption in the national myth; “loyalty of a samurai is said to have been unconditional and utterly selfless” (341). Zatoichi undercuts precisely such an assumption with its characterization of a ronin or a masterless samurai, Hattori, who has to find alternate career paths in the fictionalized Tokugawa Period just so that he can afford medical treatment for his sickly wife.

The film rather accurately describes the changing roles and social situations for samurais in this historical moment, when a time of relative peace called for samurais to re-invent themselves in order to find sustenance on a daily basis. Hattori now works instead as a bodyguard for Ginzo’s yakuza gang. In a pre-modern and capitalist Japan, Hattori sold his skills and, as a corollary, his loyalty to anyone who wishes to pay for such his service. Here, any lofty notion of absolute loyalty seems to be displaced. And while Hattori does sell his loyalty to his yakuza master, it is on a contractual basis in which his employers would have to reciprocate his loyalty with their loyal payments. I would even go as far as to suggest that rather than some transcendental or ‘otherworldly’ virtue of loyalty believed to have been embodied in the samurai’s ‘bushido’ ethics, Hattori’s loyalty is much rooted at a more (loosely speaking) existential level: his is a loyalty towards his wife, more than some kind of a spiritual narrative. Loyalty, in this case, is sold more as a commodity than that which ‘naturally’ emanates from the samurai or the ronin figure. Again, the spotlight falls on the idealism surrounding the samurai figure put forth by the nationalists of Japan. The film effectively casts into doubt the figure of the samurai as some kind of a transcendental exemplar – insofar as he is not as perfect as what is sold and painted by the ultranationalists.    

Also, by essentializing samurais as exemplary warriors, a fraction of samurai history is marginalized. The samurai was never always a warrior, in the sense that he was never always fighting or perpetually in arms throughout the history of Japan. Rather, in the relatively peaceful times of the Tokugawa order, it has been said that many of these samurais had to reinvent themselves as bureaucrats armed with a pen and not a sword for their daily chores. Such a vital piece of samurai history which gets marginalized by the narrative of the ‘bushido’ is fortunately addressed by the film Zatoichi – with a bit of help from irony. In the film, an autistic man dubbed as the “village idiot” runs around the farm all day in make-shift samurai armor, caught in his own fantasy of playing the samurai figure. We laugh at his silly antics of course. But the cinema turns its mirror on us to reveal the funny side: the real ‘idiots’ are those of us who are similarly trapped in our fantasy of the samurai figure as one soaked perpetually in blood and sweat. Zatoichi subverts from within the conventional images and the abated iconography of the samurai, challenging its audience to question the line between the cinema and the lived ‘reality’ of Japan – that is, it adroitly questions whose is the stranger fiction or the true myth of the samurai.

Cinematic Nation-Building in The Last Samurai (2003)

Although produced within the same year as Takeshi Kitano’s Zatoichi, Edward Zwick’s The Last Samurai positions itself in a different ideological perspective when it comes to Japan’s national myth surrounding ‘bushido’ and the samurai figure. What I really mean to say is that unlike Zatoichi which aims to destabilize the assumptions made in Japan’s nationalist narrative, The Last Samurai largely tries to further perpetuate Japanese nationalism.

Right from the onset, we are introduced to a sort of creation myth surrounding Japan: Japan was created by a divine sword that, when dipped into the ocean and then subsequently pulled out, formed four perfect drops that fell back down to the ocean as the four main islands of Japan. Already, this sets the stage up for a kind of ‘essence’ (symbolized in this divine sword) that can be found of Japan. Fetishism of the sword aside, this locatable ‘essence’ of Japan as narrated by the film corresponds with the reality of Japanese nationalism as observed by Mika Ko:

At the core of Japanese state nationalism and dominant discourse of ‘Japanese-ness’ was the concept of kokutai, which is usually translated as ‘national essence’ or ‘national polity’ … and this created the illusion of an unchangeable Japanese essence. (12)

The Last Samurai which situates itself historically in 1876 during the Meiji Restoration basically aims to essay Japan’s birth as a nation. But it does so by suggesting that the samurai tradition or the ‘bushido’ ethics were the last bastion of hope for Japan in the onslaught of a necessary modernization. This is clearly evident in the film’s narrative. The samurai rebellion army is resisting the rapidity of Japan’s uninhibited modernization and they made a stand against the emperor swayed by greedy merchants and industrialists. Eventually, their bravery reached the heart of the emperor who soon realizes that he must not forget the samurai tradition of his great nation despite the necessary circumstance of modernization. Such a narrative only results in a further perpetuation of the national myth surrounding the samurai and the ‘bushido’ ethics of Japan. Alluding back to an earlier remark, The Last Samurai is hopelessly geared towards a cinematic form of nation-building.

More importantly, we know that such an ‘essence’ never did exist prior to Japanese nationalism nor was it something from time immemorial which the Japanese people needed to protect. Ostensibly, the film sets out to protect such a ‘lost world’ by romanticizing it on screen. It suggests that by holding onto to the ‘old’ samurai ways and to the blade instead of ‘whoring’ out completely to Westernization, a modernizing Japan will remember its ‘true’ self. In other words, the film is making a statement about Japan as a modern nation: that it has an existence in itself independent from modernity. Yet, such a statement if left critically unengaged comes to be accepted as if it were simply true, and becomes a problematic misreading of Japanese nationalism. By that, I mean to say that ‘Japan’, insofar as we are speaking about the modern nation, certainly was a modern invention sustained or legitimized by its national myth which this paper has been trying to show is a malpractice of its samurai history. In short, ‘Japan’ as a nation is the modern and to speak of a Japanese nation before its modernizing might be a futile gesture. Hence, the narrative of The Last Samurai (and the national myth of Japan itself) is strictly erroneous in its attempt to establish a nationalist link to a pre-modern past for Japan. While I cannot comment on whether the producers of the film are aware of such a fact, I believe that the film is a performance of this nationalist belief on screen inasmuch for the Japanese as for others consuming ‘Japan’.


Japan’s national myth or narrative fundamentally operates with a historical misrepresentation of its own samurai history. As far as stereotypes goes for the samurai figure and his ‘bushido’ code of ethics, Japan’s nationalism requires a continued performance and an invested perpetuation of these mythicization in order to sustain itself. What is interesting about the films discussed is that out of the three, two films are arguably produced by Japanese directors for a Japanese audience (Ran and Zatoichi) and they both aim towards a more critical deconstruction of the national myth. It is heartening to know that cinema as a site of collective imagination may be used by artists with a sense of critical and intellectual responsibility, so as to gesture us towards a deeper understanding of the assumptions that we often take for granted; assumptions that affect our daily lived ‘reality’ and assumptions which ought to be critically examined through the cinematic lens.

I’d say, there’s more to this picture huh.


Works Cited

Anderson, Benedict. “Imagined Communities” The Postcolonial Studies Reader. Ed. Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin. New York: Routledge, 2005. 123-125. Print.

Desser, David. The Samurai Films of Akira Kurosawa. Michigan: UMI Research Press, 1983. Print.

—. “Towards a Structural Analysis of the Postwar Samurai Film” Reframing Japanese Cinema. Ed. Arthur Nolletti, Jr. And David Desser. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1992. Print. 145-164.

Friday, Karl F. “Bushido or Bull? A Medieval Historian’s Perspective on the Imperial Army and the Japanese Warrior Tradition” The History Teacher 27.3 (1994): 339-349. Print.

Hjort, Mette and Scott Mackenzie. “Introduction” Cinema and Nation. Ed. Mette Hjort and Scott Mackenzie. New York: Routledge, 2000. 1-16. Print.

Hurst, G. Cameron, III. “Death, Honor, and Loyality: The Bushido Ideal” Philosophy East and West 40.4 (1990): 511-527. Print.

Ko, Mika. Japanese Cinema and Otherness. New York: Routledge, 2010. Print.

Littlewood, Ian. The Idea of Japan: Western Images, Western Myths. London: Secker & Warburg, 1996. Print.


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