Culture #1: Samurai (The Samurai-themed Works around World)

Samurai is the term for the military nobility of pre-industrial Japan. Most samurai were bound by a code of honour and were expected to set an example for those below them. By the end of the 12th century, saburai became synonymous with bushi (武士) almost entirely and the word was closely associated with the middle and upper echelons of the warrior class.The samurai-themed works of film director Akira Kurosawa are among the most praised of the genre, influencing many filmmakers across the world with his techniques and storytelling. Notable works of his include Seven Samurai, in which a besieged farming village hires a collection of wandering samurai to defend them from bandits, Yojimbo, where a former samurai involves himself in a town’s gang war by working for both sides, and The Hidden Fortress, in which two foolish peasants find themselves helping a legendary general escort a princess to safety. The latter was one of the primary inspirations for George Lucas’s Star Wars, which also borrows a number of aspects from the samurai, for example the Jedi Knights of the series. Darth Vader’s costume is largely inspired by a samurai’s mask and armour.

Samurai films and westerns share a number of similarities and the two have influenced each other over the years. Kurosawa was inspired by the works of director John Ford and in turn Kurosawa’s works have been remade into westerns such as The Seven Samurai into The Magnificent Seven and Yojimbo into A Fistful of Dollars. There is also an anime adaptation (Samurai 7) of “The Seven Samurai” which spans many episodes. Eiji Yoshikawa is one of the most famous Japanese historical novelists. His retellings of popular works, including Taiko, Musashi and Heike Tale are popular among readers for their epic naratives and rich realism in depicting samurai and warrior culture. Another fictitious television series, Abarembo Shogun, featured Yoshimune, the eighth Tokugawa shogun. Samurai at all levels from the shogun down to the lowest rank, as well as ronin, featured prominently in this show. Shōgun is the first novel in James Clavell’s Asian Saga. It is set in feudal Japan around the year 1600 and gives a highly fictionalized account of the rise of Tokugawa Ieyasu to the Shogunate, seen through the eyes of an English sailor whose fictional heroics are loosely based on William Adams’ exploits.

A Hollywood movie, The Last Samurai, containing a mixture of fact and fiction, was released in 2003 to generally good reviews in North America. The film’s plot is loosely based on the 1877 Satsuma Rebellion led by Saigō Takamori, and also on the story of Jules Brunet, a French army captain who fought alongside Enomoto Takeaki in the Boshin War. Kill Bill by Quentin Tarantino can be described as a glorification of the katana. It is primarily inspired by old kung-fu movies and relates little to the samurai. This same distortion of samurai culture continues onto the low-budget world of the cult film, where in films such as Samurai Vampire Bikers From Hell, the primary characters attempt to portray a lineage to the samurai but are more closely linked to the anime or comic book culture of the late twentieth century. The samurai have also appeared frequently in Japanese comics (manga) and animation (anime). Most common are historical works where the protagonist is either a samurai or former samurai (or another rank/position) who possesses considerable martial skill. Samurai-like characters are not just restricted to historical settings and a number of works set in the modern age, and even the future, include characters who live, train and fight like samurai. Notable examples include Goemon Ishikawa XIII from the Lupin III series of comics, television series, and movies, and Motoko Aoyama from the romantic comedy Love Hina. American comic books have adopted the character type for stories of their own. For instance, the Marvel Universe superhero Wolverine during the 1980s attempted to use the ideals and concept of the samurai as a means to control his violent urges in a constructive manner. The ronin have also been a feature in popular series such as Ronin by Frank Miller and Usagi Yojimbo by Stan Sakai.

The concept of a samurai, as opposed to that of a knight, has led to a major gap in how a warrior or a hero is characterised in Japan and the rest of the world. A samurai does not have to be tall and heavily muscled to be strong – he can be barely five feet tall, seemingly weak and even handicapped. Females can also be samurai. Equating size with power and strength does not readily appeal to the Japanese aesthetic. Perfect examples of this can be found in the Blind Swordsman Zatoichi movie series.It is also important to note the uses of samurai in the Hip Hop music in both American and Japanese cultures. It is commonly seen as a tangent to the “gangtas” in rap music. Fusions of this are apparent in collaborations rap artists of both cultures and inclusion of anime.

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