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The Decline and Legacy of the Samurai

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The Meiji Restoration and the Last Bow of the Samurai

In 1867 the Emperor Mutsuhito was restored to power. He took the name Meiji1, shifted his court to Edo (now Tokyo), and re-established the Imperial government in place of the military Shogunate. A year later, the Five Articles Oath began the process of dismantling the privileges of the samurai class. Now almost entirely obsolete - with Japan at peace, and faced by foreign powers whose military technology went beyond anything the samurai could muster - the class could only be viewed as a threat to the Emperor should any of the daimyo seek to establish a new Shogunate. In addition, Emperor Meiji was setting out to close the economic and military gap which had grown up in Japan's isolation, and for that to happen, the old feudal system needed to be drastically overhauled, if not abandoned altogether.

The next major blow to the samurai came in 1873. Emperor Meiji formed a new army, based on conscription and open to all; the first, centralised, Japanese national army since the first rise of the samurai in the Heian period. The samurai caste's unique role as the wagers of war had been taken from them, and more was to come. The same year saw the establishment of a basic code of human rights, and the reclamation of all land from the daimyo. Now the samurai had no special status, and no power over the land, which was restructured into prefectures.

Finally, in 1876, Meiji outlawed the wearing of swords, and after almost a millennium, the samurai had completely lost their special place in Japan. While the families remained, with no profession, no position, no privileges, no land, and now not even their swords, the samurai were effectively no more.

The Legacy of the Samurai

After the fall of the samurai, the people of Japan began to become nostalgic about the heroic warriors of the past era. Following the abolition of samurai privileges in the Meiji Restoration, Japan saw a flowering of samurai literature, which greatly romanticised their image. Samurai honour, prowess, devotion to the arts and bushido were remembered; their place in the oppressive feudal regime was conveniently forgotten. It was this image of the proud and noble samurai that came to the West, along with the dastardly ninja now famed in film and comic.

In particular, Japanese culture has seized upon two extreme images of the samurai. The first is of the devoted, selfless warrior, dedicated unto death to an ideology and a higher authority. This is a powerful image of supplication to authority, and thus finds most favour in the mainstream of Japanese culture. The other image is that of the ronin anti-hero, a fierce individualist, defiant of the impetus to serve and to obey bushido, but bound by a fierce adherence to a more personal code. More rebellious, these are frowned upon by authority figures, but have found greater favour in the West, either in their original form, or as the inspiration for anti-heroes in more traditional Occidental genres.

In general, the transport of the samurai to the Western media has been less successful than that of the ninja, possibly because the virtue of total, unquestioning loyalty embodied in bushido is so alien to US and European film-makers, working in genres where the rebellious individualist is the classic hero. Ninja are easier to cast as villainous assassins, but the moral complexity of an honourable killer is far harder to pitch to the world of Hollywood.

It is interesting to note that the majority of Western 'samurai' films have featured gangland assassins with rigid codes of conduct. The prime exponent is the French film Le Samourai, remade by Hollywood as Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai. In Le Samourai, the central character is a meticulous assassin, who is seen during one of his carefully planned hits. Instructed by his bosses to kill the singer who witnessed the crime, he finds himself unable to murder an innocent, turns on his masters, and finally commits a kind of seppuku by forcing the police to kill him. Le Samourai is a curiously placid and slow-moving film2, in stark contrast to the action-thrillers which favour the ninja, but its long periods of meditative calm, punctuated by bursts of brief and sudden violence, are perhaps more in keeping with the image of an Edo period Samurai.


As the ninja has entered the world of anthropomorphic3 comics with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, so the samurai are represented by Usagi Yojimbo4. Usagi Yojimbo predates TMNT, but rose to prominence when the Turtles revitalised the market for black and white comic books. Stan Sakai's seminal tale of a masterless samurai's trials and travails is based loosely on the life of Minamoto Musashi, with the main distinction being that Minamoto Usagi is a rabbit, who wears his ears in a samurai topknot. While it has never struck the big-time to the same degree as TMNT, Usagi Yojimbo acquired, and retains, a substantial cult following.

Akira Kurosawa

In the West, the best known images of the samurai come from the films of the Japanese director, Akira Kurosawa. This is ironic, as these films - or at least the ones which have been most successful in Europe and America - are essentially either Westerns or adaptations of the plays of Shakespeare, done with samurai instead of cowboys and aging daimyo instead of medieval royalty. Kurosawa often portrayed the ronin anti-hero (played most memorably by the actor Toshiro Mifune), and while celebrating the samurai as individuals, he condemns their cruelty as a class. Kurosawa's films not only find acceptance with western audiences, but have also become the basis for many adaptations and remakes. For example his film, Kakushi Toride no San Akunin (Released in English speaking countries as The Hidden Fortress) was a major influence in the making of Star Wars.

One of Kurosawa's most famous films demonstrates all of these aspects of his work. The film is Shichinin no Samurai ('Seven Samurai'), remade as the classic western The Magnificent Seven, and also as the Roger Corman produced sci-fi B-movie Battle Beyond the Stars, the fantasy B-movie Hawk the Slayer, and the computer-animated comedy A Bug's Life. The original film contrasts the image of the honourable and dignified samurai warriors with the depredations of the samurai as a class.

While the peasants in the film hire ronin to protect them from bandits, they distrust them after generations of abuse at the hands of the samurai class. One of the villagers forces his beautiful daughter to disguise herself as a boy for fear she will be raped by the very people hired to defend her. The ronin are later appalled to discover that the farmers have in the past waylaid and murdered other samurai, but when they are reminded of the crimes that their class have committed against the peasants, none can offer any defence.

In the film Yojimbo5, Kurosawa and Mifune created one of the most enduring images of the ronin. Based on the historical character of Miyamoto Musashi, Senjuro is the consummate warrior - surly, unkempt and dismissive of authority. He is an archetypal anti-hero, apparently caring for no-one, yet risking life and limb for the sake of innocents who initially look down on or despise him. Aside from the direct remakes, Senjuro has become a template for anti-heroes in all genres.

1Japanese emperors adopt regnal names - Meiji means 'enlightened rule'.2Opinion is divided as to whether it is an artistic classic, or simply as dull as ditchwater.3Humanised animals in human roles.4Literally, 'Rabbit Bodyguard'.5Remade as the spaghetti western A Fistful of Dollars, gangster film Last Man Standing and sci-fi B-movie Omega Doom.

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