One classic staple of Japanese cinema is the chanbara genre. Chanbara, meaning “Sword fighting movies”, are a sub-genre of Jidaigeki or period dramas. Chanbara is films that focus on samurai, ronin, or ninja. They have been incredibly influential on western cinema if you have seen a big action movie you have very likely been exposed to the chanbara influence.
Akira Kurosawa, while not the founder of the genre, is famed for bringing the genre to greater heights and internationalizing it. His films Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, and Sanjuro are still studied in western film schools today.
Motifs and characters have been parroted across the world. The idea of the blind swordsman, popular in many games and movies, finds his roots in the chanbara character Zatoichi.
Lone Wolf and Cub is another classic that, even if you haven’t seen the movie you have probably seen a similar character. A lone warrior traveling the countryside with his young child, fighting to protect his own.
If you have seen Star Wars, A Fistful Of Dollars, The Good the Bad and The Ugly, Last Man Standing, The Magnificent Seven, Battle Beyond the Stars, or even Pixar’s A Bug’s Life you are essentially watching a chanbara film. Each of these movies is notably influenced by or western remakes of chanbara movies.
The most notable of these is Star Wars. Let’s compare the stories of these two movies. First Star Wars, two robots stumble across a plan by a princess to secure the help of an aging general to aid her in defeating an evil empire.
Now, the chanbara film The Hidden Fortress; two robbers stumble across a plan by a princess to secure the aid of an aging general to aid her in defeating an evil warlord.
Seem similar? George Lucas himself stated that the film was a big inspiration for him.
Sadly, chanbara was too successful for its own good. Japanese movie and TV studios created too much, and consumers just got sick of it. So, by about the 1970s most chanbara projects were cut off.
Luckily, recently there has been a bit of a chanbara resurgence. Movies like 13 Assassins, the remake of Harakiri, and the Rurouni Kenshin trilogy are paving the way for a new generation of chanbara movies. And I for one am waiting with bated breath for more.