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While earlier samurai period pieces were more dramatic rather than action-based, samurai movies post World War II have become more action-based, with darker and more violent characters. Post-war Samurai epics tended to portray psychologically or physically scarred warriors. Akira Kurosawa stylized and exaggerated death and violence in samurai epics. His Samurai, and many other portrayed in film were solitary figures, more often concerned with concealing their martial abilities, rather than bragging of them.
In Japan, the term chanbara (??????), also commonly spelled “chambara”, is used for this genre, literally “sword fighting” movies, roughly equating to western swashbuckler films. Chanbara is a sub category of jidaigeki, which equates to period drama. Jidaigeki may refer to a story set in an historical period, though not necessarily dealing with a samurai character or depicting swordplay.
Historically, the genre is usually set during the Tokugawa era (1600-1868), the samurai film focuses on the end of an entire way of life for the Samurai, many of the films deal with masterless ronin, or samurai dealing with changes to their status resulting from a changing society.
Samurai films were constantly made into the early 1970s, but by then, overexposure on television, the aging of the big stars of the genre, and the continued decline of the mainstream Japanese film industry put a halt to the most of the production of this often startlingly original, artistic genre.
Akira Kurosawa is the best known to western audiences, and similarly has directed the samurai films best known in the West. He directed Seven Samurai, Rashomon, Throne of Blood, Yojimbo and many others. He had a long association with Toshiro Mifune arguably Japan’s most famous actor. Mifune himself had a production company that produced Samurai epics, often with him starring . Two of Kurosawa’s samurai movies were based on the works of William Shakespeare, Throne of Blood (Macbeth) and Ran (King Lear). A number of his films were re made by Italy and the United States as westerns, or as action films set in other contexts. His film, Seven Samurai is one of the most important touchstones of the genre and the most well-known outside of Japan. It also illustrates some of the conventions of samurai film in that the main characters are ronin, masterless unemployed samurai, free to act as their conscience dictates. Importantly, these men tend to deal with their problems with their swords and are very skilled at doing so. It also shows the helplessness of the peasantry and the distinction between the two classes.
Masaki Kobayashi directed the films Harakiri and Samurai Rebellion, both cynical films based on flawed loyalty to the clan.
Kihachi Okamoto films focus on violence in a particular fashion. In particular in his films Samurai Assassin, Kill! and Sword of Doom. The latter is particularly violent, the main character engaging in combat for a lengthy 7 minutes of film at the end of the movie. His characters are often estranged from their environments, and their violence is a flawed reaction to this.