Samurai Society: an exploration of Japaneseness in post-war Jidaigeki


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Post-war samurai films, or ‘Jidaigeki’ (period drama) represented a renewed interest in the cultural foundations of Japanese society, and are part of a broader search for national and cultural identity that embodied notions of Japan’s unique place in history a newly globalised world. The samurai in such films, while fictional figures, are nonetheless grounded in a version of Japan’s historical past that has been embellished by oral traditions and isolated from the problems and insecurities of an unfamiliar period, thereby elevating them to the level of myth (Silver, 1977). Jidaigeki, like The Samurai Trilogy, present us mythical, often tragic heroes who both push against authority, while also conforming to widely held cultural and social norms. The reality of historical figures, such as Miyamoto Musashi, is replaced by the legend of someone who is seen to embody essential elements of ‘Japaneseness’, and who helps to demonstrate the true power and prestige of the Japanese people.

Separating the reality from the legend may often be impossible, as the representations of samurai and Japan in post-war Jidaigeki are so important to the creation of Japaneseness, as to be embedded within the very fabric of Japan. Furthermore, it is the legend of the samurai and in particular, what the samurai of Tokugawan Japan have come to represent that is important to the creation and re-creation of Japanese national identity. The vast superiority of the samurai and their place in Japanese society is expressed with striking clarity in the traditional aphorism ‘Hana wa sakura ni, hito wa bushi’, ‘Among flowers the cherry, among men, the samurai’, meaning that as the cherry blossom is considered foremost among flowers, so the samurai were the undisputed among men (Blomberg, 1994; XI-XII). Even more evocative is the parallel between Camellia and the samurai, as camellia blossoms do not with, but instead suddenly drop, suggesting that the samurai tradition will neither wither nor fade (Blomberg, 1994).

The samurai code of bushido had been re-interpreted and altered to fit the atmosphere of nationalism of the Meiji and pre-war periods, with bushido coming to represent the aggressive nationalism and jingoistic excesses of the time. But its central qualities of loyalty, dedication and perseverance as embodied in films like The Samurai Trilogy have deep roots in the Japanese character, and gained increased importance in the post-war years of rebuilding and recreating a ‘Japanesness’ that dispensed with the jingoistic excesses of the pre-war era, while maintaining the strength and perceived superiority of the historical samurai and bushido (Blomberg, 1994; Hook and Hiroko, 2007). The traditional Japanese hero like Miyamoto Musashi presents the historical samurai culture in all of its original glory as both critique of the present in terms of the historical past, while also a figure that embodies cultural and social norms for people to aspire to (Thornton, 2008). Such a figure has assumed mythical proportions, with the romantic aura of a heroic individual reflecting the glorious past; his universality stands as a representative of the plight of all Japanese, and his historicity stands as valid proof of an unbroken culture that still represents Japan in the modern world (Thornton, 2008; 51). By refusing to acknowledge defeat or become a victim, such figures become the acceptable face of Japan’s bushido tradition and reformulate what it means to be Japanese, through a re-evaluation of bushido in a manner that retains its essential qualities, while dispensing with any notion of aggressive nationalism, but also reaffirming Japanese uniqueness and strength.

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By distinguishing Japan from other countries through the portrayal of an acceptable form of bushido, post-war Jidaigeki present the historical past as a place of culture and tradition. However, in presenting a series of codified values, while also reducing Japanese history and culture to a simplistic set of ideas and aesthetics that are deemed acceptable for a modern and forward thinking country, post-war Jidaigeki produce a highly restrictive view of Japan (Casebier, 1987). Such a portrayal excludes elements of culture and history that are seen to be unacceptable or go against widely held notions of Japaneseness (Bukh, 2007). One of the principle elements of Japanese culture that post-war jidaigeki ignores is that of homosexuality or ‘shu-do’ (an abbreviation of wakushu-do, the way – do – of the ehpebe, wakushu) (Watanabe, 1989; 11) that have a long history in Japanese and in particular samurai aesthetic tradition. Nagisa Oshima reintroduces these aspects of Japanese aesthetic culture in his film Gohatto, portraying them as part of everyday life, and also a part of broader bushido tradition and practice.

Watanabe (1989) describes Japan as having a long history of homosexuality, and especially Pederasty (the lover on an adult male for an adolescent boy) during the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, something that only disappeared with the advent of modernization, industrialization and the destruction of bushido (Watanabe, 1989; 11). As Watanabe (1989) argues, the Japanese consider homosexuality to be a perversity of morals peculiar to the Japanese ancien regime; they look on it as one of the signs of the ‘underdevelopment’ of Japanese society (Watanabe, 1989; 11). In the classic Jidaigeki genre, such as The Samurai Trilogy, this history of Japan has been ignored, and instead we are presented with a quintessentially Japanese hero in the form of Miyamoto Musashi, along with a grand narrative of what it means to be Japanese. It is a recreation, or retelling of Japanese history that focuses on aspects of culture deemed acceptable, while ignoring those that are not. By comparison, Oshima’s film reintroduces aspects of Japanese cultural tradition and history that had either been ignored or forgotten about, and incorporates them into a film which critiques Japanese modernity and the whole notion of ‘Japaneseness’.

Oshima presents a country that is struggling with its own national identity and place within the world, and while Japanese society in Gohatto may resemble the ‘official version’ as seen in The Samurai Trilogy, it is one where internal conflicts and issues of what it means to be Japanese are visible. William Davis (1996) talks about the ‘monumental style’ in Japanese cinema, whereby Japaneseness was carefully guarded, respected, codified, and set in direct opposition to what many perceived as the ‘excessive’ westernization of Japan (William Davis, 1996; 4). The Samurai Trilogy as a classic series of Jidaigeki films canonizes Japanese history, with an emphasis on the indigenous art forms and designs, while also showing a highly ceremonial set design and acting style. By focusing on the life of Miyamoto Musashi, this trilogy is thus set in a particular time and place where there is perceived to be no influence from the West or other ‘outside’ cultures. The ‘Japaneseness’ that is on display in The Samurai Trilogy is quite different from that of Gohatto, it is a highly codified, almost reductive notion, with ‘Japaneseness’ coming to mean something wholly unique to Japan.

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By focussing on Musashi’s path through Zen Buddhism, Inagaki creates the ‘All-Japanese Action Hero’, an almost superhuman figure, one who eschews earthly desires and pleasure in the single-minded quest for perfection of The Way of the Sword (Galloway, 2005). By focussing on Musashi’s prowess with the sword, rather than his writings of wood carvings, The Samurai Trilogy appears to suggest that his quest for martial perfection embodies true ‘Japaneseness’, and frames what Selden (2008) calls the ‘nationalist historical legacy’ of Japan (Selden, 2008; 71). In Japan, every art and every technique can become a way towards awakening if it requires a long and difficult apprenticeship. It is possible to search for awakening by the Way of Buddha (Butsu-do), or the Way of the Gods (shin-to), the Way of the Bow (kyu-do), or by the Way of suppleness (ju-do), of even the way of Tea (sa-do) or Calligraphy (sho-do) (Watanabe, 1989; 48). Similarly, shu-do (the way of young men) was an important and highly prestigious Japanese tradition that was considered as, if not more important and noble than many other better known traditional Japanese arts. These young men were beautiful and heroic, willing to die alongside their lord in battle as the ultimate sign of love and devotion, or in later periods without constant warfare, scarring their arms or tattooing themselves as a similar sign of devotion and love. By ignoring this aspect of Japan’s history, while also exclusively focussing on The Way of the Sword (ken-do) at the expense of all others, the samurai trilogy reduces Japanese culture to a highly ritualised and codified state without socio-cultural or political complications.

By showing Musashi evolve from a brash, untamed, and uncivilised brute who acts on impulse and bludgeons his foes to death in a highly unrefined manner, into the famous swordsman, Inagaki and Mifune demonstrate the power of devoting oneself to a single, just goal. Furthermore, by presenting Musashi as emotionally and psychologically frail, someone who must overcome the allure of wealth and privilege to achieve his goal, he is created into a quintessentially Japanese individual untainted by foreign influences and luxury (Williams, 2006). The Samurai trilogy presents a highly traditional view of Japan, with idyllic representations of a more pristine way of life where where Zen and the sword take precedence over everyday matters such as having enough food, or commerce (Creighton, 1997; 240). As Musashi travels on his long journey of self-discovery we are given a glimpse into a very narrow portrayal of Japan, with the politics and social norms of the time forgotten about and ignored in place of a story about a famous swordsman. The picture of what it means to be Japanese, along with the portrayal of Japan as a country and society in The Samurai Trilogy are highly prescriptive, offering models to be emulated by the country during a time of immense socio-cultural and political change (William Davis, 1996; 2).

The central issue of Musashi’s dilemma, the Gordian knot of his own inner quest, so to speak, is how to reconcile self-effacement and Zen with self-aggrandisement and the sword (Buruma, 1984; 140). This central dilemma remains valid in modern Japan, and as Hook and Hiroko (2007) argue, the post-war state combines elements of both continuity and discontinuity from the pre-war (and earlier) state, including the state’s relationship with the citizen, but the proliferation of the war-renouncing constitution should be seen as a watershed in changing the relationship between the state and citizens (Hook and Hiroko, 2007; 98). As we watch Mifune’s portrayal of Musashi Miyamoto we see a figure that dispenses with certain elements of early Tokugawa society, and yet never fully questions the state of society and whether being a Samurai automatically provides him with particular benefits that others lack. Musashi in these films, like many other post-war heroes and anti-heroes is fully aware of the intransigent nature of societies judgments, and their violent responses are invariable and understandable both as generic constructions and simple, desperate acts (Silver, 1977; 37).

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Musashi as a wandering warrior is estranged from his environment, moving through a period of high social and political instability at the start of the Tokugawa bakufu (military government). Musashi’s violence functions as both an existential affirmation of his being and the most direct method for delineating his oppressed relationship to that environment (Silver, 1977; 38). But, his central dilemma of consolidating two apparently opposing views of the world is one that Japan went through during the post-war period and arguably still has to deal with in the present day. If we take away Zen and the sword, neither of which really plays a significant role in modern Japanese society, one is still left with the paradox every Japanese adolescent must face: how to be an achiever, which is what is expected, particularly by one’s family, and a self-effacing conformist at the same time? This dilemma is about how to be a winner in a society that discourages individual assertion (Buruma, 1984; 140).

The samurai in Gohatto do not have these same dilemmas, to them their duty to protect the Shogunate is of upmost importance, and they are not focussed on any path of Awakening, instead, their sword skills serve a practical purpose to defend the Shogunate and protect their lives. Oshima brings back the practicality of wielding a sword, and instead of it being a method of achieving enlightenment; it is a practical tool with a very specific use. Killing in Gohatto is shown as a natural part of a Samurai’s life, and while the film isn’t the most violent Jidaigeki, the efficiency of these fights further reinforces the prominent and important place that the samurai and their katana have in Japanese culture. They also differ from the stylised and lengthy fights in The Samurai Trilogy, which were portrayed as a show of skill, rather than an act in efficiency. Also, by portraying the katana as a practical tool, one used for defence of a cause or an individual, Oshima further situates his film in a time of social and cultural change. Tokugawa society is not merely a backdrop for one individuals quest, but a place and time that is inhabited by a wide variety of people with different attitudes and ideals (Caldararo, 2003). Although, even in Gohatto the focus is largely on the samurai in the Shinsengumi and the rest of Tokugawa society, the social make-up of Tokugawan society, and by extension the Shinsengumi is far more prominent than in The Samurai Trilogy, and plays a more active role in Oshima’s exploration of Japanese society and culture.

During the Tokugawa period, samurai began to be identified as accomplices of the oppressive minority and were increasingly viewed as a destructive force while their prestige and status also rose under the Shogunate. However, as this was happening, an increasing number of samurai became roamers or ronin (‘man on the wave’), master less samurai who were divested of all social responsibilities and were unburdened by the heavy weight of giri (the absolute fealty owed to a lord), thus allowing them to carve out their own path in society and history (Silver, 1977; 18). The type of samurai that we typically see in post-war Jidaigeki are ronin, with Musashi Miyamoto as a classic example of someone becoming famous by throwing away the restrictions of such a ritualised and codified society. Musashi’s rejection of formal society runs counter to the common perception of Japanese society as highly restrictive with a heavy focus on group ethos. He therefore comes to represent a time when it was possible to reject such a society and follow your own path (Gerstle, 1997). This way of viewing Musashi and more broadly, ronin in general becomes problematic when we see that they existed during a period of cramped, occupational structure that was imposed on all men by the Tokugawa bakufu (military government). It is therefore a highly romanticised portrayal of a lone figure shunning society’s norms for the sake of inner peace and demonstrates that post-war Jidaigeki only portray a partial history of Japan, free of complications and complexities (Reynolds, 2001). By setting Gohatto at the end of the Tokugawa bakufu, Oshima situates the film in a period of immense social, cultural, and political upheaval, it is a time when samurai gradually lose their place in society and the skills of a samurai slowly became redundant as Japan pushed towards modernity. If Musashi lived during the heyday of the samurai, then Gohatto is set during the twilight period at the end of their rule.

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By setting Gohatto during the final years of the Tokugawa bakufu, and focussing on the Shinsengumi, Oshima brings the conflict in Japanese society into sharp focus, in a way that The Samurai Trilogy does not. Miyamoto Musashi lived during a period of turmoil, with the newly formed Tokugawa bakufu cementing its power by destroying potentially dangerous factions and groups. For example, the Shimabara revolt (1637-38) was brutally crushed with the massacre of roughly 40,000 Japanese Christians, but since The Samurai Trilogy is only concerned with Musashi’s personal quest, early Tokugawa Japan is portrayed as relatively peaceful and prosperous (Watanabe, 1989; 28). The Samurai Trilogy therefore presented a highly conservative view of Japan, one where the arts and aesthetic traditions flourished without hindrance, and where the true essence of ‘Japaneseness’ can be found as embodied by the spiritual quest of Miyamoto Musashi (Grestle, 1997). Gohatto on the other hand is situated in an equally unstable period, but instead of ignoring the instabilities, chooses to explicitly focus on a period where Japan was struggling with notions of modernity and what it meant to be a modern and forward thinking nation.

In Gohatto Oshima questions the concept of ‘Japaneseness’ and Japan’s relationship with a modernity that was forced upon the nation by the appearance of Commodore Perry and his ‘Black Ships’ in 1853 (Yasuhara, 2007; 351). Oshima demonstrates the central contradiction of Japanesness in his portrayal of the Shinsengumi as a group that simultaneously wish to maintain the ‘ Pax Tokugawana’, through a drive towards conservatism, while also pushing towards a more modern society (Yasuhara, 2007; 351). Furthermore, in his portrayal of the Shinsengumi, Oshima is further critiquing the current state of Japanese society and its push towards modernity, while also forgetting about the essentials of the historical past (Mukae, 1996). Earlier Jidaigeki in the pre and post-war periods reinforce Japan’s highly organized and hierarchical society; they glorify Japanese tradition through a canonoisation of hierarchical family structures, particularly the patriarchal formations of bushido (William Davis, 1996). Oshima questions these hierarchic family structures in his portrayal of the Shinsengumi as a group, that while strict’ embraced a spirit of ‘brotherhood’ or ‘doshi’, rather than reuse existing social structures and conventions.

While they were a group with a conservative outlook, aiming to repel foreigners and maintain the Tokugawa rule, they were also radical in their social and political position within Japanese society of the period. The shinsengumi was not mainly founded by unemployed ronin rather than insitutionalised samurai, thus giving rise to a new class of swordsman, one that gains the status of insitutionalised samurai through their service to the Shogunate, rather than through their lineage. Although the Shinsengumi consisted of ronin rather than samurai from known families and good lineage, they ultimately conform to the social structures of the time, with the militias’ leaders (Isamu Kondo and Tashizo Hijikata) clearly inhabiting a different space and status to the rest (Yasuhara, 2007; 352). Furthermore, it was not Edo but Kyoto that allowed the Shinsengumi to gain the status and radicalism that allowed a group of ronin to work as a police force. Edo already had an established system of institutionalised warriors, whereas Kyoto was the centre of the anti-shogunate rebellion. By taking up residence in the old capital in order to defend against these forces, the shinsengumis’ violence was approved by the shogunate, so their social status was directly linked to authority, calling into question their social structures of equality and brotherhood (Yasuhara, 2007; 352).

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The irony of the militia as Yasuhara (2007) points out is that despite the Shinsengumi’s radicalism, one that stems from a ‘brotherhood among outsiders’, they are still assimilated to the patriarchal structure of Tokugawa feudalism, something that Oshima claimed in a 1995 interview to still exist in Japan today (Yasuhara, 2007; 353). Gohatto complicates this matter in ways that The Samurai Trilogy do not, Mifune’s Musashi never questions the moral or social ethics of his time, and the film focuses exclusively on his quest for fame, but also inner peace rather than looking at the social background of the period that he lived in. It is a film exclusively about its hero, whereas Oshima produces a jidaigeki that uses its characters to explore and problematise modern society and Japan’s focus on specific times and places in its history (Ienaga, 1993-1994). One of the most striking aspects of Gohatto is Oshima’s refusal portray the Shinsengumi as a heroic, or archetypal Japanese militia by setting the film in 1865.

By setting the film after the Ikeyada incident (Ikeyada jiken, 1864), Oshima is able to focus on the Shinsengumi as a group full of contradictions while also demystifying the heroism that is found in so many other novels, films and TV programmes. Oshima once said ‘I no longer know who I am. That’s the subject of my films’ (Wilce, 2005). This remark calls into questions notions of ‘Japaneseness’ and Japanese modernity; something that Gohatto suggests has come at the cost of Japan’s historical and cultural memory (Dennehy, 2008). It is easy to create a film about a hero or act of heroism that becomes emblematic of a particular aspect of Japanesness, but in doing so, these heroes like Miyamoto Musashi come to represent the very essence of the Japanese at the expense of everything else. The story of Miyamoto Musashi in the Samurai Trilogy, like many other post-war Jidaigeki focuses on mono no aware; the feeling of sweet sadness, or an almost inexpressible sensation of life’s mortality which is pleasantly painful, and is one of the foundations of Japanese aesthetic theory (Desser, 1992; 148). By focusing on ronin like Miyamoto musashi, post-war Jidaigeki further engender feelings of mono no aware, through the portrayal of individuals who are without status, being buffeted about by the waves of fate, and who are utterly powerless yet proud (Desser, 1992; 149). Such figures never question society or the codifications of bushido that have given rise to their existence; trapped in the way of giri/ninjo (duty/human feelings), these figures choose the path of righteousness out of a sense of obligation without ever attacking the system itself (Desser, 1992).

By comparison, the mono no aware of Gohatto appears to be about the loss or ignorance of history and culture, with the presence of Kono Sozaburo and his affected on the Shinsengumi as representative of a place in history that has been ignored altogether (Rogers, 1990). Musashi chooses his own personal quest out of a sense of duty over his personal feelings for Otsu and is praised for it, whereas personal feelings in Gohatto appear to rip the close brotherhood of the Shinsengumi asunder. But, violent fights over the favours of beautiful young bots were not only a normal part of Samurai life during the Tokugawa period; they were often considered acceptable expressions of honorific sentiments (Ikegami, 1995; 209). There is no great divide between giri and ninjo in Gohatto as there is with Musashi’s tale, with personal feelings and duty overlapping and existing in the same space and time. The Shinsengumi’s duty to maintain the Tokugawa bakufu remains their most important role, but they do not stifle or suppress their own personal desires in order to do so. It is with the introduction of Sozaburo that this delicate balance starts to fall apart, with his presence creating an air of increased erotic tension as the camera as the camera focuses on his feminine looks, his sensuous lips, pale skin, wistful eyes and his long hair symbolizing his adolescence. This close up is juxtaposed with his social background, where Sozaburo’s odd and out-of-place beauty within the Shinsengumi is intertwined with his background as the youngest son of one of Kyoto’s wealthiest merchants that still possess samurai heritage.

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After nearly three centuries of Tokugawan Hegemonic rule, various systems and social divides had been created in order to stratify and control society, with the merchant classes occupying one of the lowest rungs. But, through trade, the merchant class had gained significant economic wealth, giving them more power, and greater adaptability than older, more traditional samurai families. They became the transnational group of Japan, with the ability, through their economic power to go beyond traditional ‘Japaneseness’ that was rooted in the feudalism of Tokugawa and earlier eras. Although the social actors of the Tokugawa period like the Shinsengumi struggled as best they could to make sense of the shifting socio-political environments cause by the slow decline of Tokugawa Hegemony, their responses and cultural adaptations failed to keep pace with political changes themselves (Ikegami, 1995; 221). The merchant classes that Sozaburo comes from on the other hand were part of the modernization of Japan, and through the opening up of the country and introduction of foreign goods, this class gained an increasingly important role in the development and change of Japan from a feudal to a modern society (Cameron Hurst III, 1990). By having Sozaburo come from a merchant family, and yet be a part of the traditional, conservative, but also radical Shinsengumi, Oshima further problematises notions of Japanesness. It is show to be a combination of things, both old and new, it is therefore wrong to reduce Japanesness to a single state of mind or time period like we see in The Samurai Trilogy.

Inagaki’s Musashi trilogy presents a single moment of Japanese history as if it were timeless, with Japanese culture and society portrayed as unchanging and wholly unique. The use of iconic imagery like sakura blossom, classical Japanese architecture, and highly stylized combat feeds into what Bellah (2003) calls ‘national narcissism’, whereby the Japanese are constantly looking inwardly in order to find evidence from the historical past of their countries uniqueness (Bellah, 2003; 114). Oshima plays with the concept of ‘national narcissism’ by using iconic imagery of Japan as a backdrop for the increasingly complex nature of the Shinsengumi. In doing so he calls to attention the problematic nature of such symbolism by demonstrating that while the Sakura may stay the same, society and culture move on and change. If we only focus on such imagery, the complexities of a society and culture that are in a constant state of flux are ignored and forgotten about, so what becomes symbolic of Japan has actually been alienated it surroundings and bares little resemblance to what it supposedly represents (Moeran, 1990). By introducing Sozaburo who inhabits the space between the traditional and the transnational, Oshima seems to suggest that ‘Japaneseness’ is not a single moment frozen in time, but a constantly changing and evolving idea, one that is the culmination of centuries of change. It can further be argued that there is no one version of ‘Japaneseness’, and that the myriad of characters within Gohatto all have their own versions of what it means to be Japanese that take into account their own cultural, social and political backgrounds.

Also, because of this, the process of modernisation and change is shown to be gradual rather than a sudden reaction to the Meiji restoration. Which is not to say that nothing is lost through change, with bushido and shu-do being cast aside and viewed as a part of the degenerate past (Robertson, 1992). Modernity is not however a completely new start, instead it can be viewed as a change of perspective, with well worn social norms remaining, but shown in a different guise (Lehmann, 1984). Sozaburo is representative of the transnational other that proceeds and is a part of modernity, a character that remains within the samurai tradition, but who also comes from a social background that allows him to move between the traditional and the new. In representing Japanese history as a ‘complex intersection of conflicted sexualities and political institutions and discourses’ (Nygren, 2004; 540), Oshima demonstrates the highly restrictive nature of Japaneseness and its inability to adapt to a changing environment. By setting Gohatto in Kyoto 1865, an in-between space with Japan’s pre-modernity and modernity overlap, Oshima questions the patriarchy inherent in the Shinsengumi and broader Japanese society through the use of Sozaburo’s eroticism (Yasuhara, 2007; 355).

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Sozaburo’s eroticism resonates with Bataille’s (1962) theory of eroticism as aesthetic of subversion whereby eroticism entails a breaking down of established patterns of the regulated social order basic to our mode of existence as defined and separate individuals (Bataille, 1962; 18). The eroticism of Sozaburo becomes a threat to the unity and harmony of the Shinsengumi, and comes to represent how ill-equipped they and the broader Japanese traditions are to deal with change. His social ambiguity and eroticism first stir up disorder within the close knit Shinsengumi, but in the end the militias’ hierarchy ultimately eliminates him in an effort to restore order. Sozaburo’s individuality and social ambiguity represents a new Japan that threatens the close knit group ethos that the Shinsengumi are duty bound to protect (Robertson, 1992). His downfall and death can be viewed as the traditional ‘Japaneseness’ of the Shinsengumi attempting to reassert its authority over a society and culture that has already changed. When Hijikata cutes down a young cherry tree at the end of the film, exclaiming ‘Sozaburo was too beautiful. Men took advantage of him. He was possessed by evil’, Oshima suggests that this gesture symbolises the destiny of a samurai (Tessier, 2000; 15). The death of Sozaburo at the hands of Captain Okita – whose job it is to keep order within the Shinsengumi – followed by Hijikata cutting cherry tree implies the eradication of a growing intranational other that represents a different Japan, one that subverts the patriarchy of tradition (Yasuhara, 2007; 356). Sozaburo’s reified eroticism and ability to move between the modern and the traditional representy a Japan that is unacceptable and incompatible with conservative tradtion, whereas Musashi’s personal quest comes to represent a Japan that has a long tradition of though and aesthetics which are unique acceptable.

Japaneseness in post-war Jidaigeki is made up of cultural and social traditions that are deemed to be acceptable and representative of a country with unique socio-cultural traditions. The portrayal of Miyamoto Musashi in The Samurai Trilogy becomes emblematic of a social and cultural aesthetic that is seen to be above everything else as an unchanging example of true Japaneseness. Inagaki isn’t questioning how Japan is portrayed, but is instead creating an exciting adventure about the life of a cultural hero whose central dilemma still resonates in Japan today. The Japan of Musashi’s time is not explored and merely serves as a backdrop for his own deeply personal quest, and as such is seen to be a country with few complications or problems. Political uprisings, civil unrest and deeply engrained cultural practices such as shu-do are ignored for the sake of Musashi’s journey of discovery, so that we get a significantly less complicated and complex portrayal of Tokugawan Japan. The great process of westernisation and modernisation from the Meiji Restoration (1868) onwards was at the same time a rejection and forgetting of cultural traditions and attitudes that were deemed to be unfit for a modern nation, or simply viewed as old-fashioned. What was left were the acceptable elements that helped to portray Japan as a unique and above all strong country, one with an unbroken heritage of martial success and a deeply engrained set of cultural traditions that could set Japan apart from the rest of the world. Japaneseness in this context is something that is uncomplicated and fits into the modern interpretation and portrayal of Japanese history and culture with such films such as The Samurai Trilogy sticking to it almost religiously.

By comparison, Oshima portrays Japan to be a complex country and society, one with a deep cultural heritage that, like any other country has changed over the years. In particular, his use of homosexuality and the portrayal of shu-do take us back to a time before it was considered a deficiency or sexual anomaly, to a period in Japanese history when it was one of the great aesthetic traditions. Setting the film in Kyoto 1865, while also focusing on the Shinsengumi, a group that are traditionally use to depict a heroic and strong Japan that ha sadly been lost, Oshima is able to explore the complex nature of modernity in Japan and notions of Japaneseness. Instead of being portrayed as a heroic, almost mythic group of warriors, the Shinsengumi are instead a group that struggle with their own conservatism and radical roots.  Tradition and ‘Japaneseness’ become concepts that can be twisted and manipulated at will to fit in with national agendas and therefore far from being fixed. Gohatto points to the irony and contradiction in Japanese modernity as it reaches into the historical past to find immutable facts of Japan’s greatness. Through the character of Sozaburo we see a country that has an ambivalent attitude towards modernity, and one that will willingly embrace it when convenient or dispose of it when it is not.

Concepts of Japaneseness are therefore far more complex than most post-war Jidaigeki might suggest, with certain elements of Japanese history conveniently forgotten about, while others become central to the creation of an official Japanese identity. By picking and choosing which parts of history you wish to cover, we see only a partial picture, a mere glimpse at what it means to be Japanese. The Samurai Trilogy, like other post-war Jidaigeki take part in a revisionist interpretation and portrayal of Japanese history and culture, one that ignores face when convenient and focuses on elements that are viewed to be a true, and above all, acceptable version of Japaneseness. By comparison, Oshima revises this history and injects elements of Japan’s cultural and aesthetic traditions into his narrative that were rejected in the surge towards modernity as representing a backwardness that did not befit a modern nation state. Gohatto is however, not a true portrayal of Japan, but instead of using the cultural and visual aesthetics of the jidaigeki genre to retell the same sort of samurai story that further reinforces long held notions of Japaneseness, Oshima questions them. Between Gohatto and other post-war jidaigeki we see a picture of Japaneseness that is full of complexities and insecurities; we see a country that struggles with its place in the world, and one, which has an ambiguous relationship with the very culture that it uses to reinforce its own uniqueness and greatness.

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About illogicalzen
An Illogical anime fan in a very Zen-like way.

One Response to Samurai Society: an exploration of Japaneseness in post-war Jidaigeki

  1. Pingback: G Gundam Episode 1 | Anime Commentary on the March

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