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Op-Ed: Samurai is where the Western movie copies ancient Asian stories (Includes interview and first-hand account)

But wait! It looks as if Eastwood’s rugged cowboy movie-script borrowed a story line from the Japanese.
A 2016 documentary film “Mifune: The Last Samurai” is now on Netflix. It mentions how our classic American Westerns – movies like “Magnificent Seven” “Fist of Dollars” and others were actually inspired by the Samurai story films of Japanese cinema. Activists might feel like shouting out “plagiarism!” But this documentary places the spotlight on one of Japan’s greatest movie stars, Toshiro Mifune.
With or without subtitles on the screen it is obvious he was and is a presence to be reckoned with. What pulled this reporter in even more was the detail and how director Steven Okazaki provides a rare look into the backstory of not only a consummate actor-artist but of the nation itself. Especially, providing an unflinching glimpse at that mysterious line between ancient and contemporary Japan.

The Samurai story line shares much in common with our cowboy westerns. Both were set in a rural time frame – a period when law was flimsy in dealing with common people. Violence and aggression reigned and men fought with weapons girded on their hip or thigh – one uses a sword, the other a gun. While money or land usually was the incentive in the cowboy western (robbing that stagecoach, train or bank) for the Samurai it was about caste system. The social structure in the Edo Period of the Samurai was much harsher than we can imagine.
The Western is about open spaces, wild territory – people seeking opportunity and to set roots. For the ordinary people of feudal Japan travel was restricted. Unlike the American West, theirs was a very sequestered life. Next to royalty only the war lord or (Shogun) and his samurai had power. The rest of the population were peasants tied to land or village. And, all customs and social conventions must be obeyed or else. “Or else” could result in harsh punishment or death.
The samurai who was a ronin (was not under the rule of a Shogun or war lord). He was essential to the story plot. A ronin was perhaps the only free man in Japanese society. But even as a warrior the status of ronin carried with it the label of “drifter-outsider.”

Here is where we can see a bit of Clint Eastwood…someone who drifts into town, sometimes on a mission and sometimes not. But at some point he will have to fight. And, like Eastwood, this is where Ifume shines as the individual. He too must stand alone, even if he has rallied a few allies to help.

One particular ally for Ifume is director Akira Kurosawa. Their long time collaboration is perhaps the fuel in the rocket that catapults Ifume to major stardom. Okazaki provides insight thru interview clips of the people who knew Ifume and describe what life was like in Japan before and after WWII. Okazaki and others consider the Post-WWII time of cinema as ‘The Golden Age’ of film in Japan.
What was fascinating for this reporter to recognize was that cinema no matter where it is, is universal. The documentary mentions that as soon as the Lumiere Brothers bring film to Japan, it blossoms immediately. Films centered around the chanbara (sword fighting) genre of story-telling proliferate and are very popular. Yet, when Ifume brings his samurai character to the screen, he takes it to another level, going beyond what had become formulaic in the chanbara genre.

It is easy for us here in America to think of Hollywood as the only place film flourished. Fact is, film-making was happening everywhere. Ironically, while Hollywood was busy even in the silent era of making stars for American audiences, many of those stars were of foreign background. Think Rudolph Valentino, Greta Garbo, Charlie Chaplin, Ramon Navarro. These were all major stars from other countries who had made the USA home.

Among these major stars of the silent film era in America, was Sessue Hayakawa. He fell from favor when World War I broke out and then when WWII was declared. In the documentary “Slanted Screen, producer Jeff Adachi illustrates how Asian men were vilified and ridiculed in film, especially during World War II. “I am a huge fan (of Ifume)!” He said as he noted both Ifume and Hayakawa were always up against stereo-types of one form or another.
But Ifume, became even more famous than Hayakawa, touching the heart of something that is both tangible and hard to grasp. He was able to endure and transcend.
Perhaps another motivator in Ifume’s rise to fame was the times he was in. Through the many interviews Okazaki conducted, a seldom-seen picture of Japan is brought in up close for us to understand.

After the war, Japan like much of the world at that time was devastated. The economy was a mess, people were out of work, hungry and under occupation by U.S. armed forces. They were defeated. Yet as it was pointed out in Okazaki’s film, war is not good, especially for the ordinary people. It was the ordinary-everyday people of Japan who suffered the most. Hope was dim. Cinema was something to look up to and be inspired by.
Ifume’s striking features, expressive face and strong presence thrilled movie-goers. And, like his contemporaries of that generation, both in Japan and in Hollywood, the determination to rebuild and live again was eminent.

While he played many roles, the LA Times in its review of Steven Okazaki’s thoughtful documentary, noted Isume was in at least 170 films. But it was the samurai that people remember and are attracted to most. Post WWII Japan it seemed was filled with a sense of the ronin – people drifting, trying to make sense of life in its most uncertain, violent and yet fragile moments. Ifume was able to embody that and place it within a samurai displaying courage, honor and determination. These were traits, skills and a sense of direction, a broken nation needed to rebuild and carry onward to the future.

The future that would take shape in post-WWII Japan would be very different than what Japan had been. Emperor worship was abandoned, Imperialism dismantled and the kimonos, fine robes were exchanged for working attire. Japan within 20-years after the war became a major economic powerhouse in the world.
“Ifume: The Last Samurai” by director Steven Okazaki – (2016) 80 minutes is now streaming on Netflix, listed under the documentaries section, to learn more visit the Netflix web site.

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