How Cruel Tale of Bushido,1963 Golden Bear winner and part of Berlinale Classics, debunks the samurai mythos
Japanese film Cruel Tale of Bushido criticises Japan’s feudal system that oppressed generation after “loyal” generation.
The 70th anniversary of the Berlin Film Festival coincides with the 70th anniversary of the Tokyo Film Distribution Company, now known as Toei. It is one of Japan’s Big Four film studios, the others being Shochiku, Kadokawa and Toho. (The latter is better known as the home of Godzilla.) One of Toei’s most famous films is part of the Berlinale Classics section: Tadashi Imai’s Cruel Tale of Bushido, which won the Golden Bear in 1963. (In case you want to look for it, the film goes by quite a few names in English, including Bushido, Samurai Saga and Bushido: The Cruel Code of the Samurai and Cruel Tales of Bushido.)
Most of us know of the samurai — or at least, were introduced to this mythical way of life — through Akira Kurosawa’s cinema. The very term “bushido” (“the way of warriors”) sounds so mythic. The Encyclopaedia Britannica defines it as a comprehensive system that stressed obligation or duty. Its one unchanging ideal was martial spirit, including athletic and military skills as well as fearlessness toward the enemy in battle. Frugal living, kindness, honesty, and personal honour were also highly regarded, as was filial piety. However, the supreme obligation of the samurai was to his lord, even if this might cause suffering to his family.
It’s important to know exactly what this code is because Cruel Tale of Bushido systematically goes about debunking the myth. For one, this is not a period film. It opens in the modern day. A young woman has overdosed on sleeping pills and left a note for her fiancé, Iigura: “Now that our love is broken, I have no reason to live.” As Iigura wonders what might have led her to this step, he recalls going home to Shinsu for his mother’s funeral. “I found my ancestors’ diaries among the old family documents that mother had entrusted with the temple. They were full of such horrible and cruel stories that it was hard to believe it was the history of my own family.”
And we see each of these stories unfold, over seven generations of the family — with the leading man (Kinnosuke Nakamura) playing not just Iigura but his six forefathers, too. First, we travel back to 1610, to the ancestor named Jiroza’emon, who was jobless after the clan he served lost in battle. He is saved by a lord of the Yakazi clan, to whom he swears allegiance. A courtier announces in a formal induction ceremony, “You and all your future generations to come must give the very best of yourselves and serve my lord with devotion and loyalty...”
27 years pass by. Despite his advanced age, Jiroza’emon fights with his army in an uprising. The enemies — peasants — start a fire that spreads to the lord’s camp. Jiroza’emon’s lord is berated by his superiors. “As expected, with their food supplies cut off, they fought in desperation, just as a cornered mouse would fight a cat. What were you listening to? It is an absolute shame that you let them burn down your camp so easily. On top of that, you let the fire spread to Sir Kuroda’s camp as well. How are you going to take responsibility for your negligence?”
But before the lord can do anything, Jiroza’emon commits seppuku, ritual suicide. A letter is found on his person. “The case for which my lord was reprimanded is entirely and solely my fault. I regret miscalculating the status of the battle and causing trouble and hereby make an apology with my life.” Evidently, Jiroza'emon sacrificed his life to help his lord out of a difficult position. In the present day, Iigura wonders if it was because his ancestor wanted to repay the kindness of his employer who had saved him from a hard life as ronin (a masterless samurai)? Or did he sacrifice his short life that remained as an old man for the sake of his son, Saji’emon?
And so we move to Saji’emon’s story. And to his son’s. And so on. In each episode, something happens, and the samurai pays for it, even if it’s not his fault. One of them annoys his lord and loses his monthly salary. (All he did was ask the lord, who was unwell, to have something to eat.) One of them catches the eye of his lord, who has tired of his wives. He ends up being raped, and when one of the wives catches him weeping, she seems genuinely surprised. She asks: “What’s wrong? Are you not glad you have His Highness’s patronage? You have now become his personal page, the envy of all.” The entry in that day’s diary is just this one word: “Loyalty”.
Over time, the samurai evolve into soldiers, loyal to their imperial masters. The women -- wives and daughters, often summoned for sexual favours -- end up oppressed, too. And this brings us to the present day, to the woman in the hospital who has overdosed on sleeping pills. What really happened? This is, after all, 1960s Japan. Her fiancé is not a samurai, like his forefathers. Iigura has a white-collar job. But Tadashi Imai asks: What are employees if not “loyal” slaves of their bosses? They may no longer be committing seppuku, but there are other, newer “tests” that you need to go through in order to prove yourself.
In a book of collected interviews, Kurosawa recalls No Regrets for our Youth with great feeling. It’s one of his most political films, about a leftist radical. Kurosawa says, “Almost all the Japanese film directors who were my contemporaries were more or less Marxists and had similar experiences. The only two who remained Communists until now are Satsuo Yamamoto, who made War and Peace (1947), and Tadashi Imai… The rest of us are all ex-Communists.” This is the spirit that informs Cruel Tale of Bushido, which criticises Japan’s feudal system that oppressed generation after “loyal” generation. The chiefs may have changed, but one way or another, we’re all still slaves.
Baradwaj Rangan is Editor, Film Companion (South).
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