Ever since John Sturges remade Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954) as The Magnificent Seven (1960) and Sergio Leone ‘borrowed’ the plot of Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961) to make A Fistful of Dollars (1964), there has been a profound sense of kinship between the American Western and the Japanese Chanbara.
This connection can be explained in purely historical terms. For example, one of the side effects of America’s post-War occupation of Japan was a flush of Americanophilia amongst young Japanese people. Young Japanese people who would grow up to be filmmakers, filmmakers who might have been tempted to interrogate their own history using the iconography and genre conventions of American popular cinema. Alternately, we could point to the fact that Japanese cinema began to reach an international audience just as the Western entered its revisionist phase, prompting Western filmmakers to look at the Western with a sensibility informed by a newfound awareness of the tragic character of many Japanese films. However, while one could argue that the link between the Western and the Chanbara Samurai film is due to the winds of cultural history and political chance, this is not the story that people want to hear…
The popular (and somewhat more poetic) view of the link between the Chanbara and the Western makes use of the idea of the creation myth. Indeed, while both America and Japan reached the height of their historical powers in the 20th Century, both cultures like to see themselves as products of an anterior historical period characterised by violence and conflict. According to this view, contemporary America was forged in the ashes of the Wild West just as modern Japan can trace its cultural roots to the Edo period in which a warlord known as the Shogun ruled over a feudal order controlled by a class of sword-wielding nobles known as Samurai. While the reinvention of an anterior historical period into a sort of mythic creative age is common in both Japanese and American cultures, contemporary attitudes towards these mythic ages are varied enough that neither the Chanbara nor the Western could ever be accused of simple-minded nostalgia. Indeed, for every scene in which an ersatz Butch and Sundance romantically throw themselves beneath the mechanised wheels of modernity knowing well that there is no place for them in the new world, there is a scene in which a more-or-less ‘wild bunch’ show us that the only thing to have changed between now and then is the efficiency of the weapons that we use to murder each other.
Steeped in traditional iconography and fully intent upon revisiting this same set of ambivalent attitudes towards modernity, Jusan-nin No Shikaku resembles much of Takashi Miike’s recent output in so far as it combines a strict adherence to genre conventions with an eye for human perversity and a desire to celebrate that perversity in as horrific a manner as possible.