Top-knots and Afros:
Despite their hailing from two countries halfway across the globe from each other, the film genres of Blaxploitation and Chambara – especially the ultraviolent and hypersexual 1970s brand of it – have a lot in common. They appealed to the same audiences and were played in the same old theaters, commonly called “grindhouses,” in Times Square, Hollywood Boulevard, Boston’s Combat Zone, and many other urban American cinema districts of the era. From time to time these two exploitation genres have even collided, which left a lasting legacy for U.S. pop culture that continues today.
The Japanese swordfighting genre of Chambara, which Dessert writes in Reframing Japanese Cinema “is onomatopoeic for the sound of clanging steel” (155), often goes underrated by American critics. “By classical Western standards of aesthetic value,” Desser continues, “the Sword Film appears to be a vast wasteland of formulaic pulp.” Nevertheless, as he says later, such judgments are too hasty to dismiss a very aesthetically interesting category of films. Patrick Galloway agrees, writing in Stray Dogs & Lone Wolves that “You could say one of the themes of this book is ‘Chambara rocks!’” (12). Even the pulpiest Misumi Kenji films with the most spattering blood and forced sex are noteworthy for their experimentation with mobile camerawork, inventive editing, deconstructive outlook on the samurai movie genre as a whole, and overall pictorialism.
Similarly, high-brow critics of the 1970s often devalued Blaxploitation films, even exploitation films as a whole category. Bill Landis writes in the introduction to Sleazoid Express that he “grew increasingly irritated by the offhand putdowns and snide comments of cinema snobs like the New Yorker’s Pauline Kael and The New York Times’s Vincent Canby, who implied that Times Square movies could only entertain low-IQ types, and seemed unable to praise anything beyond the hip new Fellini or Bergman Film” (xii). Unlike them, he finds a wealth of intellectual stimulation in the low-budget, sex-and-violence-driven films playing at the “Deuce.” In fact, he questions their taste and writes that “I . . . felt their ‘old masters’ were directors who hadn’t shown a new wrinkle in years,” and claims that the New York City grindhouses were “where the real aesthetic innovations were being made” (xii). This essay argues that just as the authors of Sleazoid Express and Stray Dogs & Lone Wolves fight against the writers on the opposite end of the critical spectrum, so too are Chambara and Blaxploitation pictures fighting against the precedents set for filmmaking by the established canon. The auteurs of these genres found their industries in a period of stagnation – both aesthetically and financially – and nobly sought to inject new life into the old corpses of their national cinemas.
After Japanese cinema’s golden age in the 50s and early 60s, the industry began to decline. Simply not enough people were attending movies in Japan, possibly because the studios, according to Isolde Standish, “increasingly failed to keep pace with youth trends during the 1960s” (268). Standish writes that the major studios’ production numbers in 1958 were halved by 1970. As a result, “the major studios sought ever new sensational grounds to attract back audiences.” This trend toward sensationalism included not only yakuza and pink films, but also Chambara. Desser concurs with this point in Reframing Japanese Cinema, asserting that “as the Sword Film moved into the early ’70s, each film simply tried to outdo its predecessor in number of deaths and their spectacular delivery” by “[retreating] from reality and [entering] the realm of fantasy” (162). No longer could the quick black-and-white slashing of Yojimbo (1961) suffice. The filmgoing audience required blood by the buckets and severed limbs by the cartload. Of the films this writer has seen, Lone Wolf and Cub (1972-74), Lady Snowblood (1973-74), Hanzo the Razor (1972-74) series meet this need most directly, although the tamer and more critically accepted Zatoichi films of the 70s, like Zatoichi meets Yojimbo (1970) and Hideo Gosha films such as Bandits vs. Samurai Squadron (1978) also splurge a little on the bright red blood, borderline-comical slashing sound effects, and T&A.
Likewise, the American film industry had fallen into a pit of stagnation in the early 60s due to the popularity of television and the death of the studio system in the late 50s, and it had just begun to realize that American youth did not want to watch movies like The Sound of Music (1965). As Thompson and Bordwell write, “By the late 1960s, every studio faced a financial crisis,” adding that “Most releases lost money, and executives proved slow to understand that the big picture was no longer a sure thing” (513). Thus, the old formula of investing more in order to reap more profit was broken. Even the great new generation of Hollywood directors like George Lucas, Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, and Brian DePalma could not hoist the industry by themselves. Enter Melvin Van Peebles, who showed up on the indie scene with the confrontational and controversial Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (1971). Van Peebles’ avant-garde film, with its murky lighting, its poor film stock, its cast of non-actors, its repetitive funky score, its overtly racist White characters, and its artful use of superimposition and color inversion became an overnight sensation while scoring insane profits miles above its meager budget. The IFC documentary BaadAsssss Cinema: A Bold Look at 70s Blaxploitation Films (2002) credits Sweetback as the first Blaxploitation film, followed by Gordon Parks’ equally funk-driven but more commercial and somewhat less political Shaft (1971). After that, the genre exploded outright, with movies like Super Fly (1972), Across 110th Street (1972), and even the Blaxploitation/horror fusion Blacula (1972), which many of the documentary’s commentators disparaged as just a cashing-in on the new, cool trend.
Indeed, Hollywood executives immediately realized the purchasing power of America’s Black audience, especially if they had movies made by and for African-Americans for them to attend, and perceived it as an opportunity to make some quick money. By investing in this newfound Black cinema, they created many new job opportunities for African-Americans in show business, and allowed a whole batch of new political-minded writers and directors to experiment with the form of the motion picture, testing White-dominated Hollywood’s boundaries. Although this would be difficult to prove completely, but many of the interviewees in BaadAsssss Cinema, including Tupac Shakur’s mother, contend that Blaxploitation saved the American movie industry. There must be at least a little truth to this, because Variety reported in its article “Films that Made it in Tough 1973” that Across 110th Street, The Mack (1973), Coffy (1973), and Black Caesar (1973) all registered in the top 40 grossing features of the year, with greater than $2 million in the box office.
Although they remained slightly under the radar and less prevalent than the kung fu cinema of Hong Kong and the American-made Bruce Lee movies – which also appealed to the grindhouse audience – Chambara and other Japanese genres scored some critical attention and box office money in the USA in 1974. After a three-and-a-half month lull of no Japanese films reviewed in Variety, the January 2, 1974 edition provided write-ups of seven Japanese movies (unfortunately, none of them samurai films): Gozencho No Jikanwari (1972), Irezumi Ichidai (1965), Kaigenrei (1973), Kaette Kita Yopparai (1968), Satori (1973), Seigenki (1973), and Yojohan Fusuma no Shitabari (1973). Note how three-fourths of these movies are over one year old. This signals that the American media of early 1974 finally found it valuable to spotlight the great Japanese films it had not paid attention to in earlier years.
Also of interest to this essay is the review published three-and-a-half months before the January 2, 1974 edition; on September 18, 1973, Variety reviewed Gosha’s 1969 samurai film Steel Edge of Vengeance. The review announced that an American firm had picked up the film for distribution on the condition that it would cut the 128-minute feature to 86 minutes, dub it into English, and rearrange the story a bit. Chambara cinema showed up again in Variety on March 6, 1974, with a review of Lone Wolf and Cub: Lightning Swords of Death (1972) sporting the subtitle “Goodbye kung-fu, welcome home, samurai. Japanese actioner, with western touches, should do well.” The reviewer mistakenly believed the film to be the second part of a trilogy, when in fact Lightning Swords of Death is the third Lone Wolf and Cub installment. Despite this error, the reviewer should be forgiven due to his or her glowing praise of Lightning Swords of Death’s “action shots, lots of killings, and [touches] of tongue-in-cheek irony,” and his or her prediction that Columbia would begin to prioritize Chambara films over “kung-fu items, which haven’t faired too well lately.”
Like Blaxploitation films, Chambara films received the most play not in the new shopping mall multiplexes of suburbia but in grindhouse theaters, which as the authors of Sleazoid Express have remarked, ran films that often went unnoticed by writers and editors in top publications, even Variety. Landis and Clifford write that “Orientalia staked out its place in Times Square in the late 1960s at the Bijou theater” (266). They were of interest to many filmgoers because
Although the Asian movies went further than others in terms of aesthetics, sexuality, and violent shock, they weren’t subject to the censorship that attacked much 1960s exploitation, and were shown in large, sophisticated cities like New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, at venues that wouldn’t be affected by any MPAA seal or local censor boards. They didn’t fit any traditional strictures of pornography (making it difficult to go after them legally as obscene) and could often use the “art film” label. (266)
Thus, they were violent and sexy without compromising the artiness factor, which equaled the perfect recipe for cult success. While these Asian movies definitely included the successful kung-fu movies of the era like Fists of Fury (1971), Enter the Dragon (1973), and Five Fingers of Death (1972), as well as kinky movies that fit in well with the sexploitation genre like Nanami, First Love (1967) and Gate of Flesh (1964), Chambara constituted a large part of the made-in-Asia entertainment. Landis and Clifford cite the Zatoichi series, Harakiri (1963), and Kurosawa’s Yojimbo and Throne of Blood (1957) as grindhouse favorites (266-267). Donald Richie argues that this American interest in Kurosawa makes sense due to The Emperor’s complete disinterest in following “the standard program” and his ability to go “beyond the accepted confines of cinematic language as the Japanese understood them” (176). His strong individuality and unique vision kept people in 1970s New York returning to the Bijou and other Times Square theaters for more.
At first glance, these newly-popular-in-America genres of 70s Chambara and Blaxploitation seem diametrically opposed to each other. Samurai movies are period films, always set in or before the 19th century and typically taking place in rural Japan. Blaxploitation films present trash-filled urban landscapes in present-day American cities. The iconography of Chambara films includes top knots, katanas, and straw sandals, while Blaxploitation iconography favored afros, pistols, and tall, colorful boots. Caste conflicts dominate Chambara films, but racial conflicts play out in Blaxploitation. Despite these surface-level contradictions, they also have many similarities, which explains their appeal to the same grindhouse audiences in US cities. In addition, Americans might have noticed something familiar in Chambara since, as Desser notes in his piece in Film Genre 2000: New Critical Essays, Japanese Samurai films were influenced by American westerns (81).
Perhaps most importantly, the two genres share an interest in glorifying the underdog anti-hero seeking some combination of justice, money, and women. Sweetback cannot stand and watch the police beat a fellow African-American; he must fight back. In doing so, he kills a handful of cops, two dogs, and has sex with a redheaded biker girl, all in the interest of saving his own life and running from The Man. Likewise, Hanzo the Razor despises the bureaucracy of the magistrate’s police force and finds his own way to enact street justice by forcing sex upon women in his private boat house as part of his interrogation act – the torture being not that he disrobes and penetrates them, but that he stops short of giving the women orgasms to get more information. Lady Snowblood was born to avenge her mother and father’s death at the hands of terrorists running a village, while Black Caesar was born into a system where in order to receive any money and recognition, he must mow down the Mafioso Italians running the city.
Oftentimes the protagonists of both genres end up hating themselves for the measures they take, although they find them necessary. For example, the Lone Wolf in Baby Cart at the River Styx (1972) calls himself a demon for entering the business of assassination, but as a wandering ronin who needs money to survive, he has no other profession to take up, and so contracts himself as a hitman as a necessity. This is similar to Priest in Super Fly, who hates the business of dealing cocaine, and fears that if he remains in “the life” too long, he will lose his own life. Yet until the end, he hustles as best he can so that he can stay out of low-paying McJobs earning only enough chump change to scrape by a sad, destitute life.
Both genres are male-dominated and generally view women as sexual objects, but the occasional exception occurs in both. Pam Grier has no qualms about killing the misogynist drug dealing men who killed her sister in Coffy, and likewise, the protagonist of Lady Snowblood (1973) murders so many men in her vengeance scheme that Patrick Galloway compares her to Pam Grier:
Lady Snowblood: Blizzard from the Netherworld is a dark and lurid bloodbath reminiscent of blaxploitation movies like Coffey and Foxy Brown, with one bad-ass mama out for revenge. It is a tribute to the porous nature of the samurai genre that it can absorb the ethos of early ’70 American exploitation cinema and blend it with the distinct essence of chambara. What results is a hybrid of wicked intensity. (165)
Galloway directly compares a Chambara movie with a blaxploitation movie and asserts that director Toshiya Fujita’s genre-blending was intentional.
Chambara and Blaxploitation films share more in common than just theme. Whether purposefully or unintentionally, both genres seem to mimic each other using certain techniques. Take, for example, their soundtracks. The Blaxploitation trait of scoring movies with funky rhythms as evidenced by the music of Earth, Wind & Fire in Sweetback, Curtis Mayfield in Super Fly, and James Brown in Black Caesar, is echoed in Hanzo the Razor: Sword of Justice (1972). Patrick Galloway describes the film’s opening as having a “montage-style credit sequence complete with funky bass, guitar, and trumpet, sounding somewhere between Starsky and Hutch and a blaxploitation soundtrack” (160). This further proves Galloway’s claim that Blaxploitation influenced Chambara. Soon this essay will prove that the vice versa is also true: Chambara influenced Blaxploitation.
Before that, however, some more similarities between the genres should be illustrated. The flash cutting used frequently in Chambara to heighten suspense as in Lady Snowblood, Sword of Justice, and Baby Cart at the River Styx also appears at the end of Black Caesar to contrast the current moment of him beating up a cop to darting memories of the same policeman kicking him down a flight of stairs as a child.
In addition, the majority of films in both genres seem to use the same color and consistency of blood: very bright red and very thick and oozing. It squirts out of dying men’s cuts in the beginning fight scene of Bandits vs. Samurai Squadron when the bandits ransack a building; it drips out of Hanzo the Razor’s legs when he has his assistants pile cement blocks on him while he sits on a jagged wooden torture device; it spills out of an arrogant White man that Black Caesar murders in a barbershop; and it covers Fat Freddie’s face when the fuzz demands to know whose coke he sells in Super Fly.
The common Chambara device of the “quick zoom” – the moment when a camera either zooms in or out very quickly for dramatic effect – also appears occasionally in Blaxploitation films. Kenji Misumi uses it in Sword of Justice when a robber runs from police on rooftop and the camera zooms out to show the local authorities chucking spears at him, as well as in Zatoichi meets Yojimbo, when the camera zooms out to show Toshiro Mifune surrounded by Kuzuryu’s hired men wearing red bandanas. In Super Fly, the camera performs a quick zoom in on Priest when he hops on a ladder to chase a junkie, and in Sweetback, the camera zooms quickly in and out on Sweetback’s face as he rides in the back of a police cruiser after a sex show. And of course, all of the movies mentioned have bared breasts, although some movies linger longer on the nudity than others.
With all of these similarities, it seems only right that a collision would happen between the two genres. Finally in 1977, after the heyday of Blaxploitation had transpired and directors were searching for ways to make one last buck, Black Samurai was released. Starring karate expert Jim Kelly, made popular by his role in Enter the Dragon (1973), Black Samurai mixes a hodgepodge of genres. The protagonist is an empowered African-American with fighting skills, a heap of money, and beautiful women as his love interests. Most of the fighting resembles Bruce Lee-style kung fu, but the opening credits do show an illustration of agent Robert Sand wielding a sword, so viewers understand that to be part of the character’s training, even though he never kills a bad guy with a sword. Although Toki, the woman he saves, lives in Hong Kong, her surname is Japanese (Konuma) and Sand even calls her father “a minister of the samurai code” who will “not give in that easy” to the evil Mr. Janicot’s demands for ransom money. Sand refers here to the bushido code. Mr. Konuma is a man of honor, learned in the ways of the samurai, and so will not accept defeat and pay up without a fight. The bushido code also comes into play in the beginning, when Sand must weigh giri and ninjo. His instinct and sense of right and wrong tells him that D.R.A.G.O.N. owes him a vacation for his hard work in past cases, but a sense of giri counters his ninjo and forces him to serve his employer even though he has earned a break.
Black Samurai appealed to the same grindhouse audience as older Blaxploitation and Chambara films and symbolizes a desire to unite the two similar genres by the American public. This legacy of Blaxploitation/Chambara fusion continues to the present-day in the form of the SpikeTV animated series Afro Samurai (starring Samuel L. Jackson) as well as the rap group Wu Tang Clan, who despite their name based on the Hong Kong movie Shaolin and Wu Tang (1981), also rap about and sample clips from Japanese samurai movies. This mainstream interest to combine African-American and samurai culture speaks volumes for the power of Japanese cinema to intrigue filmgoers and filmmakers the world over.
Adamson, Al, dir. Black Samurai: Agent for D.R.A.G.O.N. 1977. Perf. Jim Kelly. DVD. Brentwood Home video, 2001.
Cohen, Larry, dir. Black Caesar. Perf. Fred Williamson. 1973. DVD. MGM Home Entertainment, 2001.
Desser, David. “The Martial Arts Film in the 1990s.” Film Genre 2000: New Critical Essays. Ed. Wheeler Winston Dixon. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2000. 77-109.
Desser, David. “Toward a Structural Analysis of the Postwar Samurai Film.” Reframing Japanese Cinema. Ed. Arthur Nolleti, Jr. and David Desser. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1992. 145-164.
“Film Reviews.” Variety 2 Jan. 1974: 6-15.
“Film Reviews.” Variety 18 Sept. 1973: 19.
“Film Reviews.” Variety 6 Mar. 1974: 20.
“Films that Made it in Tough 1973.” Variety 26 Dec. 1973: 3.
Fujita, Toshiya, dir. Lady Snowblood: Blizzard from the Netherworld. Perf. Kaji Meiko. 1973. DVD. AnimeEigo, 2004.
Galloway, Patrick. Stray Dogs & Lone Wolves: The Samurai Film Handbook. Berkeley, California: Stone Bridge Press, 2005.
Gosha, Hideo, dir. Bandits vs. Samural Squadron. Perf. Tatsuya Nakadai. 1978. DVD. Shochiku, Co., Ltd., 2002.
Julian, Isaac, dir. BaadAsssss Cinema: A Bold Look at 70s Blaxploitation Films. Perf. Fred Williamson. 2002. DVD. IFC Entertainment, 2002.
Kenji, Misumi, dir. Hanzo the Razor: Sword of Justice. Perf. Shintaro Katsu. 1972. Toho International Co., Ltd., 2005.
Kenji, Misumi, dir. Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart at the River Styx. Perf. Tomisaburo Wakayama. 1972. DVD. Animeigo, 2003.
Kenji, Misumi, dir. Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo. Perf. Shintaro Katsu. 1970. DVD. Animeigo, 2003.
Landis, Bill and Michelle Clifford. Sleazoid Express. New York: Simon &
Parks, Gordon Jr., dir. Super Fly. Perf Ron O’Neal. 1972. DVD. Warner Bros. Entertainment, 2000.
Richie, Donald. A Hundred Years of Japanese Film. New York: Kodansha International, 2001.
Standish, Isolde. A New History of Japanese Cinema. New York: Continuum, 2005.
Thompson, Kristin, and David Bordwell. Film History: An Introduction. 2nd Ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2003.
Van Peebles, Melvin, dir. Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song. Perf. Melvin Van Peebles. 1971. DVD. Xenon, 2003.
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