5 Must-See Silent Chambara

Orochi / The Serpent (1925)

Not seen: Roof tiles being thrown at him

Jidaigeki and chambara (click for more info about jidageki and chambara) hold a special place in Japanese cinema–in fact, in all Japanese art from painting to Kabuki and Noh–dating back to the silent period. It can be considered THE Japanese genre film, because of its historical, cultural, and thematic uniqueness from other representative cinema. During the silent period, many of the films produced in Japan were of this sort, although very few of them survive today. Here are 5 (okay, 7) examples:

1. Futagawa Buntaro – Orochi / The Serpent (1925) and Gyakuryu / Backward Flow (1924)
Starring chambara superstar Bando Tsumasaburo, both films follow similar plots: a good man wronged by those with power, and now must now find a way to survive. Both films were considered to have “rebellious” or “dangerous” ideas, using an outlaw fighting the system as the hero of the films.

Gyakuryu is the more emotional of the two, but Orochi is superior as a chambara. Bantsuma goes on to fight against a horde of hatamoto/policemen, who even throw tiles (those are real tiles being thrown, not silly props. Obviously, Bantsuma was a badass in real life as well) and whack him with sticks. Both movies discuss the ironies and hypocrisies inherent in the samurai way, which would eventually become chambara genre conventions. Orochi is also considered one of the first films to feature a realistic fighting style.

2. Ito Daisuke – Oatsurae Jirokichi goshi / Jirokichi the Rat (1931)
Starring Ôkôchi Denjirô as Jirokichi, a Robin Hood-type folk hero of Japan. After stealing from several palaces and landing on The Shogunate’s Most Wanted List, Jirokichi is on the run from the cops. On a boat ride somewhere, he meets Osen, a girl with a manipulative criminal brother trying to extort money from her. Jirokichi, being a nice guy, decides to do something about it.

Ito Daisuke is considered one of the founding fathers of chambara. It’s not hard to see why, with a film with such innovation as this. Some of the highlights include: the riverboat fight, the police chase with lanterns, and the showdown between Jirokichi and Osen’s brother. Ito employs dozens of extras, filling frames with police and common folk. Cinematographer Karasawa Hiromitsu, in order to capture sequences in the middle of the action, tied his camera to his body (cameras back then were HUGE btw) and ran through the action. He probably came out with tons of bruises and pains, but for his effort he was able to get some of the best action sequences in silent movie history.

Oatsurae Jirokichi goshi / Jirokichi the Rat (1931)

(Policeman + lantern) x 100 = Brilliant idea

3. Shirai Sentaro – Dokuro / The Skull (1927)
Ichikawa Utaemon stars as Christian warlord trying to preserve his people’s way of life. Sadly, assassins are on the way, and he has to defend himself (and his pimped out wardrobe) and save his people.

Though poorly preserved and short at 42 minutes, Dokuro contains one of the best fight scenes in chambara, possible ever. Ichikawa Utaemon takes on an onslaught of assassins inside a temple, in what can be considered more of a dance than an outright battle. The entire scene is amazingly choreographed; strikes are precise, movements are untentative, and movements are fluid. Unlike many B-grade chambara where the bad guys are stumbling idiots who couldn’t hit the ground and swing their swords like toddlers carrying rattles, the men in Dokuro know what they’re doing. And despite the “dance-like” nature of the choreography, the scenes are surprisingly realistic. The dark rooms contrasting Ichikawa’s white garb inside an ornately decorated temple create a beautiful atmosphere. Certainly a fight to remember.

Dokuro / The Skull (1927)

This is not an episode of The Simpsons

4. Makino Shozo – Gôketsu Jiraiya / Jiraiya, the Ninja (1921)
Onoe Matsunosuke is Jiraiya, a ninja with magical (I think?) powers, who turns into a giant frog. Yup. You heard me right: a giant frickin’ frog. Who eats people and spits them out terrified. If that’s not enough of a reason to see this, well, you must not like chambara. Or frogs.

This is perhaps the oldest chambara–and one of, if not the oldest in Japanese film–still extant. Though the acting is somewhat lacking, and the action still following the kabuki tradition, this is still an interesting movie to see if only for its age and the giant frogs. Amusing cutting creates the illusion of Onoe disappearing and reappearing like a magical ninja, and the way he makes fools out of everyone is quite amusing. Onoe is also considered the first Japanese film star, and this is, I think, his oldest existing film. In fact, I’ve yet to find anything else.

Gôketsu Jiraiya / Jiraiya, the Ninja (1921)

In 1921 the Japanese knew how to make movies cool: giant samurai ninja frogs

5. Yamaguchi Teppei – Kurama Tengu (1928) and Kurama Tengu: Kyôfu jidai / The Frightful Era of Kurama Tengu (1928)
Starring Arashi Kanjuro as Kurama Tengu, a samurai who dislikes assholes and is loved by kids everywhere. Kurama Tengu is actually a very popular legend, and has been the subject of many films, and even a 2008 NHK series. In the first film, Tengu is embroiled in a conflict between the Shinsengumi, The Emperor’s Lions, and the Mimawarigumi. They are all after Tengu, and set a trap to finally capture him. In the second film, an impostor is trying to tarnish Tengu’s good name with the people, and he must find out who the impersonator is, and deal with him accordingly.

Folk tales and folk heroes are always interesting subjects for movies, and very few folk heroes have received as much attention from film makers such as Tengu (though I’ve only seen three, including these two). What makes him unique from other heroes, though, is the fact that children seem to love him, which actually appears as an important part of the two movies. Between Tengu getting captured, a jailbreak, impostors, a whodunnit, and of course, swordfights, there is a lot that happens, and over-all the movie is quite enjoyable. Although Arashi Kanjuro wasn’t quite as famous as the other actors mentioned above, he had, arguably, a longer and more interesting tenure in film, appearing in roles in films by Kudo Eiichi (Jyusan-nin no shikaku / Thirteen Assassins), Nakagawa Nobuo (Jigoku / Hell), Masahiro Makino (Junko intai kinen eiga: Kanto hizakura ikka / The Red Cherry Blossom Family) and Imamura Shohei (Kamigami no Fukaki Yokubo / Profound Desire of the Gods). Arashi also dons the “samurai hoodie”, which samurai actually never wore, but is now commonly associated with spies, ninja and some samurai.

Kurama Tengu: Kyôfu jidai / The Frightful Era of Kurama Tengu   (1928)

When a kid in a g-string successfully breaks into, and someone out of, your jail, you've pretty much got no other option than seppuku


1, 2, 3, and 5 are available through Digital Meme.

Here’s a related feature: 5 famous chambara stars and their fighting styles.