Basic Information about Jidaigeki and Chambara:

Shichinin no samurai / Seven Samurai

Out of context: Cool samurai. In context: Crazy asshole

1. Jidai-geki is Japanese for “Period Film”, usually set during the Tokugawa Era. The Heian Period and Meiji Era are also acceptable, though less common settings, though personally I like separating them for the heck of it. They don’t need to star or feature samurai, although they are the usual subject of these films. Any film set during the aforementioned periods can be considered Jidaigeki, even Kaiju-eiga (monster movies) and basic dramas.

2. The word “chambara” is based on the sound of the music accompaniment of most of those films during the silent era (think of it as a suspenseful, dramatic sound). Strictly speaking, they are “swordplay” films, and don’t necessarily need to feature samurai as long as they involve swordfights (or more specifically, duels between learned swordsmen, not necessarily one on one, but definitely focusing on individuals, and not full battles). It’s a subgenre of jidaigeki because they are also set in that period. They usually deal with themes such as chivalry, honor, fidelity, loyalty, and the like. The duel or fight scene is usually the climax of the film.

Mifune Vs. Nakadai

I wouldn't mind 2 hours of this

3. The duel or swordfight isn’t necessarily a one-on-one affair. The main requirement is that the individuals involved are learned and capable swordsmen, and they primarily use their swords in isolated encounters. Large battles are not considered swordfights, because the importance is on the victory of the battle, and not the victory of individual fighters, especially the hero. One-vs-one, one-vs-many, few-vs-many, and even many-vs-many can therefore be considered swordfights as long as they fulfill the above requirements.

Example of one-vs-one: Almost every famous chambara, but my favorite has to be Mifune vs. Nakadai in Joi-uchi: Hairyo tsuma shimatsu / Samurai Rebellion (1967)
Example of one-vs-many: Kozure Ôkami: Jigoku e iku zo! Daigoro / Lone Wolf and Cub: White Heaven in Hell – often cited as the film where one man kills the most people in a single movie evar
Example of few-vs-many: Juusan-nin no shikaku / The Thirteen Assassins (1963), Dai satsujin / The Great Duel (1964), Ju-ichinin no samurai / Eleven Samurai (1966), all directed by Kudo Eiichi
Example of many-vs-many: More violent versions of Chushingura, such as Shijushuchinin no shikaku / The 47 Ronin / The 47 Assassins, directed by Ichikawa Kon (1994)

Lone Wolf and Cub

According to really really bored nerds, Ogami Itto kills 150 people on screen in White Heaven in Hell alone

5. Examples of Jidaigeki that aren’t Chambara, even though there are samurai: Kagemusha (Kurosawa Akira, 1980, only large battles), Ninjo kami fusen / Humanity and Paper Balloons (Yamanaka Sadao, 1937, it’s more of a drama than anything else), Jigokumon / Gate of Hell (Kinugasa Tenosuke, 1953, another drama), Ten to chi to / Heaven and Earth (Kadokawa Haruki, 1990, like Kagemusha, more of a historical epic with big battles).

Ju-ichinin no samurai / Eleven Samurai

Pretty boring.. until he EXPLODES. Seriously

6. Many of Kurosawa’s movies involving samurai can be argued not to be chambara, despite the presence of samurai and swordfights. Kagemusha, Ran and Throne of Blood are about samurai, but there are only big battles. Seven Samurai feature samurai, but they only face bandits; none of them very able to put up a good fight. The Hidden Fortress involves a duel, but they use spears and not swords, so this is arguably not a “swordfight”. Rashomon has a fight scene, but it’s more closely related to a bar fight than a face-off between swordsmen.

7. Example of Chambara without any swordfights, but since the concept/idea of sword fighting is an important part of the movie, I’d still consider it to be partially a chambara: Hana yori mo naho (Koreeda Hirokazu, 2006)

8. Examples of Chambara with few or no important samurai: Zatoichi series (He’s a blind masseur, so he hardly counts as a samurai), Jirocho Fuji (Mori Kazuo, 1959, is technically about yakuza), Komukiri Nizaemon / Bandits vs. Samurai Squadron (Gosha Hideo, 1978, they are technically bandits or yakuza)

Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo

Possibly the coolest picture google will ever give you

9. Yes, it’s a little confusing and the line between what is and what isn’t chambara isn’t a very fine, or a very thick one. Basically, the presence of duels, the importance of the swordfight, and the focus on honor/loyalty/chivalry are what to look out for. Still pretty confusing even for me. I guess being a genre nazi about this should only be reserved for academic discourse.

10. Japanese cinema is obsessed with classifying things, so I’m pretty sure any genre I coin–Ronin-eiga (masterless samurai movie)? Hatamoto-eiga (Bakufu-employed samurai movie)? Ningai-eiga (Outlaw/outcast samurai movie)? Etc?–has probably already been used or invented before.

Shijushichinin no shikaku / The 47 Ronin

The best part of chambara is when someone gets stabbed and he flails around like a trout out of water

You might as well check out the reviews for jidaigeki and chambara that are lying around here somewhere.