This column explores the often subconscious connection between the places we are from, the spaces in which we write, and the places we write about.
Is there anything more quintessentially, cinematically American than a cowboy riding down the middle of a dirt road in a Podunk town, kicking down the doors of the saloon, poised to throw down, his silhouette outlined by the western landscape behind him?
I am writing in the middle of a street. Not on horseback and not this whole column. That would be too reckless, the asphalt is too hot for horses, and I don’t look good in fringe.
But, that is where it started. Pearl Street, a charming promenade of local shops and restaurants, that, on Sundays, is taken over by a farmers’ market of great proportions. But on weekday afternoons, it is quiet, and I make my way down the street to meet family friends on my lunch break.
I do not kick down the doors to the American restaurant, Bird. The doors are open, and my friends are waiting for me on the patio.
My friend holds a cup of coffee from Tokyo Premium Bakery across the street. He says the coffee is “really good” and “really strong.”
Sitting at Bird and staring at Tokyo, I am reminded of my favorite coincidence: the Western and the Samurai film.
At first glance, cowboys and samurai have nothing in common. They barely existed at the same time, nowhere near in the same place, and yet, the spaces we have created for them in film are the same. These films have an intertwined history that tickles me. They are the same script transposed into two separate cultures. They are so inherently connected, despite their geographical distance, that over time, Westerns and Samurai films were made with the intention of replicating each other.
Legendary director Akira Kurosawa has stated how heavily he studied John Ford. The Magnificent Seven is Seven Samurai. Django and A Fistful of Dollars are Yojimbo. Even the Star Wars Franchise, the ultimate Space Western, is inspired by samurai films (Han Solo so clearly radiates space cowboy).
The parallels are direct, and I could go on and on listing specific films and their cultural counterparts, but let’s back up a bit first, and pick apart what makes these films the same, yet so unique from other genres.
The western film is built upon the landscape. There are the classic shots of Monument Valley in the Old Westerns, before Arizona became a legal nightmare to film in, and directors had to settle for New Mexico or Nevada. The remote towns are plywood rectangles, the dirt is everywhere, the law is absent or untrustworthy, the mountains are glorious, the tumbleweed shot is mandatory. Usually a girl or an intangible concept needs saving, sometimes from bank robbers, sometimes from cattle barons, sometimes from native Americans, who are depicted in an exceptionally racist manner.
The main character in the Western is always the cowboy: a character who is for the most part ambiguous in his morality. He is a setting in and of himself: the juxtaposition of civilization and wilderness. He exists only on the fringe of both settings, right where they overlap and can never come together, and begrudgingly upholds patriotism, honor, and pride. He doesn’t want to be good, he has a need. He never misses his shot, and if he does, it is because he is merciful.
If you are picturing Clint Eastwood, very good. If you are picturing John Wayne, I am disappointed, but I understand.
In the end, after saving the girl, the town, the American Spirit, the cowboy rides off into the sunset, choosing morality, but rejecting society. He cannot be tamed. He is dramatic. He has an avoidant attachment style. We love him.
The Samurai film is defined by much the same. It is feudal, or nearly post-feudal Japan, the villages are isolated, the dirt is abundant, the government has failed its working poor, and instead of mountains there is dense forest rife with bandits (the poor they make sure you don’t want to root for). Bamboo trees replace tumbleweeds. Impoverished farmers, much like the American homesteaders, struggle to work the harsh earth.
The Samurai themselves embody a place and time that, even in their own films, doesn’t truly exist. In American classrooms, the samurai are usually studied early in their acclaim, in connection to their aristocratic masters or feudal landholders (American kids love to talk about the suicide aspect of their jobs, I don’t know why, children are weird and dark). And samurai were aristocrats themselves, of the warrior class. They were fierce, they were brave, and much like the cowboy, they upheld patriotism, pride, and honor. But what happened when they were no longer bound to a feudal lord, or their services were no longer required? What happened when advancements in technology were made, and Japan was on the cusp of civilization and wilderness? Did they commit suicide? Not necessarily, sorry kids. The wandering samurai was born, and in cinema the samurai wanders through every remote Japanese town that might need a violent, yet righteous, swordsman. His skills with the blade rival the up-and-coming pistol. He may not be bound by society any longer, but he is bound by a new code of honor, and he will be damned if he can’t uphold it.
After the samurai has rescued the village miller from a corrupt government construct, or a classless group of bandits, the samurai moves on, searching for a place that lives only behind him. That same silhouette marching aimlessly, yet purposefully, into the sunset. He doesn’t need to ride a dark horse, because he is a dark horse.
These two genres are built from the same materials: a dying place, and a man born out of that dying place. The cowboy and the samurai are two men who are somehow both unfiltered and nostalgic glimpses of societies that have passed on.
We want the cowboy and the samurai to win, and they do. And we want them to stay, but they can’t, because if they do, they will bring that old place back with them. The cusp of civilization and wilderness, as we strive for civilization, but yearn for wilderness, exists only in the palms of these men, in these scripts of vast landscapes and choreographed fight scenes.
Before and after World War II, where we violated each other, where Japan sided with Nazis, and the United States committed heinous atrocities against Japanese civilians, there still existed this other space, where we exchanged a culture and landscape neither of us upheld any more.
So, let’s say I had felt compelled to write this whole column in the middle of the street, and in the summer sun the soles of my shoes melted into the asphalt, and let’s say it was right when the #12 bus careened at 11 miles per hour, (yes I know careened is the wrong verb, I am TRYING to create a sense of urgency, this is my fantasy, go find your own), who would come to save me?
Who would reach me first, if I were a girl unfairly punished by corrupt law, or kidnapped by bandits?
It would be the same man, in different clothing, and they would walk down Pearl Street, and the restaurants and shops and farmers’ market stalls would melt away, and their feet would touch the dirt, and the sun would set on a place where only they existed, but would never meet.