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Made in America Samurai

https://foxhugh.com/2014/09/18/american-made-samurai-on-film/

Samurai films are all made in Japan, right? Wrong! Americans have made samurai films as
well! When I was very young I wanted to be Batman when I grew up. As I grew older, I realized this
career choice was silly. In later years, I wanted to be a samurai. I lived in an all white middle class
suburb and there werent a lot of samurai sensi wandering about. Sure I had studied judo but I knew
I needed more skills than that to be a samurai. Films about samurai filled the gap. In pre-cable, pre-
DVD, pre-internet, pre-everything days, Japanese samurai movies were hard to find and even an
American made samurai film was better than nothing. I never did become a samurai but I did end
up moving to Asia and even lived in Japan for a while:

http://foxhugh.com/about-me/countries-visited/

I was reminiscing and surfing the internet I was amazed to find out there was very little on this topic
on the internet. The brave, cross-cultural and pioneering American made samurais deserve better! I
write this post to honor their memory!

This article will try to compare made in America samurai with their Japanese counterparts in two
areas. First, I am going to focus on the sword fighting scenes since this is a critical aspect of what
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makes a samurai film a samurai film. If I watch a samurai film then I want great sword scenes as part
of the package. I have dabbled with kendo and kenjutsu. I did attend some Society for Creative
Anachronism sword fighting classes at Michigan State University a hundred years ago. I am aware
that cinema sword fighting is about entertainment not authenticity in general. However, I think part
of the entertainment value of samurai sword fighting, as opposed to a kung fu phooey film, or a
Hollywood CGI epic, is some attempt to make the viewer have the illusion that they are seeing a real
samurai fight or at least this was the case in the older samurai films.

Secondly, a code is what makes a samurai a samurai. Bushido is the code that samurais live or rebel
against in the case of rnin. Without bushido then a samurai is just a guy waving a sword. Because
of bushido, there is a tension between ninj (compassion) and giri (duty) in most Japanese samurai
film and I wonder if made in America samurais have a similar dynamic.Swords provide the external
drama of a samurai film. Bushido provides the internal drama of a samurai film. If the film has
samurai in the title but absolutely no samurai elements then I would argue its not a samurai
film. For this reason, a film like Samurai Cowboy with no samurai elements is not on the list and
also the film is Canadian. Overall this article will attempt to answer the question, how much impact
have Japanese samurai film conventions had on made in America samurai films?

47 Ronin (2013)

A recent movie that has nothing to do with my teenage memories but perhaps will be a bad memory
for future generations. This movie is a confusing mlange of fantasy that almost has nothing to do
with the original 47 Ronin story. The original 47 Ronin is a story about giri not a CGI exercise like
this Hollywood version. Keanu seems to be stuck in this one acting mode these days. Internal
conflict expressed as intense confusion would be the term I would use. Keanu Reeves is playing Neo
with a sword not a samurai! However, there are giri elements in the movie just poorly expressed and
take a back seat to the CGI. The sword scenes are pure CGI and this was interesting once upon a
time but no longer.

American Samurai
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This is a low budget film that marks the acting debut of Mark Dacascos. As bad as this film is one
cannot say its the worst American made samurai film to the heavy competition for this title.The film
has mediocre action. There isnt much in the way of psychological development of the characters.

Black Samurai

This is a blaxploitation film that has some pretty good karate action but has the word samurai in
the title for marketing purposes. The character development of the hero Jim Kelly is his evolution
from being one cool cat to being an even cooler cat in the eyes of the audience. Still, Jim Kelly is
always fun to watch.
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You have to love Jim Kellys double front kick! Jim Kellys trademark was kicking with one leg and
then the other while in the air. The more common flying double front kick is hitting two opponents
at the same time which makes more sense from a combat point of view but is less fun to watch. I
guess you can use a lot of the same training methods to do the Jim Kelly kick. I am retired and will
skip the entire process. I did Karate in my twenties no problem. I tried again at fifty and almost
died!

Bushido Blade

Laura Gemser is in this film and she has a sword! Laura Gemser was just about the only SE Asian
sexy gal in mainstream, and not so mainstream, Western film for about twenty years and persons of
a certain age will remember her fondly. Why wouldnt you watch this film! There is a good sword
fight between Frank Converse, as Captain Lawrence Hawk using a sabre, and a samurai. Sword
fights work even if you dont understand German which I dont. As stated, there really is no such
thing a realistic sword fight in movies but this scene has zero CGI and wire acrobatics and is a
reasonable attempt to imagine how such a fight would play out while being entertaining. The katana
and the sabre are both swords that emphasize slashing but allow for thrusting as well. I have
handled both weapons and the weight is comparable. A katana is generally held with both hands and
a push/pull movement adds to the power of the cut. However, Miyamoto Musashi did use two
swords, one in each hand and was probably the greatest swords man in Japanese history. The
sabres guard means the sabre is strictly a one handed affair. A knife, iron gauntlet or even a cloak
with weights sewn into the bottom were sometimes used in the other hand. A person who had used a
sabre would not be totally lost using a katana and vice-versa. There is some discussion between
Laura Gemser and Frank Converse as to what being a samurai is all about.

There is even a pretty good verbal critique of kenjutsu compared to military sabre technique by
Frank Converse. Actually, Frank just tears into kenjutsu. I was a little surprised way back then since
this was just about the first time I had ever been exposed to the idea that maybe Asian martial arts
werent just totally superior to Western martial arts. Someone involved this movie had studied both
sword fighting techniques at least a bit and this is reflected in the movie.
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Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai

This offbeat story has a believable hero. Ghost Dog is black man in America that becomes a samurai
and the why and how actually make sense. The whole revenge as origin hero story was old when
done with Batman. The origin story in this movie goes in a different direction. The choice of the
hero is perhaps existential? The hero has grown up in a world of chaos and the samurai code forces
order on his internal chaos. There is a bit of this existential origin in the Dark Knight Returns by
Frank Miller. There is not so much a struggle between good and evil but between meaning and
meaningless existence.

The movie is funny and poignant at the same time. The fight scenes are believable and
interesting. The hero uses a nice mix of kenjutsu, wing chun and eskrima. This is a film that
operates at various levels and you can watch it more than once and pick up on all sorts of
metafictional layers. The conflict between ninj and giri permeates the story. Bushido is dealt with
explicitly. Mafia style gang loyalty is compared directly with bushido and the two are found to be
very similar. The absurdity of a samurai world view in modern America is also dealt with and the
answer is that perhaps in a chaotic America some code is needed and bushido is not the worst
choice. One of my favorite American made samurai films.

Hirokin: The Last Samurai


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A collection of sword fights in a Tatooine like landscape with just a thread of a plot to link the sword
fights together. The sword fights arent terrible but not all that great either. The lack of
comprehensible dialogue, plot structure and logical consistency means that this is possibly the worst
American made samurai film ever in a subgenre that has lots of awful films to compete with.

Kill Bill 1 & Kill Bill 2

I love these films! A giant homage to Japanese samurai films and every other cheesy subgenre
produced in Japan and Hollywood since the sixties. Does such a flurry of homage make the film
metafictional? Uma does talk to the third wall directly in Kill Bill 2 and describes the film as a
'roaring rampage of revenge. The sword scenes are bloody, fun and over the top! Uma Thurman is
a warrior in this film and you believe it! Uma Thurman has been betrayed by her clan and now has
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an obligation as a warrior to kill them and makes a list of who has to be killed. Uma Thurman
hesitates a bit when Copperhead is found to be a mother with a daughter but in the end Uma chooses
giri over compassion and kills Copperhead. The main villain is her ex-lover and mentor Bill. Bill
introduces him to a daughter they had but she never knew about. Maybe Uma will let bygones be
bygones and they will raise their daughter together. No way! Uma kills Bill but sends him off to die
on the beach after her fatal blow, the five point palm-exploding heart technique, with a sad forced
smile. Uma even straightens Bills suit before he staggers off to die. Uma cries afterwards as her
newly discovered daughter watches television but she has done her duty.

Red Sun

Cowboys play with samurais. Charles Bronson, Ursula Andress and ToshirMifune are all top actors
that combine to make a cocktail that doesnt quite work but is fun to drink anyway. Charles Bronson
slowly learns about bushido from Toshir Mifune and learns to respect Toshir Mifune and his
code. Not a lot of sword play but what is in the movie is competently done.

Samurai Cop
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The scene below shows a combination of bad dialogue and bad delivery rarely seen in even a straight
to video film. Incredibly, there was a sequel to this film (Samurai Cop 2)! The samurai cop is not a
samurai but a bad actor with a sword.

Samurai Girl

Samurai Girl is a made for TV mini-series. Jamie Chung is the very pretty heroine and a lot of fun to
watch. This show is basically a teen drama with a thin samurai veneer. There does seem to be a lot
of girl on girl violence! There is a seppuku scene but overall bushido elements are ignored.
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Samurai Jack

Samurai Jack is an immensely popular cartoon series. I would say the best cartoon that the Cartoon
Network ever made and I like their cartoons in general. This show is the winner of many awards.
Samurai Jack is probably the best American made samurai cartoon. Actually, the only American
made samurai cartoon but still fantastic.

Saturday Night Live Samurai

This was a series of skits in TV series Saturday Night Live. John Belushi did several skits in which a
samurai is forced to do various pedestrian jobs such as working in a hotel and a delicatessen. The
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Belushi version of the samurai does not speak English but uses made up Japanese with lots of
guttural sounds and screams that capture the speech patterns of chanbara films. I have copied
Belushis mannerisms and have been known to do a comic version of seppuku with a pencil or
whatever impromptu prop happens to be around. These skits are still hilarious now as they were
then.

Shgun

This is a TV miniseries about samurai. Shgun had a huge positive influence on how Americans
viewed samurai and Japanese culture in general. I watched every episode in B&W on my TV in
Howland House with my girlfriend as the episodes aired. I can safely say this is the made in America
samurai film that really made me curious about Asia. Yoko Shimada played Mariko and because of
her performance, having a Japanese girlfriend someday was put on my bucket list. Perhaps if I had
never seen this series then I would have never moved to Asia.

Silver Samurai
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The Silver Samurai was not a film but a character in The Wolverine: The Path of a Ronin. The
character is a giant robot unlike the human mutant version in the comic book. The fight between the
Silver Samurai robot and Wolverine is probably the best action scene in a film that has little going for
it but action scenes. Wolverine is arguably an American samurai, a ronin specifically, despite the fact
he doesnt use a sword.

Six-String Samurai

This film had excellent sword action. If there were any bushido elements in this film then I missed
them. This is more an homage to American popular music than to Japanese samurai movies.
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Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III

Ninjas are the natural enemies of the samurai. Why not have the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles go
back in time and play at being samurais? This is a silly but amusing film.

The Last Samurai

The Last Samurai is a very controversial film from a historical point of view. Liberties are taken with
historical events. The heroic samurai of the film may in fact have been petty warlords.
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Regardless of the historical debate associated with the film, the scenes in which poor Tom Cruise
learns to use the katana with a bokken give the audience a good feel as to how kenjutsu is not
kendo! The bokken is a wooden sword that can be used as a weapon in its own right. Kendo uses a
shinai. The shinai is a bamboo weapon which actually causes the user to learn bad sword fighting
habits due to its lightness compared to the steel of a sword. A shinai is for practice purposes only
and quite useless as a weapon. Practicing with a bokken is a dangerous affair and the shinai was a
safe substitute for the bokken when kendo was created for none samurai. Probably the best
American samurai film when it comes to lavishness, large scale battle scenes and high production
standards.

The Silent Stranger

In Red Sun cowboys meet samurai. In this film a spaghetti cowboy meets many samurai. The sword
action is amusing and tons of action. The hero is a cowboy. Cowboys dont have any duty versus
compassion dynamic as a rule or do they?

Conclusion

The word samurai is often inserted in the title of made in America samurai films for marketing
purposes with little regard to prior Japanese samurai conventions in the area of Japanese style
swordsmanship or some nod to bushido. The worst culprits are American Samurai, Black Samurai,
Hirokin: The Last Samurai, Samurai Cop and The Silent Stranger. Interestingly, the better films
overall are also the films that deal with Japanese samurai conventions and include: Bushido Blade,
Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, Kill Bill, Red Sun, Samurai Girl, Samurai Jack, Saturday
Night Live Samurai, and Shgun. I would single out Ghost Dog, Kill Bill, and Samurai Jack as the
best films in this category. Both Ghost Dog and Kill Bill have a metafictional dimension. In Ghost
Dog the metafictional dimension is partly directed towards samurai cinema in Japan.

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