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There’s an interesting cross-fertilization between American Westerns and Japanese Samurai films. Among others, the great Akira Kurosawa credited the American Western genre as an influence in his own films. Perhaps not surprisingly, several Kurosawa films were re-made as successful Westerns – the Seven Samurai became the Magnificent Seven and Yojimbo became A Fistful of Dollars. What the two genres share is a focus on a hero who is a powerful moral agent in a chaotic world. However the differences between the genres are interesting – in Westerns, the hero is the moral world in a context of wild lawlessness, whereas in the Samurai film the hero relies on personal honor to revitalize a corrupt and anomic moral order. In this sense, Samurais resemble film noir detectives more than Western heroes (indeed, Yojimbo is said to be an uncredited mounting of Dashiel Hammet’s novels). Interestingly, the basis of heroism for all three genres may be that the protagonists are ‘altruistic punishers’ fulfilling a role necessary for group survival (Barclay, 2006; Fehr,& Gachter, 2000, 2002; Henrich et al., 2001; Shinada, Yamagishi, & Ohmura, 2004).

Although the American Western could be said to span at least three eras of frontierism (up to the early 1800’s, e.g. Daniel Boone, Last of the Mohicans, etc.), territorial expansion (up to the 1880’sand ‘90’s) and modernization (turn of the 19th century), the genre tends to focus predominately on the Wild West of the latter half of the 19th century. Although most Westerns are set in temporal proximity to the Civil War, most often during or shortly afterward, the social conflict of the Civil War is glossed by the superordinate, primary conflicts of the struggle against the chaos of the uncivilized natural world, which includes Native Americans, and the struggle with anarchy that brings all good people together, regardless of other differences.

Dr. Josiah Boone: Seems to me I knew your family, Henry. Didn’t I fix your arm once when you, oh, bumped off a horse?
Ringo Kid (a.k.a. Henry): Are you Doc Boone?
Dr. Josiah Boone: I certainly am. Ah, let’s see… I’d just been honorably discharged from the Union Army after the War of the Rebellion.
Hatfield: You mean the War for the Southern Confederacy, sir.
Dr. Josiah Boone: I mean nothing of the kind, sir!
Ringo Kid: That was my kid brother broke his arm. You did a good job, Doc, even if you was drunk.
Dr. Josiah Boone: Thank you, son. Professional compliments are always pleasing. What happened to that boy whose arm I fixed?
Ringo Kid: He was murdered.

Stagecoach (1939) dir. John Ford

Westerns embrace the philosophy of Manifest Destiny, particularly those made prior to the re-birth of the genre through so-called Italian ‘spaghetti Westerns’ of the 70’s. John L. O’Sullivan introduced the term Manifest Destiny in an 1839 article (for an excerpt see here) in which he asserted that ‘so far as regards the entire development of the natural rights of man, in moral, political, and national life, we may confidently assume that our country is destined to be the great nation of futurity.’ Manifest Destiny provided a supporting rationale for the sentiment that white Anglo-Saxon Americans were destined to settle and ‘civilize’ the land from the Atlantic to Pacific (and below Canada and above modern Mexico). This latter point creates a tension in that although the installation of a system of law and state governance might bring with it a kind of peace, it would also infringe on the liberties of the individual. In The Searchers (1953), director John Ford chafes against the ‘Law and Order Society’ of the town as a kind of Prohibition Era self-righteous priggishness while valorizing the contrastive ‘good’ of the passengers’ and army’s violent defense of Manifest Destiny against Native American resistance.

The Western hero is the agent and protector of Manifest Destiny. He is courageous, often acts on deontic impulse without much reflection, is willing to take the law into his own hands when other available mechanisms are not up to the task, and may have a morally ambiguous past. The kind of qualities and skills that a good man needs in order to do good in the West are not gained without some cost. As Sister Beauvier (Meryl Streep) says in the more contemporary Doubt (2008), ‘When you take a step to address wrongdoing, you are taking a step away from God, but in his service’.  The Western hero often exemplifies this idea that to do God’s work (i.e. be the defender and enforcer of Manifest Destiny) a person must act in ways that might otherwise be condemnable. Westerns sometimes have a difficult time dealing with the moral ambiguity of self interest in a relatively lawless domain, where power and violence are often proofs of rightness. Cattle barons may be both good men, creating dynasties through their own individual heroic efforts (e.g. McLintock!, 1963), or bad men with excess of power that deny the rights of individual settlers (e.g Shane, 1953). But the sketchy pasts of the hero build character and are redeemed by their efforts to protect and further Manifest Destiny.

John Wayne is probably the prototype for the pre-spaghetti Western hero, and Clint Eastwood for both the spaghetti and post-spaghetti hero. A contrast between the films of these two actors provides insight into the growing uneasiness with the moral blindness and social Darwinism of 19th century Manifest Destiny.

Stagecoach (1939) was one of Wayne’s early collaborations with the great Western director John Ford. Almost every cliché of the Western genre originated in this film – the drunken frontier doctor, the warm-hearted prostitute and, at the end, the cavalry riding in to save the day. One of the advertising taglines to Stagecoach is ‘Danger holds the reins as the devil cracks the whip!’ The danger to the passengers is an Apache attack and the devil is presumably their famous leader, Geronimo.

Wayne, in another John Ford classic, The Searchers (1956), plays Ethan Edwards, a veteran of the Confederate Army who returns home after a long absence and with a cache of gold coins of dubious origins. Like the Ringo Kid, Edwards’ past is understood to be problematic but is never explicitly discussed and no hard evidence of wrongdoing presented or pursued. In The Searchers, Ethan Edwards’ family farm is attacked by Commanche, who kill everyone and abduct his two nieces. Edwards returns from a decoy chase, throws open the door of the homestead bunker and walks into its blackness to discover the murdered and brutalized bodies of his brother’s family. Edwards and a group of other men track the Commanches to their camp but they escape, leaving behind the viciously murdered and presumably raped older girl. Obsessed with rescuing her, Edwards’ and his niece’s adopted brother, Martin (Jeffrey Hunter), begin an odyssey of searching for the younger girl, Debbie (Lana Wood) and the warrior chief, Scar (Henry Brandon, born Heinrich von Kleinbach in Berlin, Germany).

Ethan: She’s alive, she’s safe… for a while. They’ll keep her to raise her as one of their own till, until she’s of an age to…
Martin: Don’t you think there’s a chance we still might find her?
Ethan: Injun will chase a thing till he thinks he’s chased it enough. Then he quits. Same way when he runs. Seems like he never learns there’s such a thing as a critter that’ll just keep comin’ on. So we’ll find ’em in the end, I promise you. We’ll find ’em. Just as sure as the turnin’ of the earth.

When they finally catch up to the teen-aged Debbie a complicated series of events play out. At first she tells Edwards and Martin that she has become a Commanche, is one of Scar’s wives, and that they should leave without her. Edwards would rather she were dead then ‘gone-native’ and tries to shoot her but Martin protects her.

There is a clear and powerful element of racism in the film, but in Ford’s hands Edwards’ racism is an understandable response to the Commanches’ violence and a justification of his own barbaric vengeance. Ironically, Scar is similarly motivated by the whites’ killing of his own sons. A supporting character, Laurie Jorgensen, whose brother was the fiancé of Ethan’s older niece and himself killed while avenging her rape and death, shares Ethan’s sentiments. Laurie expresses herself forcefully to Martin, her fiancé, as he prepares to return to the search for Debbie.

Laurie Jorgensen: You’re not goin’, not this time.
Martin: Are you crazy?
Laurie Jorgensen: It’s too late. She’s a woman grown now.
Martin: But I gotta go, Laurie, I gotta fetch her home.
Laurie Jorgensen: Fetch what home? The leavings a Comanche buck sold time and again to the highest bidder, with savage brats of her own?
Martin: Laurie, shut your mouth.
Laurie Jorgensen: Do you know what Ethan will do if he has a chance? He’ll put a bullet in her brain.
[pause]
Laurie Jorgensen: I tell you, Martha [Debbie’s mother] would want him to.

Edwards and Martin retreat back home but, later, they catch up with Scar again. Martin sneaks into the camp and escapes with the now willing Debbie. Martin kills Scar and Edwards scalps him. Edwards chases after Debbie, catches her and, instead of killing her, brings her home. The last scene of the film has Edwards carry Debbie to the porch of the Jorgensens, who bring her inside their home. Martin and his fiancé Laurie Jorgensen follow her parents inside. All the characters but Edwards disappear into the blackness of the home’s interior. Edwards walks away alone into the open landscape as the door to the family home closes behind him.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=woahas_W35A

This scene is a bookend with the earlier discovery of the murdered family, signifying that Edwards has righted the violent challenge to Manifest Destiny and returned the family to its ideal state. However, the hero is separated from the peaceful and civilized family, and this schism brings into question the pursuit of Manifest Destiny and the principles that underscore the culture of the West. The agent of justice has somehow become detached from society and its institutions. The ending suggests an optimistic and heartwarming vision that we can not yet see, but that has been foreshadowed by comments the Jorgensenss made about their own son, killed by Apaches during the original pursuit of Scar.

Lars Jorgensen: It’s this country killed my boy. Yes by golly I tell you, Ethan…
Mrs. Jorgensen: No Lars. It just so happens we be Texicans. Texican is nothing but a human man way out on a limb. This year and next, and maybe for a hundred more. But I don’t think it’ll be forever. Some day this country’s gonna be a fine, good place to be. Maybe it needs our bones in the ground before that time can come.

This transition is explicitly addressed in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), starring John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart, again directed by John Ford. Stewart plays Ransom Stoddard, a US senator whose original political success depended on his fame for killing Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin), a notorious outlaw. Much of the film focuses on the conflict between Stoddard, who as a young lawyer wanted to bring order and government to the territory, and Doniphon (John Wayne), who represents the old strongman leadership style of the West. After Liberty Valance racks up a series of crimes and abuses, Stoddard finally calls him out to a gun duel, to mete out justice Western style. Doniphon, unseen, fires the shot that kills Valance. Doniphon remains silent as Stoddard rides the legitimacy that the gunfight has given him into elected office and marriage (naturally there is a love triangle). Other films also deal with this uneasy transition to civilized legal jurisprudence. For instance, Paul Newman, in The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1972) plays an outlaw who establishes order by setting himself up as a judge with the use of an old law text and, of course, his pistols.

Although Clint Eastwood’s films owe much to the reinvention of the Western genre by way of Samurai films and spaghetti Westerns, the hero he plays still represents the inevitability of justice in a chaotic, lawless and anarchic West. In High Plains Drifter, Eastwood plays an unnamed Stranger who lets himself be talked into protecting a town against three vengeance-seeking outlaws. However, the Stranger causes the destruction of the three outlaws and the town in gunfire and flames and, at the end of the film, it is suggested that the Stranger may be the ghost of a sheriff that the town betrayed, leaving him to his death by the three outlaws. This makes High Plains Drifter a kind of sequel to High Noon (1952), in which Sheriff Kane (Gary Cooper) is abandoned by the townspeople when three outlaws he had sent to jail return to kill him. Kane stays to face the outlaws, despite the pleas of friends and his new bride. He epitomizes simple, honest honor in his powerful rationale for standing his ground: ‘I’ve got to, that’s the whole thing.’ The surrounding elements of the Western genre bring out a crisis of confidence in Manifest Destiny and the deservingness of those who might benefit from it, but the hero nevertheless remains deontically steadfast. Although High Plains Drifter is more of a retribution or revenge film, the character of the Stranger is developed in Pale Rider, in which Eastwood plays a ‘Preacher’ who also handily (and without a self-interested stake) resets the scales of justice with his guns. The redemption seeking Will Munny in Unforgiven, a ‘known thief and murderer, a man of notoriously vicious and intemperate disposition’, is probably the most conflicted Western hero, although mostly because he is reluctant to take on the responsibility of the honorable hero. At the more recent end of the Western genre, we find ourselves at the beginning, at the moment before the Ringo Kid or Ethan Edwards decides to seek justice.

Although Clint Eastwood’s films owe much to the reinvention of the Western genre by way of Samurai films and spaghetti Westerns, the hero he plays still represents the inevitability of justice in a chaotic, lawless and anarchic West. In High Plains Drifter, Eastwood plays an unnamed Stranger who lets himself be talked into protecting a town against three vengeance-seeking outlaws. However, the Stranger causes the destruction of the three outlaws and the town in gunfire and flames and, at the end of the film, it is suggested that the Stranger may be the ghost of a sheriff that the town betrayed, leaving him to his death by the three outlaws. This makes High Plains Drifter a kind of sequel to High Noon (1952), in which Sheriff Kane (Gary Cooper) is abandoned by the townspeople when three outlaws he had sent to jail return to kill him. Kane stays to face the outlaws, despite the pleas of friends and his new bride. He epitomizes simple, honest honor in his powerful rationale for standing his ground: ‘I’ve got to, that’s the whole thing.’ The surrounding elements of the Western genre bring out a crisis of confidence in Manifest Destiny and the deservingness of those who might benefit from it, but the hero nevertheless remains deontically steadfast. Although High Plains Drifter is more of a retribution or revenge film, the character of the Stranger is developed in Pale Rider, in which Eastwood plays a ‘Preacher’ who also handily (and without a self-interested stake) resets the scales of justice with his guns. The redemption seeking Will Munny in Unforgiven, a ‘known thief and murderer, a man of notoriously vicious and intemperate disposition’, is probably the most conflicted Western hero, although mostly because he is reluctant to take on the responsibility of the honorable hero. At the more recent end of the Western genre, we find ourselves at the beginning, at the moment before the Ringo Kid or Ethan Edwards decides to seek justice.

Will Munny: I ain’t like that no more. I ain’t the same, Ned. Claudia, she straightened me up, cleared me of drinkin’ whiskey and all. Just ’cause we’re goin’ on this killing, that don’t mean I’m gonna go back to bein’ the way I was. I just need the money, get a new start for them youngsters.

After years of a new life as a farmer with his wife and young children, Munny finds himself in need and so has sought out his old friend Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman) to answer a call to kill a couple of men for money.

Ned Logan: Hell, Will. We ain’t bad men no more. Shit, we’re farmers.
Will Munny: Should be easy killing them, supposing they don’t go on down to Texas first.
Ned Logan: How long has it been since you fired a gun at a man, Will? Nine, ten years?
Will Munny: Eleven.
Ned Logan: Easy, huh? Hell, I don’t know that it was all that easy even back then. And we was young and full of beans. I mean, if you was mad at ’em, Will, I mean. If they’d done you some wrong, I could see shooting ’em.
Will Munny: We done stuff for money before, Ned.
Ned Logan: Yeah, we thought we did. All right, so what did these fellas do? Cheat at cards? Steal some strays? Spit on a rich fella? What?
Will Munny: No, they cut up a woman.
Ned Logan: What?
Will Munny: Yeah, they cut up her face, cut her eyes out, cut her fingers off, cut her tits, everything but her cunny, I suppose.
Ned Logan: I’ll be dogg – Golly, I guess they got it comin’. ‘Course, you know, Will, if Claudia was alive you wouldn’t be doin’ this.

For the morally ambivalent Western hero, the final shootout is an ugly, nasty affair without much valor or honor. Nevertheless, it is effective. After the killing ends, Munny struggles to mount his horse and ride off down the dark street. He shouts out in the dark night, tears running down his face in the rain.

Will Munny: You boys better bury old Ned right… and you better not carve up nor otherwise harm no whores… or I will come back an’ kill more sonsabitches, hear?

Munny’s crisis of conscience is a symptom also of the changing times and the transition to a settled, civilized world that has no need of its outlaw heroes. It is never really a question that the men needed to be punished, but rather the question is whether it is right for an individual, specifically Munny and his friend, to do the killing. A primary condition of state society is that its citizens surrender to the state the right to enact justice on their own. Munny’s struggle is one of self regulation – should he be the deontic, retributive punisher (Khaneman, Knetsch & Thaler, 1986) or, since punishment entails injuring another and may require some of the same actions and outcomes as the original crime, should he resist the urge to act (Rupp & Bell, 2010). The Samurai hero is typically more personally conflicted than the traditional Western hero, with the exception of Will Munny, although their struggle is to choose between acting according to honor or duty.

Saumrai as a social institution persisted for centuries, and the films tend to be situated in one of three eras of Japanese history. First there is the civil war period of the Sengoku era (1478-1603), then the relatively peaceful but (in the films at least) dictatorial and oppressive Tokugawa era (1603-1868) during which Samurai were no longer revered or particularly useful, and finally the modern Meiji era (1868-1912) of modernization and westernization. Notably, in the first era society itself is in turmoil whereas in the other two eras the social institution of the Samurai is challenged and along with it their role and identity. In contrast to the Western, the recurring theme in Samurai films is more one of a heroic response to anomie and alienation. The primary and recurring tension is between personal honor characterized by an innate, deontic sense of right and wrong (ninjo) that conflicts with the powerful social norms of duty and obligation to the social order or code. For instance, in Hideo Gosha’s Three Outlaw Samurai, the principle hero, Shiba, is a ronin – an unemployed samurai of the Tokugawa period – who comes to the aid of a group of exploited farmers. At the beginning of the film, Shiba discovers three farmers in a run-down farmhouse where they hold captive Aya, the local magistrate’s daughter, tied up with rope and bound to a pole. Shiba’s first question to the peasants is telling – he asks if they have raped her. Their response reveals their own honorable intentions. They have not harmed her but have kidnapped her in the hope of winning a reduction of the severely exploitative taxes from the magistrate, Matsushita. Shiba takes up their cause and his honorable behavior and the justness of their complaint converts Sakura, another samurai, who defects from the magistrate. The third ‘outlaw’ samurai is Kikyo, a talented and ruthless warrior who, despite being in the magistrate’s employ, considers a fight against peasants to be beneath him and so stands mostly on the sidelines. The three samurai are outlaws because they are disloyal to the existing social order when they should be unquestioningly obedient. Needless to say, the magistrate proves himself to be wretchedly dishonorable.

Shiba: Punish me and let the peasants go.
Matsushita: Very well. I promise not to punish the peasants.
Shiba: Magistrate, you’re a samurai. I, too, am a samurai. This is a promise between samurai.
Matsushita: I understand.
Sakura: Everyone here is a witness. Be sure to send him back safely.
Matsushita: I promise that, too.
Shiba: We’ve made a pledge as samurai.
[Shiba frees Aya, who faces him, incredulous]
Aya: Why should you be willing to do such a thing?
Shiba: The peasants risked their lives. A samurai can do no less.

Of course, despite this promise, Matsushita proceeds to imprison Shiba, torture him, and kill the farmers. However, the magistrate’s behavior creates a crisis of conscience in his daughter and sets in motion the events that will free Shiba and bring about his own downfall.

The Samurai film often features a lone, alienated hero whose actions are honorable attempts to protect vulnerable persons from the exploitation of those more powerful, or are more generally a resistant and corrective strike against an amoral and corrupt world. Very often the samurai has nothing to gain and everything to lose, so much so that the powerful antagonists find the samurai’s behavior incomprehensible. However, there is an inevitability to the victory of honor over dishonor, even under conditions of the most extreme cynicism. In Three Outlaw Samurais, even the magistrate’s daughter cannot resist the draw of honorable action when she contrasts Shiba’s self sacrifice to the duplicitous and immoral behavior of her father. However, she must do so by a profound violation of one of society’s most revered institutions, the family.

This theme of honor demonstrated through self sacrifice is taken to its extreme expression in Harakiri, directed by Masaki Kobayashi. The film is set at the critical transition from the earlier civil war period to the Tokugawa era. An interesting facet of this film is the absence or distance of the actual leaders. The Lord of the clan is referred to but is not present in the film. The hero of the film, Hanshiro Tsugomo, describes the plight of Samurais in a time of peace.

Hanshiro Tsugumo: When my master’s house fell we immediately left the domain and moved to Edo. The streets of Edo were crowded with ronin – flotsam from the Battle of Sekigahara. In former times, other clans would have gladly taken in any ronin who’d earned a name for himself. But in an era no longer in need of warriors or horses, so peaceful that no wind even rustled the leaves on the trees, it was a constant struggle simply to find a meal. Indeed, it shames me to recall our miserable lives of these last eight or nine years.

For a samurai, the fall into poverty was accompanied by a constant struggle to maintain honor. One of the most dishonorable acts a samurai could undertake is the sale of his sword. Before this point, the honorable course would be to commit seppuku, or hara-kiri – ritual suicide by self-disembowelment. Indeed, in the film Harakiri there has been a rash of ronin asking to be granted the final honor of permission to commit seppuku within the confines of a lord’s manor. Often this is a ruse by less-than-honorable samurai who will take alms in exchange for moving on. In Harakiri, Tsugomo appears at the hours of Lord Lyi asking permission to commit seppuku in their courtyard. In a series of flashbacks, it is revealed that Tsugomo is not the first to ask permission. Some time before, Lord Lyi’s household received a young samurai who had asked for permission to commit seppuku in their courtyard. The Lord’s staff and retained samurai are convinced the young man is just another ronin-turned-beggar and decide to call the young man’s bluff, forcing him to carry through with seppuku in order to send a message to other ronin. The young man begs for a day’s reprieve but they refuse, challenging his honor. They discover his sword has been replaced with a bamboo blade, but press him on, insisting he use his bamboo sword. The young man commits a harrowing and painful self-disembowelment. Tsugomo is told this story to challenge his reserve and demonstrate that the Lord’s house intends to uphold the ideals of honor and force him to commit seppuku as well. The film becomes a critique of honor as it is revealed that the desperate young man was trying to save his sick and dying wife and infant child, and that they are really Tsugomo’s son-in-law, daughter and grandson. Tsugomo, a war-seasoned samurai, challenges the ethos of the house and, finally, destroys them all in a rampage of bloody revenge. As it is his right to demand a second to assist in his seppuku ceremony, he names in sequence each of the ranking samurais in the house’s employ. They are each unavailable and unable to attend. Tsugomo has actually visited each of them already, beaten each in a duel and cut off their topknots (hair drawn into a knot at the top of one’s head) – an ultimate humiliation and dishonor for samurai. Tsugomo battles the entire entourage in the house, killing many until he himself is finally killed by gun, rather than sword. Afterward, the house cleans up and, to protect its honor, creates a fiction for public dispensation that the slain men and the house’s own samurai (who will be ordered to commit seppuku) had actually died of sickness. This is an extraordinarily cynical ending, even for a Samurai film. Tsugomo does not survive and his heroic attempt to correct the anomic moral order appears to be a thoroughly wasted effort. However, Tsugomo has forced Lord Lyi’s house to reflect on its own honor and to violate fundamental principles in a desperate attempt to shore up its façade. The hero has succeeded in bringing their hypocrisy to light, and although the house persists it is so deeply and consciously corrupted that it will be a profound challenge to endure much longer. Ironically, if the house did not hold its honor to be so central to its ethos, it might have a better chance of survival.

The themes and characters of Samurai films will resonate with viewers of Westerns, particularly those Westerns of the latter half of the 20th century. However there are clear differences between the genres. The Samurai hero struggles to maintain personal honor in a failed, corrupt and often dictatorial society, where he may be considered foolish, unreasonable and even mad. In Samurai films a personal victory that may come at enormous and violent cost has little possibility of changing the world. Individuals, events or local conditions may be affected, but the overwhelming hopelessness of an anomic system persists. In the Western, the honor of the hero’s past may be questionable, but when called upon by society he rouses courageously, without second thought, and is undeniably right in his actions. In Westerns, the hero vanquishes the chaos of nature and the evil men who exploit the anarchic conditions of the West. In Westerns, there is a horizon to the frontier and the chaos and the hero contributes to the establishment of a just order. Beyond their similarities and differences, both Samurai and honorable cowboys or gunslingers exist in and because of their unique worlds. Despite all the pain and hardship, there are also glorious opportunities for true and pure honor that, one day, when the west is won and the samurai age is finally buried, may never be found again. They provide hope for humanity through selfless, courageous, deontic action. At the core of their heroic nature is the trait of ‘altruistic punisher’ without which society and culture might not thrive.

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