‘Cruel Tale of Bushido’, 1963 Golden Bear winner and part of Berlinale Classics, debunks the samurai mythos

Posted on February 27, 2020


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The 70th anniversary of the Berlin Film Festival coincides with the 70th anniversary of the Tokyo Film Distribution Company, now known as Toei. It is one of Japan’s Big Four film studios, the others being Shochiku, Kadokawa and Toho. (The latter is better known as the home of Godzilla.) One of Toei’s most famous films is part of the Berlinale Classics section: Tadashi Imai’s Cruel Tale of Bushido, which won the Golden Bear in 1963. (In case you want to look for it, the film goes by quite a few names in English, including Bushido, Samurai Saga and Bushido: The Cruel Code of the Samurai and Cruel Tales of Bushido.)

Most of us know of the samurai — or at least, were introduced to this mythical way of life — through Akira Kurosawa’s cinema. The very term “bushido” (“the way of warriors”) sounds so mythic. The Encyclopaedia Britannica defines it as a comprehensive system that stressed obligation or duty. Its one unchanging ideal was martial spirit, including athletic and military skills as well as fearlessness toward the enemy in battle. Frugal living, kindness, honesty, and personal honour were also highly regarded, as was filial piety. However, the supreme obligation of the samurai was to his lord, even if this might cause suffering to his family.

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