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Encyclopedia > Chambara

Jidaigeki (時代劇) is a genre of television in Japan. The name translates as period drama, and the period is, in most cases, the Edo period of Japanese history. Set during the time span from 1600 to 1868 A.D., jidaigeki show the lives of the samurai, farmers, craftsmen and merchants of medieval Japan. Jidaigeki films are sometimes referred to as chambara movies, which derives from onomatopoeia for the slow, drum_heavy, march_like scores typical of the genre.


Kinds of Jidaigeki

Actor Kotaro Satomi as Mito Komon

Many jidaigeki take place in Edo, the military capital. Others show the adventures of people wandering from place to place. The long-running television series Zenigata Heiji and Abarembo Shogun typify the Edo jidaigeki. Mito Komon, the fictitious story of the travels of the historical daimyo Tokugawa Mitsukuni, and the Zatoichi movies and television series, exemplify the travelling style.

Another way to categorize jidaigeki is according to the social status of the principal characters. The title character of Abarembo Shogun is Tokugawa Yoshimune, the eighth Tokugawa shogun. The head of the samurai class, Yoshimune assumes the disguise of a low-ranking hatamoto, a samurai in the service of the shogun. Similarly, Mito Komon is the retired vice-shogun, accompanied by two samurai retainers while masquerading as a merchant. In contrast, the title character of Zenigata Heiji is a commoner, working for the police, while Ichi, a masseur, is an outcast.

Whether the lead role is samurai or commoner, jidaigeki usually reach a climax in an immense sword fight just before the end. This earns them the nickname chambara. The title character of a series always wins, whether using a sword or a jitte (the device police used to trap, and sometimes to bend or break, an opponent's sword).

Roles in Jidaigeki

Jidaigeki are a parade of people with occupations unfamiliar to modern Japanese, and especially to foreigners. Here are a few.


The warrior class included samurai, hereditary members in the military service of a daimyo or the shogun (themselves samurai). Rōnin, samurai without masters, were also warriors, and like samurai, wore two swords; they were, however, without inherited employment or status. Bugeisha were men who aimed to perfect their martial arts, often by travelling throughout the country. Ninja were the secret service, specializing in stealth, the use of disguises, explosives, and concealed weapons.


Craftsmen in jidaigeki included metalworkers (often abducted to mint counterfeit coins), bucket-makers, carpenters and plasterers, and makers of woodblock prints for art or newspapers.


In addition to the owners of businesses large and small, the jidaigeki often portray the employees. The bantō was a high-ranking employee of a merchant, the tedai, a lower helper. Many merchants employed children, or kozō.


In the highest ranks of the shogunate were the rojū. Below them were the wakadoshiyori, then the various bugyō or administrators, including the jisha bugyō (who administered temples and shrines), the kanjō bugyō (in charge of finances) and the two Edo machi bugyō. These last alternated by month in the role of chief administrator of the city. Their role was mayor, chief of police, and judge, and jury in criminal and civil matters.

Ban'ya, Toei Uzumasa Studios

The machi bugyō oversaw the police and fire departments. The police, or machikata, included the high-ranking yoriki and the dōshin below them; both were samurai. In jidaigeki, they often have full-time patrolmen, okappiki and shitappiki, who were commoners. (Historically, these people were irregulars, called to service only when necessary.) Zenigata Heiji is an okappiki. The police lived in barracks at Hatchōbori in Edo. They manned ban'ya, the watch-houses, throughout the city that had a million residents. The jitte was the symbol of the police, from yoriki to shitappiki.

A separate police force handled matters involving samurai. The ōmetsuke were high_ranking officials in the shogunate, and controlled a group of metsuke and kachi_metsuke who could detain samurai. The feudal nature of Japan made these matters delicate, and jurisdictional disputes are common in jidaigeki.

Edo had three fire departments. The daimyo_bikeshi were in the service of designated daimyo; the jōbikeshi reported to the shogunate; while the machi_bikeshi, beginning under Yoshimune, were commoners under the administration of the machibugyō. Thus, even the fire companies have turf wars in the jidaigeki.

Licensed quarter on a set at Toei Uzumasa Studios, Kyoto

Each daimyo maintained a residence in Edo, where he lived during sankin kotai. His wife and children remained there even while he was away from Edo, and the ladies-in-waiting often feature prominently in jidaigeki. A high-ranking samurai, the Edo-garō, oversaw the affairs in the daimyo's absence. In addition to a staff of samurai, the household included ashigaru (lightly armed warrior-servants) and chūgen and yakko (servants often portrayed as flamboyant and crooked). Many daimyo employed doctors, goten'i; their counterpart in the shogun's household was the okuishi. Count on them to provide the poisons that kill and the potions that heal.

The cast of a wandering jidaigeki encountered a similar setting in each han. There, the karō were the kuni_garō and the jōdai_garō. Tensions between them have provided plots for many stories.

What would a jidaigeki be without characters to give the flavor of the times? Jugglers, pedlars, fortune_tellers, candy_sellers, rag_pickers, blind moneylenders, itinerant singer/shamisen_players, effete courtiers from the imperial capital at Kyoto, the Dutch kapitan from Nagasaki, streetwalkers and prostitutes from the licensed and unlicensed quarters, the million-dollar kabuki actor, flute-playing mendicant Buddhist priests wearing deep wicker hats, and of course geisha, provide a never-ending pageant of old Japan.

Clichés in Jidaigeki

Authors of jidaigeki grasp every opportunity to work clichés into the dialog. Here are a few:

  • Tonde hi ni iru natsu no mushi: Like bugs that fly into the fire in the summer [, they will come to their destruction]
  • Shishi shinchū no mushi: A wolf in sheep's clothing (literally, a parasite in the lion's body)
  • Kaji to kenka Edo no hana: Fires and brawls, the flowers of Edo
  • Ōedo happyaku yachō: "The eight hundred neighborhoods of Edo"
  • Tabi wa michizure: "Travel is who you take with you"

In addition, the authors of series invent their own clichés in the kimarizerifu that the protagonist says at the same point in nearly every episode. In Mito Komon, a sidekick holds up an accessory bearing the shogunal crest and shouts, Hikae! Kono mondokoro ga me ni hairan ka?: "Down! Can you not see this emblem?" Likewise, Tōyama no Kin-san bares his tattooed shoulder and snarls, Kono sakura fubuki o miwasureta to iwasane zo!: "I won't let you say you forgot this cherry-blossom blizzard!" After sentencing the criminals, he proclaims, Kore ni te ikken rakuchaku: "Case closed."

The kimarizerifu betrays the close connection between the jidaigeki and the comic-book superhero.

Famous Jidaigeki


  • Kurama Tengu series
  • Tange Sazen series
  • The Seven Samurai
  • Yojimbo
  • Tsubaki Sanjuro
  • Zatoichi film series
  • Miyamoto Musashi series
  • Yagyu Ichizoku no Imbo

Television series

Kita Machi Bugyō-sho, Toei Uzumasa Studios
  • Abarembo Shogun
  • Ude ni Oboe ga Aru
  • Edo o Kiru
  • Ōedo Sōsamō
  • Ōoka Echizen
  • Onihei Hanka-chō
  • Kage Dōshin
  • Kage no Gundan
  • Kenkaku Shōbai
  • Zatoichi (television series)
  • Sambiki ga Kiru!
  • Jitte-nin
  • Shogun Iemitsu Shinobi Tabi
  • Shinsen gumi Keppūroku
  • Zenigata Heiji
  • Taiga drama (NHK annual series)
  • Chōshichirō Edo Nikki
Sento, Toei Uzumasa Studios
  • Tenamon'ya Sando-gasa
  • Tenga Gomen
  • Tenga Dōdō
  • Tōyama no Kin-san
  • Hissatsu series
  • Mito Komon
  • Moeyo Ken
  • Momotarō-zamurai

Famous Directors

Names are in Western order, with the surname after the given name.

Famous Actors and Actresses

Names are in Western order, with the surname after the given name.

  • Yoshimi Ashikawa
  • Kanjūrō Arashi
  • Shin'ichi Chiba (Sonny Chiba)
  • Makoto Fujita
  • Kimiko Ikegami
  • Kōji Ishizaka
  • Chiezo Kataoka
  • Shintarō Katsu
  • Morio Kazama
  • Kin'ya Kitaōji
  • Hitomi Kuroki
  • Ken Matsudaira
  • Hiroki Matsukata
  • Keiko Matsuzaka
  • Toshirō Mifune
  • Kunihiko Mitamura
  • Hiroaki Murakami
  • Akira Nagoya
  • Kichiemon Nakamura
  • Umenosuke Nakamura
  • Kō Nishimura
  • Hashizō Ōkawa
  • Teruhiko Saigō
  • Asao Sano
  • Kōtarō Satomi
  • Ryōtarō Sugi
  • Hideki Takahashi
  • Reiko Takashima
  • Masakazu Tamura
  • Ryō Tamura
  • Takahiro Tamura
  • Sanae Tsuchida
  • Eijirō Tōno
  • Ken Watanabe
  • Kinnosuke Yorozuya
  • Kaoru Yumi

External Links

A Man, a Blade, an Empty Road: Postwar Samurai Film to 1970 (http://www.greencine.com/article?action=view&articleID=70&pageID=138) by Allen White on Greencine, this article discusses specific chambara films, their distinction from regular jidai-geki, and the evolution of the genre.

  Results from FactBites:
Midnight Eye review: Zatoichi (2003, Takeshi KITANO) (1216 words)
Today, as a genre, chambara is as deeply unfashionable as the Western movie is now in America.
It was at her insistence that Kitano agreed to take on the project as a homage to the original Zatoichi actor, a former personal friend of hers.
Rather than the elaborately orchestrated poetic sequences of the archetypal chambara piece (excepting a memorable scene of carnage played out on a beach in the pouring rain), the violence is generally sporadic, clean and sharp, with the blood-letting rendered as computer-generated spurts.
Chambara (1074 words)
Chambara is the name given to Japanese action films dealing with the Feudal era of Japan.
Chambara films have been popular since the beginning of the film industry in Japan.
Another great Chambara series is "Sleepy Eyes of Death," the adventures of Nemuri Kyoshiro, son of the Black Mass.
  More results at FactBites »



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