Kyoto as a city is to Samurai and Jidaigeki (era drama) films what New York is to superhero and world-ending disaster films. The historical capital city of Japan has become the staple location for the socio-political intrigue and honorable battles between Samurai in classic Japanese cinema. To Samurai films, Kyoto has been used as the symbol of the Bushido, or the Samurai code of honor, as Samurai are historically retainers which are employed and enjoy a lifetime servitude to their Daimyo, or feudal lord. This may be portrayed positively or negatively as oftentimes rebellion to the establishment are a feature of some Samurai and Jidaigeki films. Kyoto may also be used as a setting to portray the looming rigid social hierarchy and expectations in the past—this is especially the case in romance films where the noble lady falls in love with their retainers to the disapproval of the larger society. Or as the center of the Geisha culture, a symbol of gender inequality.
And the choice of Kyoto is not purely just for flavor as both its geographical features and historical conception reveals another layer to the usage of the city by storytellers in stories and later on films. In ancient Japan, the death of the emperor led to the displacement of the capital Fujiwara-kyô itself. The next capital chosen was Heijô-kyô, now known as Nara, which survived the reign of nine emperors from 710 to 784. What caused yet another displacement of the capital was tensions that were brewing between the imperial powers in the palace with the great Buddhist temples nearby. After the next capital, Nagaoka-kyô was yet again abandoned after just ten years from 784 to 794 due to dangerous floodings in the area, the next capital was set to be Heian-kyô, now known as Kyoto, in 794.
Heian-kyô was of course selected as the new capital due to considerations of its geographical advantage, as it would be for any other capital cities. Heian-kyô was located in a vast basin-like plain that was surrounded by mountains from almost every side with the north, west, and eastern sides enveloping it, creating natural barriers to dissuade enemy attacks. The capital was also blessed with multiple rivers flowing inside it with Katsura in the west and Kamo to the east. This combination of natural barriers and plentiful natural resources in the surrounding area made it truly an ideal place to house the emperor and his nobles.
But the geographical make-up of Heian-kyô also made it an ideal location for the emperor to consolidate power. From the north to the south there is a 40 meters drop in elevation. With the imperial palace in the north, the emperor would be literally put in a geographical pedestal glancing downhill towards the rest of his capital city. Learning from the tensions and conflicts that have caused the displacement of the previous capital cities, Heian-kyô was chosen so that the emperor would be able to freely impose his hierarchical society with its rigid social standards. This was also aided by the fact that at the time, the emperor did not build any place where the population can gather and cause dissents. And many stories and subsequently films that have selected Kyoto as a setting did so because it was a true physical and geographical manifestation of the social issues ancient Japan and contemporary Japan have.
Rashōmon (1950) Dir. Akira Kurosawa
This incredible masterpiece by the revered Akira Kurosawa and featuring the legendary Toshiro Mifune chose Kyoto as the setting for its enigmatic, paradoxical tale of misleading eyewitness accounts and unhinged characters. Rashōmon itself is referring to the now-demolished Rashōmon gate, the grand southern gate to Kyoto built in the Heian period (794-1185). As Rashōmon gate was situated in the southern end of the imperial capital district, and considering the 40 meters elevation drop from north to south Kyoto, the gate serves as an allegory to the bottom rung of the hierarchical ladder. As the gate laid decaying by the 12th century, only criminals and miscreants hung out near the gate. In the film, the half-ruined gate is the symbol of the equally crumbling morals of the characters and the society at large at the time.
In the present day, the only trace of the gate is a plaque in the middle of a nondescript playground.
The Crucified Lovers (1954) Dir. Kenji Mizoguchi
The next film on the list is from the renowned director Kenji Mizoguchi as he is especially known to set his films in Kyoto to highlight social issues wherein rigid social standards can be detrimental to what he considers to be morally right but not institutionally accepted. The Crucified Lovers, or its Japanese title Chikamatsu Monogatari, is set in 17th century Kyoto and tells the story of a scroll maker’s apprentice on the run with the wife of his boss as he is accused to be having an affair with her. The film deals with issues regarding gender inequality at the time and also the harsh institutional punishments one can get for not falling in line with social standards. Mizoguchi critiques the social system that literally crucifies women for infidelity while casting a blind eye towards powerful men for doing the same thing or worse. In feudal Kyoto where married men can have lecherous nightly adventures just a few blocks away, their wives are mere properties deprived of agency.
The Life of Oharu (1952) Dir. Kenji Mizoguchi
This depressing, yet poignant piece of cinema by Kenji Mizoguchi again uses Kyoto as a device to highlight social issues and the hierarchical systems of the past. Like The Crucified Lovers, The Life of Oharu similarly deals with a forbidden love between a noble lady and a commoner-born retainer, albeit taking a darker turn highlighting the consequences of her actions and the society’s reactions to it. The Life of Oharu shows more prominent locations in Kyoto like the film still above which seems to show the area around Gion and Kiyomizu Dera. Forced into a life of prostitution by her debt-ridden father, Oharu navigates the dark alleys of Kyoto and their scummy men. As the imperial capital of the nobility, Mizoguchi cast Kyoto as a character to highlight nonsensical rules forbidding romance between nobles and commoners. He also shows that even being a woman of high pedigree in feudal Japan doesn’t mean your life is truly yours. Your very own womb may not even be yours as it is only a vassal to give birth to the heir of prestigious families.
Sisters of the Gion (1936) Dir. Kenji Mizoguchi
Sisters of the Gion is an earlier work of Kenji Mizoguchi and one of his earliest attempts to set his film in Kyoto. But unlike his later films that utilizes the time of feudal Japan, this film is set in contemporary Japan and specifically contemporary 1930s Kyoto. While being his earlier work, I consider Sisters of the Gion to be somewhat of a spiritual continuation of his other films that are set in Kyoto like The Crucified Lovers and The Life of Oharu. There is quite a depressing epiphany when you consider that the usage of feudal Japan makes the audience see those films through a historical lens and yet the same social issues plaguing those rustic tales still persists the contemporary modern Kyoto of the 1930s. Geisha and courtesan culture and industry are still very much a thing at this point in time. The film itself is a depressing tale of internalized misogyny and the hypocritical nature of ‘good’ men who partake in Kyoto’s courtesan culture. It’s also a critical look at the Japanese ‘Giri’ and their obligation-bound society that involves unbalanced reciprocal patronage to someone else while having adverse effects on the individual self.
As the title of the film suggests, the film is set in the Gion area of Kyoto, perhaps Kyoto’s most famous Geisha district. The district has lost many of its dark seedy areas due to the shift towards international tourism but if one were to look carefully you can still easily find that the sex industry is very much still alive in the area.
Samurai II: Duel at Ichijoji Temple (1955) Dir. Hiroshi Inagaki
This film is part of the ‘Samurai Trilogy’ by director Hiroshi Inagaki starring Toshiro Mifune as the lead character Musashi Miyamoto (1584-1645). While the first film in the trilogy briefly showed Kyoto, this second film in the trilogy is set almost entirely in Kyoto and its surrounding area. Particularly, the film’s parts in Kyoto heavily focus on the area surrounding Sanjō and the Kamo River. The film uses Sanjō Bridge as a point de rencontre where many of the film’s important plot points occur from the reunion between Musashi and Otsu to the first duel between Musashi and the goons from the Yoshioko school. Samurai II: Duel at Ichijoji Temple offers us a very interesting glance into Kyoto’s past, especially since the areas depicted are so vital and iconic to Kyoto’s tourism industry in the present day. And of course, it’s also fascinating how the dirt roads of the feudal past have been replaced by the modern asphalt of today in Kyoto. Samurai II depicts Kyoto in a more positive light by displaying the city as a manifestation of the Samurai’s Bushido ethics and a place of many honorable sword-fighting schools and swordfighters.
These films are all available on Criterion Channel