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Cowboys, Samurai, Rebels

This course deals with a cross-cultural comparison between two filmic and national icons: the cowboy and the samurai. We will study seminal films carefully to learn what these films and the portrayals of cowboys and samurai within their respective societies can teach us about definitions of heroism, authority, individualism, and rebellion. The primary “texts” will be a selection of films, largely from the post-WWII era, many of which were directed by John Ford or Akira Kurosawa. Readings will include political and historical works on individualism, authority, and heroism, as well as historical codes of behavior.

We will study the films in pairings of Japanese samurai films with complementary American Westerns, such as Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai with Sturges’ remake, The Magnificent Seven; and Masaki Kobayashi’s Harakiri’s tale of injustice and revenge with Ford’s My Darling Clementine, also on injustice and revenge.

One of the principle goals of the course is to enable students to analyze the philosophical content of film masterpieces and develop the terminology to study film, talk about film, and write about film. Towards these ends, we will focus on two directors who specialized in the western and the samurai jidaigeki (period film)—namely, John Ford and Akira Kurosawa. We will consider what attracts these directors to particular moments in history, and how their choice of historical context helps shape the overall philosophical meaning of their works.

The thematic pairings will evoke central questions relevant to cowboy and samurai culture alike, such as: Under what conditions can individual political ambition coexist with strong central authority? Do the filmic cowboys and samurai react differently to authority? What is the difference between authority and power? What kids of leaders inspire loyalty? What are the limits of honor and duty? Can civil society exist without a violent founding? What happens to war heroes in times of peace? How do Kurosawa and Ford envision the human condition outside of civil society? What does that suggest about the need for law and government? Do cowboys and samurai make good citizens? In what kind of society do they belong? What is the difference between a cowboy and an outlaw? What is the difference between a rônin (samurai without a lord) and a bandit? Are freedom and civilization inherently incompatible, or is civilization necessary to protect our freedoms? Are there particular freedoms that are necessarily lost in the civilizing process? What is the role of memory in perpetuating violence? Are there natural limits to forgiveness? When is revenge a substitute for trial by law? These are some of the questions that our readings and films will invite us to consider.


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