Japanese samurai FIlms of the '50s and '60s have two distinct categories that rarely intermix: chambara and jidai-geki. Chambara are equal in value to B-Westerns. They have no depth, no beauty, no sense of cinema, and are entirely determined by the spectacle of violence, of swords clashing, slashing chests, piercing guts, chopping off heads, slicing faces (either across the forehead or between the eyes), severing arms. Again and again the screen is filled with that doomed expression (eyes looking into black space, mouth open and emitting a horrible moan) of the fatally wounded samurai. He is stabbed, he takes a few trembling steps, he drops his sword, he collapses into a miserable heap.

Jidai-geki, or period films, are the opposite of chambara and often aspire to the condition of art. In these films, we frequently see the soul of the nation searching for deep answers, examining the way things were back then in the hope of understanding why things are this or that way today. Samurai period films are not entirely pure; they have the usual sword slashing and elaborate fight scenes, but battles and blood do not consume the whole picture. What you will see during the Northwest Film Forum's Summer of Samurai series are films that fall under the jidai-geki category. Even the three Zatoichi films (particularly New Tale of Zatoichi, screening Mon June 19 at 7 and 9 pm), which are part of a very long, commercially successful series, have beautiful moments (a walk through a bamboo groove that's alive with the music of wind and brushing leaves) and a hero whose motives are so complex he confuses his friends, his enemies, and his audience. In chambara, the hero is never the source or victim of confusion.

Summer of Samurai is dominated by three famous Japanese directors: Masaki Kobayashi, Kihachi Okamoto, and, of course, Akira Kurosawa (Seven Samurai, Wed–Thurs July 5–6 at 7 pm; Throne of Blood, Tues June 20 and Thurs June 22 at 9 pm, Wed June 21 at 7 pm). Because the importance of both of Kurosawa's films to world cinema is as much a fact as the brightness of a full moon on a clear night, I will not mention them or their director again. Let's instead focus on films by Kobayashi and Okamoto.

Serious period films have two types of samurai: one who has a master, and so holds the third highest place in his society (the first is held by the royal family, then shoguns or clan lords); the other type, the ronin, has no master, and faces hardships that hit his stomach as much as his pride. Because samurai are all about honor, codes of conduct, and the maintenance of the whole at the cost of the individual, a fallen samurai exposes, by the very fact of his desperation (in Harakiri, he must pawn his real swords and walk around with the shame of fake weapons made from bamboo), the true emptiness of "the way of the samurai." It is for this reason ronin are often central to films that criticize not only the feudal system but the aspects of that system which survived its official death in 1871, when the Meiji government abolished clans and the samurai class.

In both Harakiri (Fri–Sun June 30–July 2 at 7 and 9:30 pm) and Samurai Rebellion (Fri June 16 at 7 and 9:30 pm, Sat–Sun June 17–18 at 4:30, 7, and 9:30 pm), the aesthetically rigid cinema of Kobayashi denounces the rigid aspects of his society through samurai who are out of work or have nothing to do because they are living in a time of peace. In The Sword of Doom (Tues–Thurs June 27–29 at 6:30 pm) and Kill! (Fri–Sun June 23–25 at 7 and 9:30 pm), Okamoto uses the fallen samurai to paint an incredibly dark picture of human existence. Kill! has laughter for sure, but it's the laughter of a hangman. The Sword of Doom ends in the darkest possible place, with a serial killer in the middle of a blood bath. And that's it—the film freezes.

One last word: Joan Mellen's brilliant feminist critique of Japanese cinema, The Waves at Genji's Door, guided not only the direction of this preview but also all of my thoughts on films made in the land of the rising sun.