The wandering warrior of the West meets the elegant edge-carrying elite from the East. If there’s one thing that the East and the West have in common, it’s the romanticized images of these once-upon-a-time fighters. The question you’ve gotta ask yourself is, “Do I feel luck…” Oh wait. Wrong genre. The real question is, who would win in a fight? Cowboys or samurai?
Despite being the fodder of many a schoolyard argument, the basis for asking such a question isn’t really as ridiculous and juvenile as it sounds at first. Let’s take a look at the details, shall we?
Where the buffalo/indigenous wild boars roam
During the end of the 19th century, cowboys and samurai occupied surprisingly similar roles in their respective societies and geographical locations. Both were kind of on the out, as modernization was creeping in and the idea of a wild frontier world was falling further and further into the realms of the past.
There’s also a huge misconception about their images based mainly on fictional works from the 20th century, long after both lifestyles had died out. Real cowboys were cattle herders, a lot of them didn’t even carry guns, and most were racked with venereal diseases. Meanwhile, the image of the ronin – a masterless, wandering samurai – as a moral and righteous warrior still living by the code of bushido is pretty much relegated to fiction. Maybe there were a few who were good guys, but being masterless meant you were shunned by the rest of the samurai class and society at large. Most of these types turned to crime or died poor.
As mentioned above, at the turn of the 20th century, both groups became fodder for fiction: stoic, lone warriors, living by their own codes, wrestling with their personal demons. Stories around the world are rife with ronin and gunfighters alike. So much so that nowadays, it’s almost impossible to separate the mythos of one from the other, outside of the setting and appearance.
I wanna be a cowboy samurai, baby
The lore of cowboys and samurai and the images that the general public now associate with them is thanks in no large part to Akira Kurosawa, the legendary Japanese film maker. His samurai films of the 50s and 60s were modeled after Hollywood’s early western films like Shane and Stagecouch. Following a period of remarkable success and international acclaim, his films were used as the basis for a new wave of Westerns in the late 60s and 70s.
Italian director, Sergio Leone, drew inspiration from Kurosawa and created the spaghetti western genre of film. From there, many westerns based their plots around Kurosawa films. The Magnificent Seven is Seven Samurai; A Fistful of Dollars is Yojimbo; The Outrage is Rashomon. The list goes on. The samurai and the western film have been intertwined ever since.
Just look at the hit HBO drama, Westworld, which mixes the old west with samurai (and robots, no further spoilers here). To this day, the intermingling of western and samurai is rampant through pop culture on both sides of the Pacific.
U.S. animated series, Samurai Jack, features numerous references and homages to both samurai and western films; Red Sun is a Charles Bronson film that has a cowboy helping samurai; the entire Star Wars franchise is rife with samurai-types, gunslinger-types, bounty hunters, and various codes of honor; there’s even a terrible 90s film called Samurai Cowboy.
Japan isn’t shy about mixing the two either: Cowboy Bebop, Trigun, GUNxSWORD, Afro Samurai, Naruto. All of these franchises feature nods, homages, and references to both samurai and cowboy culture.
Fighting in the streets/rice fields
It’s easy to see how much both subgenres have influenced each other over the decades, but let’s not forget why we’re originally here. That’s right. It’s time for a showdown.
We’ll do it duel-style. Two opponents facing each other ten paces apart with steely-eyed gazes, waiting for the moment to strike. One has his fingers twitching near the butt of the gun in his hip holster. The other has his hand resting gently on the hilt of his sheathed blade. The old clock tower bells start a’tollin. Or maybe the rustle of some bamboo sprigs caught in the breeze ignites their fighter’s instinct.
They both draw their weapons. Iron flashes quick out of the holster. Steel catches rays of midday sun as its drawn from scabbard. The samurai steps forward. And immediately hits the dirt as he catches a bullet between the eyes from the gunslinger’s revolver.
They were ten paces apart. Of course the gun was going to win.