The type of Japanese spoken in jidaigeki films

Does anyone know any good resources for learning about the strange type of Japanese used in period dramas, such as the films of Akira Kurosawa? I recently rewatched Sanjuro, and while at this stage I don’t expect to understand that much Japanese in general, I was surprised by how few words sounded familiar to me at all (except for numerals :smiley:). Then I heard from my friend, who is fluent in Japanese and has a Japanese wife, that they had watched Seven Samurai together and they also had trouble understanding the dialogue.

So any ideas on where to find information on the issue? I tried googling for it, but I just found articles about the jidaigeki genre in general. Maybe I wasn’t using the right keywords, I don’t know. I realise this isn’t the aspect of Japanese that I most urgently need to improve, but it would nevertheless be interesting to find out more about it :slight_smile:


Did your friends mention what kind of trouble were they having?

I’m planning to set up a long term proyect of mine related to Kurosawa’s films this year.

I regularly use a program to watch shows while having the japanese subs blurred but at hand to check for unkown words or dialogues that I don’t catch on the fly (program is called Voracious). Also the same program will create anki flashcards on the go for the vocab I pick from the subtitle line. :slightly_smiling_face:

After some months of doing this with j-dramas I decided to check an old resource I had on my bookmarkings but never really looked too much before (this one) , and actually it ended up having jp subs for almost all Kurosawa’s films :star_struck::star_struck:

So currently I’m syncing some subs to the actual version of the movies I have and then will be just popcorns and learning the Kurosawa’s way :slightly_smiling_face: .

I’ve checked some of the subs (Seven Samurais too), and the vocab doesn’t strike me as too funny or specially aged. I was worried It would pull some terms that I would only find in Kobun books, but actually the only thing I’m anticipating so far could be an issue is the sound quality been a bit rougher for me picking some lines in some older movies.
Anyway you can download the subs and check yourself how strange the vocab is for a particular film. :+1:


That’s interesting! I don’t remember what my friend said exactly but I’m pretty sure he did imply that he was confused because of the vocabulary. I’ll have to look into those subtitles, thank you very much! :pray:t2: Voracious seems like a cool application, but unfortunately I have many of my classic movies on Blu-Ray, and my computer doesn’t support that format : p

Also, that’s a very valid point about the audio quality. I actually just rewatched Ozu’s Late Spring yesterday, and even though it was contemporary Japanese, and I mostly had a fairly good idea of how the dialogue related to the English subtitles, I could feel how the somewhat muffled sound made comprehension more challenging to my inexperienced ears. Heck, it sometimes requires extra effort to make out everything in English language movies from the 30’s-50’s.

It’s probably similar to English speakers watching Shakespeare plays or films. Unless the dialogue is modernised, you would also understand little.

Indeed, this usage of ござる is very stereotypical of period dramas, but I would caution against reading too much into its historical accuracy, even ignoring any dialectal considerations.

As far as I know, polite speech dates back to Heian times, at least, with stuff like はべり, and the modern-style ます was already in use in late Edo (in fact, even in early Edo). Anecdotally, this seems to match the observed development of contractions such as ござんす from ござります, which we have discussed recently in another thread. Anyway, I would expect actual people from the era to use polite speech whenever appropriate, with ます.


Yeah, a lot of artistic licence is usually taken here. These samurai also tend to bark orders and when they do, it gets even more difficult to understand :rofl:

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Pff. When the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw


Blockquote These samurai also tend to bark orders and when they do, it gets even more difficult to understand :rofl:

Very true! It was one of the most alienating features of jidaigeki films when I wasn’t yet accustomed to their style. In fact, it seems to me a little strange that they were big hits in the west while Ozu’s films didn’t get an international release at all, being considered ”too Japanese”. It seems to me they should be more instantly relatable to western audiences with their naturalistic acting, contemporary setting, themes about family life and western flavoured music.

But then of course, they didn’t have the badass fighting scenes that the samurai films had :sweat_smile:


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