Chanbara is a swordplay scene acted in historical dramas of theatrical performances and movies.
Chanbara as a scene in a theatrical play
It is formally called tachimawari (stylized fight scene) in Kabuki or tate (sword battle) in theatrical performances as well as movies and commonly called 'chanbara.'
It derives from an imitative sound, chanchan barabara which expresses the clashing sound of sword fight, but because it sounds insulting and cheap, it is not used openly now. For more details, refer to Tachimawari or Tate.
Shifting from the original meaning, historical dramas in novels, theatrical performances, movies and TV series which feature swordplay scenes are called chanbara commonly or in derogatory tone. This is because the early historical movies and novels were produced only featuring flashy swordplay scenes that could be popular easily instead of focusing stories and artistic qualities. For more details, refer to the chapters of historical novels, period novels, historical dramas etc.
Chanbara as a play
'Chanbara' also refers to a children's play imitating swordplay scenes of historical movies. Children often use chunks of wood, wooden swords or rolled newspapers resembling Japanese sword to battle each other. In the old days it was a universal children's play in Japan and also it was a continuation of 'make-believe play' in which children acted like the actors of that time. It is seldom seen now because wild plays are not preferred recently, but until 1960's when historical movies were popular, chanbara was one of the most popular plays for boys.
To play chanbara, only some children were necessary without any special tools and complicated rules, therefore they often played chanbara at that time when there were not so many playthings. At that time when there were no video games that are seen universally now, children were seldom given expensive toys and often used things around them as playthings. Children replaced the lack of playthings with their own fantasies and imaginations.
Now historical dramas are not popular among children, chanbara as children's play still survives in a lot of animated huge robots and special effects heroes that fight using swords or sword-like equipments.
There were no rules or regulations in chanbara, and in the easiest way children just acted their favourite roles battling with 'swords' and even in more elaborate way, children were just divided into two sides such as heroes and evil strangers. There was a simple rule 'when you are killed by sword, you pretend to be dead', but there was no aspect to fight to determine winning or losing. They just could become their favourite heroes.
In case that roles of evil strangers and heroes were clearly casted among children, there was a cardinal rule 'evil strangers are always defeated by heroes at the end - encouraging the good and punishing the evil,' following the convention of historical dramas, therefore there were often competitions for heroes. When it was not adjusted well, some children acted various heroes of different stories freely and evil strangers who wanted to play heroes did not die soon after killed, and also it was seen that children who had 'aesthetics of how to be killed' acted dying scenes exaggeratingly. These are all because of the strong dramatic impression of chanbara.
First of all, chunks of wood were used as 'sword' and children who were good at handicraft made fine 'wooden swords' – not the wooden swords for actual fight of kendo (Japanese art of fencing), but a sword-shaped thin pieces of wood - by whittling wide branches with Higonokami (a cheap knife produced by press working). Except sharpening pencils, Higonokami may have worked most for making wooden swords in children's life.
Of course, children envied those who had fine swords
Also children were often scolded by their mothers, because they used mother's bamboo rulers for sawing as swords. It seems that swords for children's chanbara were commercially available on the market since the late Edo period, but they were luxury items for many children and seldom used. Toy swords for children became general in the marketplace since polyvinyl chloride swords were sold, but chanbara was less popular among children already at that time.
Also rolled newspapers are used as swords to beat each other. In this case, there is less risk of injury and even when a sword is broken it's easy to fix damages, therefore it is often used for events of elementary schools.
Also other things like a waist strap to hold a sword are necessary and the most important thing is a wrapping cloth. Originally it was used to imitate Kurama Tengu who was the most popular hero of historical drama especially among children, in which Kurama Tengu played by Kanjuro ARASHI was wearing Sojurozukin (the hood of Sojuro) as his trade mark, which was commonly called 'the hood of Kurama Tengu' or 'the squid food' due to the shape.
Wrapping cloth was used as a cape of hero later because of foreign movies, American comics and others. It is assumed that it was the effect of "Ogon batto" and "Superman," but the traditional chanbara style fighting with swords remained intact and a blending of Japanese and Western styles appeared in 1970's that a hero wore wrapping cloth cape as well as a sword in his waist. In any way, wrapping cloth is a symbol of hero with special meaning in chanbara.
In recent years, chanbara has been brought back as a kind of sports called sports chanbara. While the original chanbara was a kind of theatrical 'make-believe play,' sports chanbara has rules and specific equipments with consideration to prevent injury by being beaten.
In Kendo, heavy protective gears and bamboo swords which hurt players if they are hit are used and strict training is necessary, therefore it was difficult to be developed as an international sport. The origin of sports chanbara is an extension of make-believe game chanbara as well as art of defense using a stick as a weapon, in which an appropriate length stick is used to beat an opponent (hollow soft material stick is used for game, so there is no concern about injury and also special lightweight protective gear is put on face).
It seems that there are increasing numbers of players year after year because it determines winners and losers in the game and also it has the original excitements of chanbara such as team competition. In recent years, the equipments were improved to new ones which were made of vinyl with balloon structure while the old ones had a risk of cushion deterioration. For more details, refer to the chapter of sports chanbara.