Costumes and grandiose cinematography bring honor, bloodshed, and the ruthless tide of history to life. They’re some of the most iconic samurai films of all time.
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There were cowboys over there. Swashbucklers and knights were popular throughout Europe during the Medieval era. The samurai were a common sight in Japan. Pop culture has been fascinated by Japanese noblemen for years, not least in Japanese films. A long time ago, Japanese films were dominated by samurai movies (known as chanbara in its birthplace), which were frequently released into the 1970s. However, audiences’ interest in this subgenre waned with time, just as it had in the West. Today, they’re a rare sighting, at most once a year. Famous actors like Toshiro Mifune have either aged or passed away, and the Japanese cinema industry has witnessed a decrease as a result. All of this meant that centuries-old narratives of valor and battle were no longer in high demand.
Here are the best samurai films of all time, including some of the most recent, like Takashi Miike’s 13 Assassins, which are both contemplative and action-packed at the same time. Prior to the work of Akira Kurosawa, Japan’s most celebrated filmmaker, samurai films were characterized by somber dramas. However, as the genre evolved, it became more action-oriented. While some of the most popular sword-fighting flicks of the last few decades have taken on an almost post-modern tone, others have focused on the psychology of the swordsman and the thrills that come with it.
This list is nearly entirely made up of chanbara films set in the Tokugawa period (1600-1868). Some of the films on this list may surprise you – Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, for example, or Tom Cruise’s The Last Samurai, a Tom Cruise vehicle that, for all its grandeur, is just a cover for a turgid white savior story (though it has one redeeming feature in that it revitalised the career of actor Ken Watanabe).
These are the greatest samurai films ever created, listed in reverse chronological order.
1. Tales of Ugetsu (1953)
Tales of Ugetsu was one of the first major Japanese films to appear after World War II, based on the book by Ueda Akinari and directed by famed filmmaker Kenji Mizoguchi. This is a romantic fantasy film about the trials and tribulations of two peasant families. The film’s combination of morality and familial ties with spirituality and the power of dreams creates an experience unlike any other. Additionally, the picture is visually stunning, earning an Oscar nomination in the category of Best Costume Design.
2. Seven Samurai (1954)
One of the greatest Japanese filmmakers of all time, Akira Kurosawa, sits at the top of this list. There’s a lot to choose from, but Seven Samurai is a strong contender for the top slot. This group of peasants has taken matters into their own hands, bringing in a team of hired guns to protect them against bandit attacks. In the process, a tale of social and cultural strife emerges, complete with thrilling action sequences and shocking turns. The original, no matter how many times it is remade, will never be surpassed.
3. Throne of Blood (1957)
Adapted by Akira Kurosawa and starring Toshiro Mifune, Shakespeare’s Macbeth is set in Ancient Japan in this magnificent picture. Lady Asaji Washizu and her husband undertake a brutal campaign in which relationships are ruptured and dead bodies begin to pile up as they seek to gain power. According to Derek Malcolm, a well-known film critic, “…perhaps the finest Shakespearean adaptation ever committed to the screen.” despite a language barrier and several modifications from the original narrative. Even if you aren’t familiar with the play, this is still an excellent picture – a supernatural epic in which human ambition and cruelty are as terrible as any supernatural force.
Renegade Samurai is the latest in a long line of Kurosawa films, and this time he takes on the role of a warlord who is sucked into a terrible feud between competing clans. With his own resourcefulness, the rnin decides to save the day by fooling both sides and ensuring that they both die. Toshiro Mifune, Japan’s greatest actor, is the star of the show here, and his charisma and physique shine brightly in this raucous romp. The Volpi Cup for Best Actor was awarded to Mifune at the 1961 Venice Film Festival as a result of the jury’s unanimous decision.
5. Harakiri (1962)
A samurai, Tsugumo Hanshiro (played by the great Tatsuya Nakadai), loses his prestigious status in society at the end of the Tokugawa era. To make sense of his heroic past and the harsh realities of the modern world, he strives to reintegrate himself into society. As a tribute to the human spirit and a contemplation on the pitfalls of mortality, the film is also a profound look into Japan’s ancient samurai class and its darker sides.
6. Sanjuro (1962)
Yojimbo II brought back Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune together once more. Once again, when Mifune hears about the plans of nine young men to take on their corrupt superintendent, he takes matters into his own hands once more and resolves to lead them and their struggle for justice. It’s the most epic samurai duel in Japanese cinematic history, pitting Sanjuro against his archenemy in an enthralling duel. The futility of war and violence is a recurring theme throughout the film. “The best swords are those that are kept in their scabbards,” says one character in the film.
7. Shogun Assassin (1980)
Shogun Assassin, a condensed version of the 1970s Lone Wolf and Cub films based on the manga of the same name, is one of the list’s deadliest and most gory entries. The master of a samurai executioner has betrayed him, and now ninjas are coming to get him. They don’t, however. His wife is killed instead, leaving him and his baby kid to fend for alone. In the sake of revenge, he slits the throats of anybody who stands in his way. And a lot of people do, too. Even a character in Kill Bill: Volume 2 mentions this grindhouse classic as a source of inspiration, and it’s an absolute blast from beginning to end. Quotes from the film (and a few bits of its soundtrack) were used on the 1995 Wu-Tang Clan album Liquid Swords by GZA, a member of the Wu-Tang Clan.
8. Kagemusha (1980)
Kagemusha was almost never made. When Toho Studios ran out of money, the project was in jeopardy, but George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola stepped in to save the day. They were both major Kurosawa fans, and they were able to persuade 20th Century Fox to contribute money in exchange for the rights to distribute the film outside of Japan. A low-level criminal is recruited to pose as a dying warlord in order to fend off invasions from other clans, but he gets more than he bargained for. Film’s climax Battle of Nagashino, based on a real-life battle that took place in 1575 and killed over 10,000 soldiers, merits special note. In total, about 5,000 extras took part in the filming of this conflict, which produced Kurosawa’s most iconic battle scene.
9. Ran (1985)
Akira Kurosawa’s final film is included here. At the time of its release, Ran was the most costly Japanese film ever made, costing in excess of $12 million. When King Hidetora Ichimonji chooses to divide his realm among his three sons, it sparks a bloody power struggle that is reminiscent of Shakespeare’s King Lear. He was no stranger to huge films, but Kurosawa goes all out in this vast epic, which would fit right in with the best war movies of all time. A total of 200 horses were used in the battle scenes, while over 1,400 pieces of armor and outfits were manufactured by artisans. At Meiji and Kumamoto, the director was given special permission to film at the historic castles and even created – only to burn it down in the film’s climactic scene. When Kurosawa’s wife of 39 years, Yoko Yaguchi, died suddenly while filming, he only had time to grieve for one day before returning to work. Battle sequences in this film are so realistic that you can almost smell the blood, sweat, and gunpowder.
10. Shogun’s Shadow (1989)
“Shogun’s Shadow” is a high-octane samurai film that significantly breaks with stylistic norm in its depiction of feudal conflicts. When the shogun’s heir, a tiny boy, is targeted as part of a political plan, his life is in danger. With hordes of hostile troops on the verge of capturing the boy, the boy’s personal bodyguard takes on an epic trip throughout Japan in order to save him. Action scenes were over-the-top and had a rock soundtrack in one of the most expensive Japanese films ever filmed at the time of its release by Yasuo Furuhata. All of this adds up to a film that never lets up in terms of entertainment.
11. Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai’ (1999)
Forest Whitaker stars as a hitman who is duped by his mob bosses and must battle for his life in this Jim Jarmusch tribute to hip-hop and samurai films. As far as one can get from chanbara in Ghost Dog, which is situated in modern-day Brooklyn, there are no swordsmen to be seen. There are parallels to be found in the Hagakure, an ancient Japanese philosophical manual for Bushido warriors that dates back to the 16th century. A stern warrior upholds a rigid code of honor, while an executioner is deceived by his bosses. It’s a true samurai flick when RZA’s amazing score with Japanese-influenced musical themes is added to the mix.
12. The Twilight Samurai (2002)
Hiroyuki Sanada, who received an honorary MBE for his efforts in the UK’s theatre, is the star of this film, which depicts the narrative of a noble, penniless samurai who must overcome turbulence, the preconceptions of others, and a love affair tinged with ennui. High-quality samurai films are few and few between, but this is one of the best examples of contemporary high-quality samurai films.
13. Zatoichi (2003)
After a long-running TV series and multiple films, Takeshi Kitano has revived Zatoichi, a fictional character who appeared in this remake, which he stars and directs. Japanese pop culture legend Kitano, Japan’s favorite grumpy old man, is certainly having a great time with this updated version of the famed warrior. When a blind, peaceful swordsman is drawn into a fight in feudal Japan, he is pushed to the extent of his abilities. Izumi Kitano is the appropriate choice for the role of the protagonist in this vibrant, mischievous picture that embraces the curmudgeonly creator’s more lighthearted side.”
14. 13 Assassins (2010)
13 Assassins, the masterwork of Takashi Miike’s impressive career, is the director’s best work yet. The hard-won peace in feudal Japan is threatened when a vicious warlord threatens it. A handful of rogue samurai must band together to cut him down in bloody swathes — and his army. In the beginning, the film is a somber, gorgeously produced historical drama that finally degenerates into pure spectacle. Blood-soaked cake is devoured in full by a film that boasts tremendous talent both in front of and behind the lens.
15. Rurouni Kenshin (2012)
In the 1990s, Rurouni Kenshin, a manga and anime series about a reformed samurai, became popular both domestically and internationally. A live-action version was released in 2012, and it was so well received that it generated two sequels. An ex-assassin in Meiji-era Japan vows never to kill again, and spends the remainder of his days travelling the countryside, trying to aid those in need. When faced with brutal killers, his noble ways are put to the test. The movie does a fantastic job of capturing the spirit of the book, with its themes of atonement, inner peace, and what it means to serve others, thanks to outstanding combat choreography and a young cast.
16. Blade of the Immortal (2017)
Miike’s other film on this list, an adaptation of a well-received manga, is about an immortal swordsman who must slaughter a thousand demons or die. Miike fans will love this setup because it’s full of gory encounters. Around a London Film Festival screening in 2017, Miike stated that he intended for the film to be viewed “at night-time”. And there’s no denying that this is a classic Friday night action flick, complete with piles of bodies and a hero who refuses to be defeated no matter how many swords are thrust into him.