Handcrafted costumes and grandiose cinematography depict honor, bloodshed, and the ruthless tide of history. They’re some of the most iconic samurai films of all time.
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Cowboys were common throughout the United States. Swashbucklers and knights were popular throughout Europe during the Medieval era. The samurai were a common sight in Japan. For decades, Japanese noblemen have been a popular pop culture archetype, particularly in Japanese cinema. Once upon a time, Japan’s film industry was dominated by the samurai movie (known as chanbara in its native nation) and Samurai films continued to be produced on a regular basis until the 1970s. However, the genre’s popularity waned over time, just like in the West. Today, they’re a rare occurrence. Toshiro Mifune, for example, has either become older or died, and the Japanese cinema industry has seen 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. Before Akira Kurosawa, Japan’s finest filmmaker, the earliest samurai films were characterized by somber dramas, but as the genre evolved, it became increasingly action-packed. More recent samurai films take a more postmodern approach, investigating the psyche of what it means to be a swordsman or giving Hollywood a run for its money with all-out action designed to leave fans gasping.
This list is nearly entirely made up of chanbara films set in the Tokugawa period (1600-1868). This list includes a film that may come as a surprise to some, Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (find out why in the article below), and one film that should have been on the list, The Last Samurai, which despite its grandiosity is really just an excuse to show Tom Cruise in a bad role (though it has one redeeming feature in that it revitalised the career of actor Ken Watanabe).
The following is a list of the greatest samurai movies of all time, listed in reverse chronological order.
1. Tales of Ugetsu (1953)
An important film in Japan’s post-World War II reconstruction, Tales of Ugetsu was based on Ueda Akinari’s novel of the same name and directed by Kenji Mizoguchi, a celebrated director. Peasant families are the focus of the film, which is a romantic dream about their struggle and the twists of fate that occur. The film’s themes of morality and familial ties, as well as spirituality and the power of dreams, are all brought together in a unique way. The film’s costume design was nominated for an Oscar for Best Costume Design.
2. Seven Samurai (1954)
The list is dominated by Akira Kurosawa, the undisputed king of Japanese cinema. Seven Samurai is an excellent choice for the best picture by the auteur, but it would be difficult to pick just one. When robbers repeatedly target a community of villagers, they decide to take matters into their own hands by assembling a formidable force of hired guns. In the process, a tale of social and cultural strife emerges, complete with thrilling action sequences and shocking turns. In spite of being remade numerous times, the original is still the best.
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. With her husband at her side, Lady Asaji Washizu embarks on a deadly coup in which alliances fall apart and the bodies begin to pile up. A renowned film critic, Derek Malcolm, claimed in 1999 that “…perhaps the finest Shakespearean adaptation ever committed to the screen” despite significant plot divergences due to the language barrier. No prior knowledge of the play is necessary to enjoy this fantastic picture, for it is a supernatural epic in which human ambition and cruelty are as evil as anything else.
4. Yojimbo (1961)
Akira Kurosawa is back with another rousing tale of a renegade samurai caught up in a bloody feud between competing clans, one that in turn wrecks havoc on a sleepy town. A self-assured rnin vows to save the day by misleading both sides and ensuring their annihilation with his cunning. Toshiro Mifune, Japan’s finest leading man, shines brightest in this blast of entertainment, thanks in large part to the film’s focus on his charisma and physique. 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)
Tatsuya Nakadai portrays a revered samurai who falls from grace during the latter years of the Tokugawa period in this gripping picture. His noble past collides with the harsh reality of today’s world, and he has nowhere else to turn. An homage to the human spirit and a meditation on the follies of mortality, the film also serves as a profound meditation on the passing of an era and an examination of the most tragic aspects of belonging to the ancient Japanese noble class of the samurai.
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. Final battle between Sanjuro and his archenemy in the biggest samurai showdown ever shown on Japanese film screens culminates in a bloody duel. The film has a subtext on the futility of violence and war that runs throughout. “The best swords are those that are kept in their scabbards,” says one character in the film.
7. Shogun Assassin (1980)
Shogun Assassin is a shortened version of the Lone Wolf and Cub movie from the 1970s, which were based on the manga of the same name. It’s one of the bloodiest and most engorged entries on this list. The master of a samurai executioner has betrayed him, and now ninjas are coming to get him. Then again, they don’t, either. Instead, his wife is slain, leaving him and their baby boy to fend for alone. He slashes through anybody who gets in his way, swearing vengeance. And a lot of individuals do, as well. 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. The Wu-Tang Clan’s GZA’s 1995 album, Liquid Swords, has a number of quotations from the film and a few snatches of its soundtrack.
8. Kagemusha (1980)
Kagemusha almost didn’t come to pass. 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. In exchange for the international distribution rights outside of Japan, the two men, both of whom were major Kurosawa fans, convinced 20th Century Fox to assist finance the film. Lowly criminal hired to imitate dying warlord in order to keep warring clans at bay gets more than he bargained for. Battle of Nagashino, a real-life battle that took place in 1575 and claimed the lives of more than 10,000 warriors, is the film’s climax. Kurosawa’s most dramatic battle sequence was depicted with the help of over 5,000 extras.
9. Ran (1985)
This is the final film directed by Akira Kurosawa. At the time of its debut, Ran was the most expensive Japanese film ever made, with a budget in excess of $12 million. When Hidetora Ichimonji decides to divide his realm among his three sons, the result is an ensuing power struggle that ends in the death of the king. One of the greatest war pictures of all time comes from director Akira Kurosawa with this epic, which is one of the most visually stunning in cinematic history. More than 1,400 costumes and sets of armour were handmade by artisans for the staging of the battle sequences. Meiji and Kumamoto castles were made available to the filmmaker for a special filming permit; the director even erected a castle on Mount Fuji, only to burn it down in the film’s final scene. Even though Kurosawa’s wife, Yoko Yaguchi, died during filming, he merely took one day off to mourn before returning to the project. Battle sequences in this film are so realistic that you can almost smell the blood, sweat, and gunpowder.
10. Shogun’s Shadow (1989)
High-octane action film Shogun’s Shadow departs with samurai film conventions in its depiction of feudal battles, a breath of fresh air. When the shogun’s heir, a tiny boy, is targeted as part of a political plan, his life is in danger. In spite of this, the boy’s personal bodyguard is determined to keep him safe and makes the epic journey across Japan to get him to safety, all the while dodging swarms of hostile forces. 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 betrayed by his mob bosses and must battle for his life in Jim Jarmusch’s magnificent excursion, which pays homage to both hip-hop and samurai cinema. 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. The Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA provides a terrific score with Japanese-influenced musical patterns, and the result is a genuine samurai picture.
12. The Twilight Samurai (2002)
When it comes to showcasing actor Hiroyuki Sanada’s incredible abilities, this film is the perfect vehicle. The honorary MBE he received for his efforts in theatre in the UK serves as a testament to his work as a great ambassador for Japanese theatre in the UK. This is one of the more recent high-quality excursions in samurai cinema, with a lot to say on class hierarchies, love, and the risks of being a good person in a bad world.
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. A beloved Japanese pop culture symbol, Kitano, the country’s favorite grumpy old man, seemed to be having a ball with this new take on 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. Kitano is the ideal choice for the role of the title character in this lively, mischievous picture, which highlights the more fun side of the curmudgeonly founder.
14. ‘13 Assassins’ (2010)
Thirteen Assassins is Takashi Miike’s greatest work, and he’s never made a dull picture. 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. As a somber, wonderfully produced historical drama begins, it degenerates into pure spectacle in the final act, which must be seen to be properly appreciated. This is a blood-soaked cake-eating movie, with great talent on both sides of the camera.
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 proved so popular that it generated two sequels. While traversing the countryside in the first film, a former assassin promises to never kill again and dedicate his life to aiding those less fortunate. However, he will soon have to put his good deeds to the test when confronted by ruthless assassins. 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)
An adaptation of the popular manga by Takashi Miike also makes our list; it depicts the story of a cursed, immortal warrior who, in order to restore his mortality, must kill 1,000 wicked men. This set-up is ideal for a Miike film, as each encounter is drenched with gore. Before an 11am screening at the 2017 London Film Festival, director Takashi Miike stated that the film was intended to be seen “during night-time” only. 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.