It’s difficult to find someone who hasn’t been influenced by Japanese culture after being exposed to it. People of all races and walks of life have fallen in love with Japan in one way or another, admiring the richness of their history, depth of tradition, and, above all, the sense of honor they seem to hold in such high regard, from the “Made in Japan” seal on nearly every product imaginable to their eclectic sense of fashion. The samurai, a particular class of warriors in medieval and premodern Japan, were responsible for instilling this sense of honor in the people.
In other words, these samurai were warriors who lived by a strict code of ethics known as “bushido.”” All the virtues that these warriors had were encapsulated in this code, which stated that they would put family and country before lord. Submission was critical, and since a samurai’s actions had repercussions for generations to come, he wanted to be on the right side of what was considered honorable at all times.
In other words, this code of ethics made its way into Japanese society as a whole In fact, this sense of honor is so ingrained in Japanese culture that some Japanese students have committed suicide rather than be told that they “failed,” believing that failing a class meant bringing “dishonor” to their family.”
As in a world where deception is more common than not, a code that portrays such moral integrity is like a breath of fresh air to the rest of the world, the seriousness with which the Japanese take honor has not been lost. Many people have had the opportunity to learn about honor through the influx of Japanese films, manga comics, and anime shows over the years, leading them to fall in love with and seek out more of the same genre.
However, if you look around, the samurai film genre, of which The Last Samurai is well-known, appears to be sparse. Tom Cruise’s powerful performance in Edward Zwick’s 2003 classic made it a timeless classic.
An American military adviser is captured by the samurai he’s been hired to kill in this fantasy adventure story. Following an extended stay amongst the locals, he adopts the Samurai lifestyle and joins the fight against the very forces for which he once campaigned.
Director Edward Zwick has made a concerted effort to ensure that his film is historically and culturally accurate. For those who aren’t familiar with Japanese culture, this film serves as an excellent introduction, showing a bygone era in a new light.
For this reason, I’ve compiled a list of fifteen movies like The Last Samurai that will keep you hooked on the bushido code of honor even if you aren’t familiar with them.
1. Seven Samurai (1954)
Seven Samurai is a film from the 16th century about a village that hires seven down-on-their-luck samurai to protect them from marauding bandits. It was directed by one of Japan’s greatest directors, Akira Kurosawa, whose work you will undoubtedly see more of on this list.
Several other movies were inspired by this one, including the Oscar-winning The Magnificent Seven starring Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt and Ethan Hawke. There is a three-and-a-half-hour running time for this classic film, so plan accordingly and use the restroom before you begin. Download The Seven Samurai from iTunes or Google Play.
2. Kill! (1968)
A samurai film with comedic elements? That’s not what you’d expect. Although the film is parodic, it follows the story of a former samurai named Genta as he transitions to a life of crime as a free agent. When it comes to power and respect, being a samurai is all Hanjiro wants, despite his poverty. When the two of them arrive in a small village where a clan war is raging, they will have to choose sides.
An absolute classic of its era, Kill! makes use of classic samurai movie tropes to explore the good and bad sides of being a Samurai.
If you enjoyed The Last Samurai and want something similar, Kill! is a good choice.
3. 13 Assassins (2010)
Thirteen Assassins should satisfy your need for high flying action with sword slashing and literal head-rolling. Our protagonist, who has just learned that the powerful Shogun’s adopted son has been torturing and killing innocent peasants, forms an assassination squad to kill the despot on a suicide mission. The film documents the events that unfold as the squad prepares to go on the attack.
A fast-paced action flick with stunning visuals directed by Takashi Miike in what would become known as his signature style of directing. As a result of its well-rounded cast of characters, the story’s already emotionally charged plot gains even more nuance.
4. Samurai Trilogy: Musashi Miyamoto (1954 – 1957)
Three ideas rolled into one: the story revolves around the life of a real-life samurai sword master and legend named Musashi Miyamoto, making this samurai film (or films) unique.
The three-part film chronicles Musashi Miyamoto’s illustrious career, including the many trials, duels, and obstacles he faced. The first film in the series was nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Film. Musashi Miyamoto is the real-life samurai to look up to if you’re a fan of the fantasy genre.
5. Samurai Assassin (1965)
It follows a samurai who goes on a journey of self-discovery and redemption. The Tokugawa era is about to come to an end when a public official sets in motion events that threaten to unravel the entire nation.
After all of the chaos and fighting, one samurai is forced to prove to himself and his father that he is indeed a samurai. The only way to end the mayhem is for our hero to kill this evil official.
This samurai film is one for the history books because it tells a gripping story with dark suspense and overtones of fatalism. It’s the closest thing you’ll find to The Last Samurai-style entertainment.
6. Rashomon (1950)
Rashomon tells the story of a crime from multiple points of view, all of which are in conflict with one another. The film is another epic masterpiece from Kurosawa Akira, and the audience is left questioning throughout the entire movie who is telling the truth and who isn’t, and why.
This is a straightforward tale told in an offbeat manner. This visual film is engrossing from start to finish thanks to some excellent cinematography. Despite its flaws, which I will not list here, Rashomon delivers when it counts.
Rashomon is a must-see for fans of mystery and samurai cinema. While it’s important to have some patience in the beginning, once everything is in place, patience comes in handy.
7. Yojimbo (1961)
Toshiro Mifune’s performance in this film cemented his place as the greatest samurai actor of all time in film history. Mifune’s Sanjuro, a lone samurai, wanders into a small town and discovers that it is ruled by two rival criminal organizations. To get some quick cash, he devises a scheme in which he lends his services to both sides in an elaborate scheme to free the villagers.
This film may have served as inspiration for Clint Eastwood’s legendary western, A Fistful of Dollars, and its equally compelling sequel, Sanjuro, making it one of, if not the, most recognizable samurai films ever made in history.
8. Harakiri (1962)
The term “hara-kiri” will be familiar to anyone who has studied the samurai code of conduct.” For those who don’t know, hara-kiri, also known as “seppuku, “is a type of ritual suicide in which the victim is disemboweled to restore their honor after acting dishonorably.
Although this ritual appears bizarre today, in ancient times it was common practice to wash away any blemishes on one’s reputation in order to maintain a good reputation. Harakiri is predicated on this exact idea. Old samurai arrives at feudal lord’s home to ask for an honorable place to commit hara-kiri, the story of the film. Problems arise when the samurai wants to know if there’s an older one who arrived before him.
I won’t spoil the ending for you, but in a nutshell, Harakiri demonstrates how corrupt and dehumanizing the Bushido way can be. The plot of Harakiri will haunt you, and it’s easily one of the best films since The Last Samurai, as I’ll say later on in this review.
9. The Twilight Samurai (2002)
This samurai tale is set in the 19th century and follows a low-ranking samurai who is struggling to support his daughters and ailing mother after his wife dies. Trying to make ends meet as a samurai at (you guessed it) twilight while also working as a clerk in a clan office, his life looks pretty bleak until someone from his past shows up and stirs things up.
It’s a beautifully shot film with an interesting plot that shows the Japanese code of honor, duty, and saving face. The Twilight Samurai is a great example of this.
10. Throne of Blood (1957)
A witch predicts a general’s rise to power in Akira Kurosawa’s 1957 retelling of Macbeth. His Lady Macbeth-like wife encourages him to carve out a bloody swath across the country when the prophecy comes true as predicted.
Do you think the omens are true? The general goes to great lengths to get what he wants, but in the process, he falls victim to greed and corruption.
In Throne of Blood, Akira Kurosawa expertly tackles the Japanese cultural themes of paranoia, pride, and madness by copying an original work and making it stand alone as its own entity.
The Last Samurai fans will enjoy what this taut film has to offer in comparison.
11. Samurai Rebellion (1967)
When it comes to the samurai code, honor and submission to the master’s will go hand in hand. Although one samurai rebels when his master goes too far, leading to the plot of the movie Samurai Rebellion.
Masaki Kobayashi’s samurai film defies convention by eschewing swordplay in favor of slow-motion carnage and slow-motion bloodletting. Other than in the final few minutes, there isn’t a single shot of war or squirming on screen.
As well as shedding light on Japan’s outdated feudal system, the film also serves as a social critique of the country’s widening wealth disparity.
12. The Sword of Doom (1966)
While the protagonist in most samurai films acts as a moral exemplar, Okamoto Kihachi’s film puts that notion to rest completely.
When he travels, the story follows an expert samurai who has become sociopath, leaving a trail of bodies in his wake. As a result of his actions, a long list of grudges is formed against him, and he is pursued relentlessly. Will he be able to make it out alive? See if you can figure it out by watching this gripping masterpiece.
13. Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in the Land of Demons (1973)
Unquestionably a long title, Lone Wolf and Cub is built around the idea of an out-of-work Samurai trying to support a baby in a stroller. To prevent a rival clan from gathering intelligence, this samurai is hired by a feudal lord. To complete his mission, he must defeat the rival clan’s five deadliest assassins.
Some moviegoers may wonder if this samurai film was directed by Quentin Tarantino because of the film’s gritty and over-the-top sequences. This movie will appeal to anyone who enjoys swordplay and non-stop action sequences. There are two ways to get Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in the Land of Demons.
14. When the Last Sword Is Drawn (2003)
After briefly forgetting about the classic samurai flicks of the past, this 2003 release takes place during the fall of the Tokugawa shogunate and follows two samurai as they try to figure out what it means to be one.
This film’s style of storytelling is distinctive, with the plot unfolding in a series of flashbacks. It’s a movie about loyalty, family, and honor, with some well-choreographed swordplay thrown in for good measure.
15. Ran (1985)
The story of King Lear is told through the eyes of a Japanese lord, who, after years of building an empire, decides it’s time to step down and divide his territories among his three sons. In another adaptation by Akira Kurosawa, Ran tells the story of King Lear. Things go awry, however, when the brothers use their newly acquired power against one another and their father.
Besides being Akira Kurosawa’s most expensive and final film, what makes Ran special is his meticulous attention to detail. Over the course of two years, Akira Kurosawa stitched 1400 uniforms and armor suits by hand. Also, the final edit omitted a scene in which the entire field was sprayed with gold paint.
In terms of Akira Kurosawa’s final film, Ran is a must-see for anyone interested in Japanese cinema. If you’re interested in purchasing Ran, you can do so on both the iTunes and Google Play stores.
Are there any other films like The Last Samurai that I’m missing? Please let me know in the remarks.