Samurai movies is a Japanese film genre related to western movies and swashbuckling movies. Samurai movies have produced a large number of universally recognized cinematic masterpieces, must see movie. Samurai movies are called Chanbara in Japan and are a subcategory of jidaigeki, which refers to the historical drama. The term Chanbara similarly describes a martial arts sport comparable to fencing. While early samurai movies were not action-based, samurai movies produced after WWII ended up being more action-based, with darker and more violent characters. Legendary postwar samurai tended to depict emotionally or physically worn out warriors.
In Akira Kurosawa’s films we find death and violence and impressive samurai. His samurai, and many others depicted in the film, were singular figures, more often concerned with concealing their martial abilities, rather than revealing them. Historically, the genre is set throughout the Tokugawa period, from 1600 to 1868. Samurai movies for this reason focuses on realizing an entire way of life for samurai: some films deal with masterless rōnin, or samurai who manage changes to their existence resulting from an evolving society.
Samurai movies were made around the clock in the early 1970s, however too much exposure on television, the aging of the category’s big stars, and the ever-declining Japanese film market halted most production in this genre.
Samurai Movies Directors
Daisuke Itō and Masahiro Makino were the protagonists of the origins of samurai movies in the pre-war period of silent films. Akira Kurosawa is best known to Western audiences and also directed the best-known samurai movies in the West. He had a long association with Toshirō Mifune, arguably Japan’s most popular star. Mifune himself had a production business that produced impressive samurai movies starring him. 2 of Kurosawa’s samurai movies were based on the works of William Shakespeare, Throne of Blood (Macbeth) and Ran (King Lear). Many of his films have been remade in Italy and the United States as westerns or as action films set in other contexts. His film Seven Samurai is among the most essential examples of the category and the most popular outside Japan. It likewise highlights some of the conventions of samurai movies because the main characters are ronin, masterless and jobless samurai, self-determined by their own conscience. In particular, these men tend to handle their issues with their swords and are really good at it. It likewise reveals the vulnerability of the peasantry and the difference between the two classes.
Masaki Kobayashi directed the films Harakiri and Samurai Rebellion, both based on a problematic commitment to the clan.’s films Kihachi Okamoto focus on violence in a specific style. Notably in his films Samurai Assassin, Kill! and Sword of Destiny. The latter is particularly violent, the main character engaging in a fight for an extended 7 minutes at the end of the film. His characters are often separated from their environment and their violence is a problematic response to this.
Hideo Gosha and many of his films helped develop the samurai thug archetype. Gosha’s films are as essential as Kurosawa’s in terms of impact and visual design, but they are not widely understood in the West. Gosha’s films often depict the battle between the modernist and the standard idea and are decidedly anti-feudal. The director stopped making chambara, switching to the Yakuza category, in the 70s. Some of his most famous films are Goyokin, Hitokiri, Sanbiki no Samurai and Kedamono no Ken.
Kenji Misumi was active in making samurai movies from the 1950s to the mid-1970s. He has directed about 30 films in the category, including some of the Lone Wolf and Cub films, and a number of the Zatoichi and Sleepy Eyes of Death series. An outstanding example of the kind of immediacy and action evident in the samurai movies category is Gosha’s very first film, The Three Outlaw Samurai, based on a television series. 3 peasants kidnap the son of the local magistrate to call attention to the poverty of the peasants, a ronin shows up to help them. As they do so, 2 more ronin enter the drama, the dispute escalates, eventually escalating into betrayal, assassination, and fighting between armies of mercenary ronin.
Samurai Movie Themes
A samurai movie consists of samurai warriors, sword fighting and historical setting. Samurai warriors, in the film, are distinguished from other warriors by the code of honor followed to honor the samurai leader. A samurai must necessarily be competent in warfare and martial arts and ready to protect his honor until death. If unable to protect his honor, a samurai might choose to engage in self-disembowelment, seppuku, to preserve his honor. Or, a samurai might take revenge in the event of the loss of someone the samurai valued. The habit of the samurai is to preserve honor even in death and is perpetuated by the code of bushido.
A recurring conflict that the samurai encounters is the dispute between ninjō and giri. Ninjō is the human feeling informing you of what is right, and giri is the responsibility of the samurai to his lord and clan. The dispute stems from the federal government’s frustrating control over samurai habits. Typically samurai question the morality of their actions and are torn between responsibility and conscience. This dispute goes beyond the ages in samurai movies and can develop understanding of the main character as the ethical underdog or the unwavering warrior. The samurai warrior is often associated with one’s sword. Swordsmanship is an essential element of warfare used in many samurai movies.
Samurai Movies and Westerns
Early samurai movies were influenced by the still growing Western film category before and during World War II. Since then both categories have actually had a salutary effect on each other. 2 predecessors of the category, Akira Kurosawa and Masaki Kobayashi, were influenced by American directors such as John Ford. A variety of western films have actually told the samurai movies in a western context, especially the spaghetti westerns. A Fistful of Dollars by Italian director Sergio Leone and Last Man Standing by Walter Hill are both remakes of Yojimbo. Clint Eastwood’s The Man with No Name character was designed to some extent on Mifune’s roving ronin character who appeared in several of his films. When he made Star Wars, the Hidden Fortress influenced George Lucas. 7 Samurai has actually been remade as a western and sci-fi movie, The Magnificent Seven and Battle Beyond Destiny. The 7 Samurai was extremely important. He popularized the “getting the gang together” trope in movies, which became frequent in a number of action films. Seven Samurai’s images, storyline and dialogues have inspired a wide variety of directors, from George Lucas to Quentin Tarantino.
Hong Kong action cinema’s early martial arts films were influenced by Japanese samurai movies from the 1940s onwards. By the early 1970s, these films had effectively become hand-to-hand kung fu films, promoted by Bruce Lee. In turn, Hong Kong kung fu films ended up being prominent and popular in Japan from the 1970s onwards.
Samurai Movies to Watch
In sequential order, here are the best must-see samurai movies made in the history of cinema.
Humanity and Paper Balloons (1937)
It is a Japanese jidaigeki samurai film directed by Sadao Yamanaka. It was Yamanaka’s last film before his death. The film is set in feudal Japan in an era called Edo. It shows the battles and plans of Matajuro Unno, a rōnin, or masterless samurai, and his next-door neighbor Shinza, a hairdresser. Yamanaka is perhaps the best director of the new jidaigeki, and Humanity and Paper Balloons his best work. The film is an extraordinary journey through time in the feudal era that offers a description of the political and social conditions of the time in which it was made. For some critics and directors it is among the best films ever.
The story begins in a rundown neighborhood where underworld families do the routine work. Shinza, although a hairdresser by trade, makes a living running illegal gambling spaces and pawning personal belongings. Unno is the son of Matabei Unno, an excellent samurai. Due to his father’s death, Unno has had a hard time finding work and hopes that Mouri, his father’s former master, will hire him after reading a letter from his father. Mouri finds reasons not to read her father’s letter. Unno searches for Mouri every day and follows him wherever he goes. Mouri attempts to kill Unno by sending a band of men and informing his guards to keep him out.
The 47 Ronin (1941)
It is a two-part black and white Japanese jidaigeki samurai film directed by Kenji Mizoguchi, adapted from a play by Seika Mayama. The film illustrates the famous forty-seven ronin and their plot to avenge the death of their lord, Asano Naganori, by eliminating Kira Yoshinaka, a shogunate authority responsible for forcing Asano to commit seppuku. The film was a commercial failure at a cost of ¥530,000, having been released in Japan a week before the attack on Pearl Harbor. The Japanese military and most of the public found Part One too important, however the studio and Mizoguchi considered it so crucial that Part Two was put into production, despite the lukewarm reception for Part One.
The plot focuses on the aftermath of an attack by Lord Asano Naganori on Lord Kira Yoshinaka, an important court authority in the Tokugawa shogunate. After hearing Kira insulting him in public, Asano strikes Kira with a sword in the corridors of Edo Castle, but only manages to wound him. Since assaulting the authorities of a shogunate is a serious crime, Shogun Tokugawa Tsunayoshi sentences Asano to commit seppuku and demands an order to remove the Asano clan from their lands and wealth.
It’s a samurai movie, psychological thriller and 1950 crime film Jidaigeki directed and written by Akira Kurosawa, working closely with cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa. Starring Toshiro Mifune, Machiko Kyō, Masayuki Mori and Takashi Shimura playing different characters explaining how a samurai was killed in a forest. The plot and characters are based on Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s short story “In a Grove” and “Rashōmon”, another short story by Akutagawa. The film includes numerous characters who provide subjective, incoherent and alternative variations of the same event. Rashomon was the very first Japanese film to achieve notable global reception: it won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 1951, received an Academy Honorary Award at the 24th Academy Awards in 1952, and is considered among the best films ever made.
The story begins in the Heian era of Kyoto. A priest and a woodcutter are sitting under the city gate of Rashōmon for shelter during a rainstorm when a citizen joins them and they begin to tell an extremely disturbing story about an attack and murder that took place. Neither the priest nor the woodcutter understands how those individuals could have given significantly different accounts of the exact same event, with all three people proving that they alone committed the murder.
Akutagawa’s story, Kurosawa’s impactful direction and film script, Mifune’s splendid performance, and Miyagawa’s cinematography achieve rare visual power. In the early 1960s, film historians credit Rashomon with starting the worldwide New Wave film movement, which gained popularity in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
Gate of Hell (1953)
It is a 1953 Japanese jidaigeki samurai film directed by Teinosuke Kinugasa. It tells the story of a samurai (Kazuo Hasegawa) who tries to marry a woman (Machiko Kyō) whom he saves, only to discover that she is already married and self-destruct over an uncontrollable love passion. Recorded using Eastmancolor, Gate of Hell was Daiei Film’s first color film and the first Japanese color film to be released outside Japan. The film mixes an underground surge of powerful feelings with spectacular visuals. The tension and miseries of the samurai’s violent enthusiasms flare up behind the veneer of self-respect, self-restraint and superb cinematic aesthetics. The very essence of ancient Japanese culture is made a stimulant in this film.
The film begins during the Heiji Rebellion in 1159 while attempting to take Sanjo Castle in a coup. Samurai Endō Morito is tasked with accompanying the lady-in-waiting Kesa away from the palace once she volunteers to disguise herself as sister of the daimyō, leaving the father of the daimyō to the real sister time to escape secretly.
Based on the book of the same name by Ueda Akinari and directed by the well-known director Kenji Mizoguchi, Ugetsu was among the first films significant ones that emerged from Japan as it recovered after World War II. It’s a esoteric film that focuses on the battle of 2 peasant families and the fate that befalls them. Absolutely special, the film is a great reflection on morality, the spirituality and the power of illusions. Aesthetically exceptional, it is among the most important masterpieces in the history of cinema.
In the farming town of Nakanogō on the coast of Lake Biwa in Ōmi Province during Sengoku, Genjūrō, a potter, brings his wares to nearby Ōmizo. He is accompanied by his brother-in-law Tōbei, who wants to become a samurai. That night, Shibata Katsuie’s army passes through Nakanogō, destroying the homes of Genjūrō, Tōbei, and their wives; Genjūrō chooses to take his pots to a different market. As the couples take a trip across Lake Biwa, a boat appears out of the thick fog. The lone traveler tells them he was attacked by pirates, warns them and dies. The men choose to take their wives back to the coast, but Tōbei’s wife Ohama refuses to go. Miyagi asks Genjūrō not to leave her, but she is left on the coast with their baby Genichi clinging to her back.
Seven Samurai (1954)
It is a Japanese samurai film from 1954. Akira Kurosawa, the immortal master of Japanese cinema, dominates the scenario of samurai movies. Choosing the author’s best film would be a difficult task, but Seven Samurai could be among the best. When a group of villagers are constantly being targeted by outlaws, he takes matters into his own hands by hiring a group of samurai to fight back. A story of class and cultural struggles unfolds, loaded to the brim with breathtaking action scenes and heartbreaking twists. Remade many times by various directors, the initial is simply hard to imitate.
Throne of Blood (1957)
Shakespeare’s Macbeth is moved to ancient Japan in this sensational film, adapted from Akira Kurosawa’s Eternal Bard and starring Toshiro Mifune in the lead role . Girl Asaji Washizu is bent on seizing power through her man, and the two lead a bloody project where alliances are destroyed and corpses begin piling up. Despite the language barrier and some plot discrepancies from the initial it is perhaps the best Shakespearean adaptation ever made for the screen. Even without understanding the story this is still an excellent movie: a supernatural film in which human aspiration and ruthlessness are as menacing as a transcendent force.
The Hidden Fortress (1958)
It is a adventure film 1958 Japanese jidaigeki Akira Kurosawa. It tells the story of 2 peasants who agree to escort a man and woman along the line of fire in exchange for gold without realizing that the man is a general and the woman is a princess. The film stars Toshiro Mifune as General Makabe Rokurōta and Misa Uehara as Princess Yuki while the role of the peasants, Tahei and Matashichi, are played by Minoru Chiaki and Kamatari Fujiwara respectively.
Among the best action and adventure films ever made and a frenetic, aesthetically spectacular and entertaining samurai film, which does not disdain the mechanisms of Hollywood blockbusters. Toshiro Mifune’s brawny presentations of bold audacities in the horse-charge scene and the painstakingly choreographed battle that follows remain in the best tradition of Douglas Fairbanks. There is a sense of pure cinema in this film which places it among the great cinematic experiences such as Gunga Din, The Thief of Baghdad and the famous diptych of Fritz Lang The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Hindu Tomb. A bit eclipsed by the perfection of Seven Samurai, it is an intense film carefully staged, among the best works of art by Kurosawa.
It is a 1961 Japanese samurai film. Kurosawa returns once again with a rousing story of a renegade samurai drawn into a bitter war between competing clans , which in turn causes chaos in a small town. The rōnin takes matters into his own hands and chooses to maintain his resourcefulness, tricking both sides into ensuring that they punish each other. More than anything else, the film is formidable by the incomparable Toshiro Mifune, whose charm and physicality loom large in this explosive film. Mifune won the Volpi Cup for Best Actor at the 1961 Venice Film Festival.
Set at the end of the Tokugawa era, this film gripping tells the story of Tsugumo Hanshiro (played by the fantastic Tatsuya Nakadai), a samurai who loses his respectable position in society. With nowhere to go, she tries to reintegrate into the world and reconcile her brave past with today’s harsh truths. A hymn to the human spirit and a reflection on the unconsciousness of death, the film is also a broad meditation on the end of an era, along with a look at the more terrible elements of belonging to the samurai class in ancient Japan.
It is a 1962 Japanese Samurai film. Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune reunited for this sequel to Yojimbo. When Mifune’s rōnin hears 9 young samurai strategies to fight against their corrupt overseer, he once again takes matters into his own hands and chooses to lead them and uphold justice. The action concludes in the climax of the film, with the best samurai fight in Japanese cinema, in which Sanjuro faces his downfall in a fatal battle. Throughout the film there is a subtext about the futility of violence and war. A line from the film states all this: “The most beautiful swords are those that are kept in their scabbards”.
Shogun Assassin (1980)
It is a Japanese samurai film from 1980. Among the bloodiest films on this list, Shogun Assassin is a shortened variation of the Lone Wolf and Cub films from the 1980s ’70, adapted from the manga of the same name. A samurai executioner is betrayed by his master, who sends ninjas to eliminate him. They kill his wife, leaving him to care for himself and his infant child. A grindhouse classic that had a big impact on Quentin Tarantino, this is pure carnage however extremely entertaining from start to finish.
It’s a 1980 Japanese Samurai movie. Kagemusha almost wasn’t made. Large production expenses threatened the project when Toho Studios could not raise enough cash, however assistance was on hand from directors George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola. Both were big fans of Kurosawa and convinced 20th Century Fox to help finance the work in exchange for global circulation rights outside Japan. The story focuses on a lowly criminal employed to impersonate a deceased warlord to repel the attacks of the warring clans. Worth mentioning is the film’s climactic battle of Nagashino, based on a real-life event that took place in 1575 and claimed the lives of over 10,000 men. Over 5,000 extras attended and the result is Kurosawa’s most extraordinary fight scene.
It is a 1985 Japanese samurai film. Ran was the most expensive Japanese film ever produced at the time of its release, with a spending plan of over $12 million . A baroque film about Shakespeare’s King Lear, it tells the story of King Hidetora Ichimonji, who chooses to divide his kingdom between his 3 sons. Kurosawa delves even deeper into this monstrous film which is among the best war films of all time. The combat scenes used 200 horses and more than 1,400 uniform and armor sets were handcrafted by artisans for the production. The director was provided with a one-time permit to film in the ancient castles of Meiji and Kumamoto and even built a castle on the slopes of Mount Fuji, only to burn it down during the film’s last scene. The result is significant in world cinema, with battle scenes so realistic you can almost smell the blood, gunpowder and sweat.
Shogun’s Shadow (1989)
It’s a 1989 Japanese samurai film. A breath of fresh air in samurai cinema, Shogun’s Shadow significantly breaks with convention stylistic in its representation of feudal battles. A young boy, who is the shogun’s successor, finds his life in danger when he is targeted as part of a political plot. The boy’s bodyguard is assigned to secure him, and he makes a legendary journey across Japan to provide safety for the boy, with mobs of hostile warriors in hot pursuit. Director Yasuo Furuhata drew inspiration from Western action cinema, with extreme action scenes and a rock soundtrack. It was among the most expensive films ever made in Japan upon release. A fast-paced film that never slows down.
Ghost Dog (1999)
Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai is a thriller film 1999 martial arts Jim Jarmusch. Forest Whitaker plays the title character, the mystic “Ghost Dog”, a hit man in the employ of the mafia, who follows the ancient samurai code as described in Yamamoto Tsunetomo’s phrase book, Hagakure. Critics have noted similarities to Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1967 film Le Samouraï. It is an ingenious mix of samurai movies and gangster movie with excellent performances by the actors. Ghost Dog is completely distraught and has lost all touch with reality. His unhappiness stems from his alienation from human society, his isolation, his effort to validate inhumane habits such as murder with samurai code beliefs that have no connection to his life or his world.
Ghost Dog considers himself a servant of Louie, a local mobster, who saved Ghost Dog’s life years earlier. While living as a gunslinger for the American mafia, he abides by the samurai code and utilizes the knowledge and analysis of the Hagakure. Louie has Ghost Dog take out a gangster, Handsome Frank, who is sleeping with the daughter of local mob boss Vargo. Ghost Dog eliminates the gangster and discovers the woman is also in the house and leaves her alive. To avoid being involved in the murder Vargo and his partner Sonny Valerio choose to eliminate Ghost Dog. Louie knows absolutely nothing about Ghost Dog, as the hitman only interacts with a carrier pigeon. The mobsters start looking for him by tracking down all the pigeon nests in the city.
The Twilight Samurai (2002)
It’s a drama film written and directed by Yoji Yamada and starring Hiroyuki Sanada and Rie Miyazawa. Set in mid-19th century Japan, a couple of years before the Meiji Restoration, it follows the life of Seibei Iguchi, a low-ranking samurai employed as a bureaucrat. Poor, but not destitute, he still manages to lead a material and happy life with his children and his mother, who has dementia.
The film was inspired by the short story “The Bamboo Sword” by Shuhei Fujisawa. The Twilight Samurai won 12 Japanese Academy Awards and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film at the 76th Academy Awards. Impressive samurai film and at the same time moving drama, the story of Seibei is told by director Yoji Yamada with soft tones and colors, perfectly recreating a feudal city that still retains its architecture, its ancient values, even if the economy is making his way of life obsolete.
It’s a 2003 Japanese Jidaigeki action samurai film, directed, written, co-edited and starring Takeshi Kitano in his eleventh direction. Kitano plays the role of the blind swordsman. The film is a remake of the timeless Zatoichi series of samurai movies and television dramas. It premiered at the 2003 Venice International Film Festival, where it won the prestigious Silver Lion for Best Director, and has won many other awards both at home and abroad. Also starring Tadanobu Asano, Michiyo Okusu, Yui Natsukawa, Guadalcanal Taka, Daigoro Tachibana, Yuko Daike, Ittoku Kishibe, Saburo Ishikura and Akira Emoto.
Zatoichi is a blind swordsman who defends citizens caught up in a local yakuza gang war. Zatoichi befriends a farmer and his gambler nephew and helps 2 geisha sisters who seek revenge for the murder of their parents. The sisters are the only survivors of a break-in and massacre at their home 10 years earlier. They discover that those responsible for the murders are the same yakuza who are ravaging the village.
13 Assassins (2010)
It is a 2010 samurai film directed by Takashi Miike and starring Kōji Yakusho, Takayuki Yamada, Sōsuke Takaoka, Hiroki Matsukata, Kazuki Namioka and Gorō Inagaki. It is a remake of Eiichi Kudo’s 1963 Japanese drama film set in 1844 near the end of the Edo era in which a group of thirteen assassins, twelve samurai and a hunter, plot to assassinate Lord Matsudaira Naritsugu, the murderous leader of the clan Akashi, to prevent his visit to the powerful Shogunate Council.
The film marks the third collaboration Yamada and Takaoka starred in together, the first two being Crows Zero and Crows Zero 2, both directed by Miike. Principal photography took 2 months from July to September 2009 in Tsuruoka, Yamagata, Northern Japan. The film was released in Japan on September 25, 2010 and in the United States on April 29, 2011. The film received critical acclaim from Western critics.