What Are Some Really Good Samurai Movies

10 samurai films from Japan

Samurai or Bushi were called the brave sword warriors of Japan until the end of the Edo period (1868). They were of high rank in Japanese society and were the only ones allowed to be armed in everyday life. But as you can imagine, life as a warrior is particularly tough in times of peace. How can you justify your high rank when there has been no war, battles or riots for generations? Today the image of the samurai is romanticized and they are marketed as the noble protectors of Japan or optionally as the lone wolf fighting for a noble goal. Nevertheless, there are many samurai films from Japan that are really good, exciting and entertaining. I would therefore like to introduce you to my top 10 favorites. With every film you will also find my personal assessment of how good I think the respective film is. Here we go:

  1. The Seven Samrai
  2. Yojinbo the bodyguard
  3. Sanjuro
  4. Samurai of the twilight
  5. Zatoichi
  6. Hana
  7. Abacus and Sword
  8. The castle in the cobweb forest
  9. harakiri
  10. Kagemusha - The warrior's shadow

For this article, we covered everything from Kurosawa's black and white classics to Kitano's modern films. The films cover a whole range of different aspects around the topic of “Samurai”. If you keep your eyes open for the "last samurai" with Tom Cruise, you are probably wrong here, because we want to bring you closer to the Japanese productions. In our opinion, they give a diverse insight into Japanese history (focus: samurai) from a Japanese perspective.

The Seven Samurai

genre: Adventure, Historical fiction
rating: 9 / 10
Keyword: Classic, society
Duration: 207 min
year: 1957
Director: Akira Kurosawa

“The Seven Samurai” is one of the most famous samurai films directed by Akira Kurosawa and many international directors such as George Lucas, Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg later let it influence their work. As the title suggests, this film is about 7 samurai in the time of the warring states (Sengoku-jidai), who are supposed to defend a farm against plundering bandits.

The plot is very simple as it is divided into 3 sub-chapters (collecting samurai, communication between farmers and samurai and fighting the bandits). However, the message behind the film is a little more complex. The point here is which kind of life one would rather choose: The way of life of the farmers, who lead a low-risk, but undignified and selfish life, or the way of life of the samurai, who have a lot of pride and dignity, but sacrifice themselves for others and possibly even have to risk their own lives. (In the Japanese understanding, the peasants stand for common society and the samurai for virtue and idealization of moral values).

The staged sword fights are very amusing to watch and, in contrast to many other black and white films, neither boring nor theatrically exaggerated.

Yojimbo, the bodyguard

genre: Action
rating: 9 / 10
Keyword: Ronin, Mifune
Duration: 110 min
year: 1961
Director: Akira Kurosawa

This film is also from Akira Kurosawa. Yojimbo is an entertainment film that you don't have to think a lot about because it is a shallow action film. The main actor Toshiro Mifune plays a cool swordsman. Mifune shows in the role his excellent acting skills and a very realistic sword fighting style. The figure is a very strong ronin (ownerless samurai) who comes to a city ruled by yakuza and initially offers himself as a bodyguard and thus fights with both local yakuza groups in the course of the events. His aim is to bring peace back to the small town and therefore cleverly plays the gangs off against each other. Stylistically, we would describe the film as an action comedy.

Sanjuro

genre: Action, comedy
rating: 9.5 / 10
Keyword: Ronin, Mifune
Duration: 96 min
year: 1962
Director: Akira Kurosawa

In the sequel to the film “Yojimbo” called “Sanjuro”, the ronin is again the focus of the events. This time he has to take action against corruption in a family clan and protect a group of young, inexperienced samurai from the scheming clan chief. The best scene is definitely in which Sanjuro (played by Toshiro Mifune) defeats 30 opponents within 40 seconds. The film is characterized by a pleasant alternation between light, amusing scenes and tense sequences.

Compared to Yojimbo, the film Sanjuro was shot in a much higher image quality and the focus is more on the character of Sanjuro. You learn more about the main character's way of thinking and acting than in the first film.

Samurai of the twilight

genre: Drama
rating: 8 / 10
Keyword: Love
Duration: 129 min
year: 2002
Director: Yoji Yamada

This film, which was made into a film based on the book of the same name, is mainly about the everyday life of the poor samurai “Seibei” and about love. Most of the scenes shown do not contain any bloody fighting and this alone sets this film apart from most other Japanese samurai films. Instead, an insight into the mindset and daily routine of a simple samurai is given. In the film, the director Yoji Yamada tries to portray the feelings and life paths of the characters who appear, thereby showing the human side of a samurai.

Zatoichi

genre: Action
rating: 8 / 10
Keyword: Bloody, Pop
Duration: 116 min
year: 2003
Director: Takeshi Kitano

Zatoichi is Takeshi Kitano's first historical film. The blind samurai, Ichi, is an unbeatable swordsmanship master. Zato was a specific group within the Japanese society for the blind that existed in Japan during the Edo period (c. 1600-1870). This film is a remake of Shintaro Katsus ’original from 1962. The director Kitano has retained the basic framework, the plot, but created a completely new film through very different staging. He also brought elements from the musical genre and pop culture to the genre of Japanese samurai films. In some scenes he also built in tap dance sequences. Strangely, the director also lets the previously murdered people step with him. The plot of the work is all in all not particularly deep, but the action scenes are worth seeing just because of the humorous, exaggerated representation.

Hana

genre: Drama, comedy
rating: 8.5 / 10
Keyword: Pensive
Duration: 127 min
year: 2006
Director: Hirokazu Kore-eda

A young samurai “Souza” lives in poor circumstances in the city of Edo (today's Tokyo) and has been looking for a man for a long time to take revenge on him for the murder of his father. Souza is anything but a talented swordsman. In fact, he's even a pacifist and doesn't want to go ahead with the duel. However, during this time you will be paid by the government if you have successfully taken your revenge. One day he does find his enemy, but then wonders if he has to go into the fight at all to save his honor and get the money for it. The other samurai is also already retired and now has a family of his own. The farmer samurai Souza is now wondering whether the revenge will really bring him anything (besides the money).

Will the weak samurai end up taking revenge or not? In his film, the director Kore-eda tries to encourage the viewer to think about whether certain rituals are absolutely necessary or not.

Abacus and Sword

genre: Drama
rating: 7 / 10
Keyword: Family, career
Duration: 129 min
year: 2010
Director: Yoshimitsu Morita

The samurai Naoyuki is an untalented swordsman with only a low income, but has a special gift for math. He works as an accountant and calculates everything with the Japanese abacus (Soroban). During a Miai (mediated acquaintance date with a marriage prospect), Ms. Okoma gets to know and reveals to her that he is clumsy and cannot count on anything except Soroban and therefore most likely has no career opportunity. Ms. Okoma liked this honesty and she decided to get married. Almost no fight scenes appear in this film. Rather, it is a peaceful, deep, thought-provoking family drama.

The castle in the cobweb forest

genre: Drama
rating: 8 / 10
Keyword: Shakespeare, Macbeth
Duration: 105 min
year: 1956
Director: Akira Kurosawa

Two warriors are on their way home from a successful battle and get lost in the cobweb forest. There they meet a ghost who prophesies that one of them would become lord of the northern garrison and later the lord of the castle Spiderwebwald on the same day. The other would become the captain, but one of his sons would eventually become lord of the castle. The first prophecy actually occurs as prophesied. Through a chain of circumstances and the power-hungry wife of the first warrior, the remaining parts of the prophecy gradually come to pass. Does the story sound familiar to you? The film is a Japanese adaptation of Shakespeare’s "Macbeth".

harakiri

genre: Drama
rating: 8 / 10
Keyword: Tragedy, anti-samurai
Duration: 134 min
year: 1962
Director: Masaki Kobayashi

A ronin (rulerless samurai) visits a prestigious house and asks to be allowed to commit hara-kiri (ritual suicide) in order to part honorably from the world as a warrior. In the samurai culture, the term “Harakiri” plays an important role. This is how a samurai shows his loyalty and bravery. It also helps him keep his honor. Since the house owner wants to prevent a samurai from committing hara-kiri in his house (which of course would be quite a mess ...), he gives the ronin his sword and money.

A few days later, however, another ronin comes and asks again to be allowed to do hara-kiri at the farm, because the story of the first ronin has apparently got around. He tries to get money and food by doing this. This time, however, the master of the house decides to grant the ronin's request and let him do seppuku / hara-kiri. That in turn puts the ronin in an awkward position, because he hadn't actually planned to actually commit suicide, but to back down now would also be dishonorable. How will the ronin decide now? Will he really do hara-kiri in the end?

Kagemusha - The warrior's shadow

genre: Historical fiction
rating: 8.5 / 10
Keyword: Doppelganger, war
Duration: 180 min
year: 1980
Director: Akira Kurosawa

The story takes place in the 16th century in Japan during the so-called Sengoku period. At this time the country was sinking into civil war, as the warlords were fighting for their territory and for more power. Alongside Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi, Shingen Takeda is one of the leading figures in the unification of Japan. But one night he is murdered in ambush. His clan hides his death and uses a Kagemusha (doppelganger) who looks very similar to Shingen. This doppelganger is actually a thief who was previously pardoned by Shingen for his looks. Only Shingen's closest advisers are privy to the plan and help the Kagemusha play its part. He's so good that he manages to deceive Shingen's friends, family, and enemies. Even his concubines do not realize that they are dealing with a thief until ...

Do you want to read more about Japanese films and have more suggestions? Then have a look at our post.

Updated: 05/24/20 | Posted by Yuya

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