10 great films set in medieval Japan

Feudal Japan was a time of warriors, ghosts and wandering samurai. The turbulence has inspired some of the country’s greatest filmmakers, from Kurosawa to Miyazaki.

Poster for Seven Samurai (1954)

“War, earthquake, winds, fire, famine, the plague… Year after year, it’s been nothing but disasters.” In 1951, audiences at the Venice Film Festival were transported some seven centuries into Japan’s feudal past. In more ways than one, they’d never seen anything like Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950). The film won the festival’s Golden Lion, kickstarting a wave of international attention for the jidaigeki – or period drama – with which Japanese cinema would quickly become synonymous on the world stage.

Back in Japan, period dramas were every bit as popular, but the majority of jidaigeki focused their attention on the later Edo period (1603-1867), a time of relative stability under the rule of the shogunate. The preceding centuries that make up Japan’s medieval period (1185-1603) were beset by chaos. It was a time of endless civil war, in which local warlords and estate owners fought for control, and the samurai class emerged to replace the aristocracy as the most powerful social group.

Japan’s medieval period began with the overthrow of the Taira clan at the Battle of Dannoura in 1185, which put an end to the Heian era and ushered in the Kamakura period. And it continued until the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600, which led to the Tokugawa shogunate being installed three years later. This war-torn land was the stuff of legend, a breeding ground for folk tales and heroic myths, in which, as Rashomon’s priest puts it, “a human life is as frail and fleeting as the morning dew.” 

It was a land of ghosts and samurai, of mud and rain and raging battles, a land from which warriors could rise, and despots would fall. Here are 10 greats from the troubled centuries of Japan’s medieval past.

The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail (1945)

Director: Akira Kurosawa

The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail (1945)

Akira Kurosawa will always be synonymous with the jidaigeki. Having begun his career with the two-part epic Sanshiro Sugata (1943-45), set in the late 19th century, for his fourth feature he ventured some 700 years further into Japan’s past with the feudal miniature The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail. Adapted from the 1840 dance-drama Kanjinchō, one of the most popular plays in the kabuki repertory, the film saw the master-in-the-making embroiled in a row with the postwar censors, who refused to release it on the grounds that it “defiled” Japan’s classical performing arts.

Set in 1185, and running a whisker under an hour, the film takes its title from a central set-piece that sees the Shogun’s brother trying to pass through a heavily guarded rural outpost in disguise. He’s on the run with his posse of retainers, having fallen into disfavour, and a decision has to be made whether to fight his way through or stealthily manoeuvre as though “stepping over a tiger’s tail”. With early sequences accompanied by folk-heroic songs that comment on the action, Kurosawa’s mythmaking sensibilities are already in full flight. Coupled with a preternatural gift for situational tension, it makes for one of the most compelling of his early films.

Ugetsu Monogatari (1953)

Director: Kenji Mizoguchi

Ugetsu Monogatari (1953)

Two years after Rashomon’s Venetian triumph, the surge of interest in Japanese period dramas was still going strong. Long-take maestro Kenji Mizoguchi won the festival’s Silver Lion for this exquisitely textured adaptation of the ghost stories of Ueda Akinari, and even scored an Oscar nomination for the film’s costume design.

Set in 1583, during the Sengoku (Warring States) period, Ugetsu Monogatari is one of the crown jewels of Japanese cinema’s golden age. A haunting study in greed and hubris, the film sees a pair of villagers – a tradesman and a wannabe samurai – set off in pursuit of wealth and military greatness. “Quick profits made in chaotic times never last,” says a village elder, and the men soon come undone at the hands of a spectral noblewoman and their own self-serving deceit. But it’s the women who bear the brunt of their husbands’ follies: raped, left to starve, and forced into prostitution while the men follow their foolhardy belief that “money is everything” to ruinous ends. Mizoguchi, ever-attuned to the plight of his female characters, gives them the last, morally instructive word: “I told you so, but you were too stupid.”

Seven Samurai (1954)

Director: Akira Kurosawa

Seven Samurai (1954)

Rashomon (1950), Throne of Blood (1957), The Hidden Fortress (1958) – Kurosawa spoils us for choice when it comes to vivid cinematic depictions of medieval Japan. But one film towers over the lot. Or rather, towers over all of Japanese cinema if we take the critics at Kinema Junpo at their word: the prestigious journal voted it the second greatest Japanese film of all time.

Seven Samurai is a monolith of world cinema, an exciting action spectacle that doesn’t waste a minute of its three-and-a-half-hour running time. It’s a film that takes the tropes of the American western and subsumes them into a uniquely Japanese treatise on heroism, as a village of poor, besieged peasants hires a motley crew of warriors to fend off an army of rampaging bandits. 

It’s safe to say there’d be no The Wild Bunch (1969), no Man with No Name trilogy (1964-66), certainly no The Magnificent Seven (1960), and probably no Star Wars (1977) without its pioneering approach to storytelling, action staging and codes of honour. Shakespeare gets bandied around a lot in relation to Kurosawa, but, perhaps even more so than with his adaptations of Macbeth, Hamlet and King Lear, the spirit of the bard inhabits Seven Samurai. The scope of its human comedy, tragedy, generosity, compassion – and all the grace notes in between – contains multitudes.

Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto (1954)

Director: Hiroshi Inagaki

Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto (1954)

Covering the final years of Japan’s medieval era, the first film in Hiroshi Inagaki’s Samurai trilogy kicks off in 1600 with the bloody Battle of Sekigahara, the event which paved the way for the Edo period and the nation’s first shogunate ruler. Dozens of films have been made about the folkloric hero Musashi Miyamoto, including a six-feature series by the great Tomu Uchida. Inagaki’s adaptation of the epic novel by Eiji Yoshikawa is the best known (in the west, at least), in no small part due to the presence of an iconic Toshiro Mifune in the title role.

Musashi – a writer, philosopher and peerless swordsman – occupies a position in the Japanese national consciousness not dissimilar to China’s Qing dynasty folk hero, Wong Fei-hung. He’s the archetypal ideal of the cultured samurai warrior. Inagaki’s films may be hagiographical exercises in myth-making, but he sure makes the most of his vast canvas, blending genre thrills with classical prestige. It’s a landmark colour film, arriving just a year after Teinosuke Kinugasa’s pioneering Gate of Hell (1953), and Inagaki doesn’t miss an opportunity for rousing, vibrantly art-directed spectacle.

Love Under the Crucifix (1962)

Director: Kinuyo Tanaka

Love Under the Crucifix (1962)BFI National Archive

Unforgettable as the mother in his 1954 masterpiece Sansho Dayu, the hugely prolific actor Kinuyo Tanaka will always be synonymous with the films of Kenji Mizoguchi, for whom she starred in some 15 features. But in 1953, she became just the second Japanese woman to direct a film. Love Letter played in competition at Cannes, and five more features followed across the next decade. Tanaka’s talents as a filmmaker can’t be understated, but it’s only in recent years that her filmography has been rediscovered in the west. Her second feature, The Moon Has Risen (1955), was revived at Cannes this summer, and new restorations of her other five films were unveiled this month at the Lumière Festival in France.

Love Under the Crucifix was her last film as director. Made four years before Shusaku Endo wrote Silence, this tale of doomed love takes place in 1587, during the early days of the shogun’s ban on Christianity. Piercingly humanistic, and with a stunning central performance from Ineko Arima, it’s a ravishingly textured story of oppression and empowerment, and a striking feminist rejoinder to the male-centric skirmishes that dominate depictions of feudal Japan on screen.

The Third Shadow Warrior (1963)

Director: Umetsugu Inoue

The Third Shadow Warrior (1963) poster

In 1564, a village farmer is trained as a “shadow warrior”, studying the movements of a local warlord to serve as his double. If that outline sounds familiar, it’s because the tale of Shingen Takeda – a real-life 16th-century clan leader – was also the source material for Akira Kurosawa’s Kagemusha (1980). Umetsugu Inoue’s take on the story is the more brutal proposition, a bloody genre workout compared with the big guy’s sprawling, three-hour epic. Where Kurosawa leans towards disillusionment and tragedy on a vast scale, Inoue keeps his tightly-plotted wheels spinning, ramping up the tension as the protagonist’s fellow shadows get picked off one by one.

Captured in black-and-white widescreen, the battle scenes are ferocious, not least when the warlord loses an eye to an arrow, necessitating the removal of the same from each of his doubles in a grisly operation. Inoue’s camera is balletically mobile, his sharp editing making the most of the frequent action set-pieces. Darkly comic, and with a keen eye for the hierarchical social and economic contracts of the feudal system, this one is ripe for rescuing from the shadow of its more famous successor.

Onibaba (1964)

Director: Kaneto Shindo

Onibaba (1964)

It’s 1336, and the “world’s turned upside down”. Farmers are starving; there’s fighting everywhere. Somewhere in the Japanese countryside there lies a deep hole in the ground, a “dark passageway from ancient times to the present”. A mother and daughter-in-law, her husband lost to war, live off the land – a land that provides them with lost samurai to murder and throw into the pit, selling their belongings for food. The arrival of an absconded fighter tests their relationship, before a grotesquely-masked samurai sets them on a road to ruin.

At once an expressionistic period interrogation of the consequences of war, and a primal, erotically charged horror film, this reimagining of a Buddhist folk tale was seen by director Kaneto Shindo as an allegory for Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Its beauty – and dread – are inextricable from its isolated location, an infernal no-man’s-land of evil skies, howling winds and grassy plains that might just hold a portal to hell. Onibaba’s carnally propelled, slow-burn horrors seem to ooze out of the liquid blacks of the night, with an uncanny sense of unease that soon gives way to demonic terror.

Daimajin (1966)

Director: Kimiyoshi Yasuda

Daimajin (1966)

With Toho’s Godzilla franchise some half a dozen films in, other studios started eyeing up that sweet kaiju dollar. Daiei were already on their second Gamera picture, and needed something to fill out the bottom half of a double bill. And so the “Great Demon God” Daimajin was born, with three features shot back-to-back by different directors, all released in 1966.

The three films follow the same template: Sengoku-era villagers are under attack by ferocious warlords, so they summon their demon god – a towering, golem-esque statue – to stomp on them. The big fella takes a while to show up, only wreaking havoc for the last 12 minutes or so of the film’s 84-minute running time, but that he’s worth the wait is all down to the terrific effects work by Yoshiyuki Kuroda, who does wonders with forced perspectives and incredible miniatures. Akira Ifukube, on music duties, effectively resurrects his Godzilla theme. If it ain’t broke…

It Was a Faint Dream (1974)

Director: Akio Jissoji

It Was a Faint Dream (1974)

A man of eclectic filmmaking habits, the two projects for which Akio Jissoji is best known couldn’t be further apart. On the one hand, he began and ended his career directing various iterations of the Ultraman TV series; on the other, he collaborated with the Art Theatre Group of Japan on three experimental, New Wave features collectively known as the Buddhist trilogy (1970-72).

It Was a Faint Dream is in the same mode as his trilogy, and continued his work with the ATG. Set in the late-13th-century Kamakura period, while Kublai Khan’s Mongol army is on the warpath, this poetic tale of love, loss and spiritual awakening was again inspired by Buddhist teachings. The film follows Shijo (Janet Hatta), a much-desired concubine of Lord Tameie, who is forced into the arms of admirers to maintain political stability. She becomes a nun, seemingly free from the ravages of time, even as she’s told that enlightenment will forever elude her. Through elliptical editing and astonishing sound schemes, Jissoji explores the tension between purity of faith and carnal desire, abandoning the radical aesthetic irruptions of the earlier films for the disembodied qualities of a waking, half-remembered dream.

Princess Mononoke (1997)

Director: Hayao Miyazaki

Princess Mononoke (1997)

A fantastical plunge into “the days of gods and demons” of Japan’s late Muromachi period (1336-1573), Princess Mononoke is Studio Ghibli’s vibrant addition to the medieval canon. The harmony that has existed for centuries between man and nature is under threat, as humans plunder the resources of the forest in their thirst for war, and this sweeping historical epic follows a young prince on his quest for a cure, after he’s bitten by a demonic boar.

While much of animation maestro Hayao Miyazaki’s work is ripe for allegorical interpretation, few come as furiously, pessimistically charged as this environmental parable. An indictment of man’s destruction of the natural world is front and centre, but Miyazaki is never a filmmaker to eschew complexity. Thus this is no straightforward tale of good versus evil – witness the film’s villain Lady Eboshi, a warmongering pollutant of the forest who displays sensitivity and care for the human outcasts within the fiercely guarded walls of her fiefdom. As ever, Miyazaki’s gifts for storytelling and character design are peerless. The arrival of the elemental forces of the forest, the Deer God and the Night Walker, are among the most majestic creations Miyazaki ever put on film.

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