10 great samurai films

With Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai returning to cinemas this autumn, we delve into Japan’s heroic past with 10 classic tales of swords and chivalry.

Updated: 11 October 2021

By Jasper Sharp

Seven Samurai (1954) © Toho Co., Ltd

Period films (or ‘jidaigeki’) based on local legends or famous historical incidents dominated Japan’s earliest fiction cinema, with modern-day dramas only becoming a significant feature of Japanese cinema from the early 1920s onwards.

Virtually nothing of the embryonic jidaigeki of the 1910s, typified by Shozo Makino’s one-reel ‘chanbara’ swashbucklers (the name taken from the clash of the sword), has survived. But evidence suggests they were stylistically crude – more or less straightforward recordings of onstage action.

The revolution in chanbara came in the late 1920s, with works such as Chuji’s Travel Diary (1927) adding dynamic editing techniques and dramatic lighting to emphasise the psychology of the characters, heightening the drama through devices such as the flash of the blade under moonlight. It was from these that the modern samurai film was born.

After the Second World War, the Allied occupation restricted films promoting feudal values, putting the kibosh on this most Japanese of action genres. When the occupiers departed in 1952, the way was clear for the golden age of the samurai film: throughout the ensuing decade, jidaigeki would account for over a third of the local industry’s annual output of some 500 titles.

As popular as the western in America, films based on legendary figures such as Musashi Miyamoto or the outlaw Chuji Kunisada, or historical tales such as ‘The Great Bodhisattva Pass’ and ‘The Legend of the 47 Loyal Retainers’, allowed filmmakers to reinterpret traditional subject matter for a modern, postwar age.

The international festival successes of such directors as Akira Kurosawa, Kenji Mizoguchi and Hiroshi Inagaki in the 1950s introduced the Japanese period drama to western cinemagoers. But distributors in the west had their blind spots, and little of the vast, popular output of, for example, the Toei studio has ever been seen overseas. To this day, classics like Bloody Spear at Mount Fuji (1955) remain all but unknown in the west.

Let’s hope we’ll see some of these missing milestones being released for home viewing in the future. For now, the upcoming cinema re-release of Seven Samurai, and these nine other readily available genre gems, present the perfecting jumping off point.

Seven Samurai (1954)

Director: Akira Kurosawa

Seven Samurai (1954)
© Toho Co., Ltd

Akira Kurosawa’s monumental tale of heroism and humanism, set in the late 16th century during the lawless Warring States Period, is the director’s most famous work. It was joint recipient (alongside Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu Monogatari) of the Silver Lion Award at the 1954 Venice Film Festival, and ranked 17 in the 2012 Sight & Sound poll of critics to determine the Greatest Films of All Time.

The film depicts seven ronin (masterless samurai) as they band together to protect a beleaguered farming community from repeated attacks by marauding bandits. The epic three-and-a-half-hour runtime, on-location shooting, and use of multiple camera set-ups for its action scenes made this release from the Toho studio the most expensive Japanese production of its day.

Most impressive is the use of physical geography and natural weather conditions to enhance the drama and the attention to each of its characters’ narrative arcs, resulting in a rich and involving work that has cast an incredibly long shadow across the world. Officially remade as the Hollywood western The Magnificent Seven in 1960, it has provided the archetype for numerous international productions, from The Dirty Dozen (1967) through the Bollywood film Sholay (1975) and beyond.

The Samurai trilogy (1954-6)

Director: Hiroshi Inagaki

Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto (1954)

Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto (1954)
Samurai II: Duel at Ichijoji Temple (1955)
Samurai III: Duel at Ganryu Island (1956)

With Toei, the largest producer of period action dramas, remaining aloof to the vogue among Japanese studios of submitting works to international festivals throughout the 1950s, it was Toho’s entries in the field that provided foreign viewers with the most open window onto the country’s mythic past. The life of master swordsman Musashi Miyamoto (1584-1645), famed for his two-handed fighting technique and his delicate touch with the Zen ink brush, have been immortalised on film numerous occasions, including a 1944 version by Mizoguchi for Shochiku.

However it was Toho’s first colour production, and the first instalment of Inagaki’s remakes of his earlier trilogy for Nikkatsu studios (1940-42), similarly based on the novel by Eiji Yoshikawa, which won the Honorary Foreign Language Film Award at the 1955 Oscars. Along with the works of Kurosawa, the films helped forge the international status of the studio’s contracted star, Toshiro Mifune, as the most iconic of screen samurais.

Strangely overlooked today, the series charts Miyamoto’s rise from the formative years of his rural upbringing to his first taste of glory at battle, then through his further training, before Duel at Ganryu Island sees him renouncing his search for fame to concentrate on his quest for inner truth, culminating in a remarkable duel by sunset.

Throne of Blood (1957)

Director: Akira Kurosawa

Throne of Blood (1957)

Kurosawa’s oeuvre is so well-represented among western releases, so critically regarded and so impressive, it is difficult to know which to single out for individual attention lest this list turn exclusively into a celebration of this most famous of Japanese filmmakers.

One could argue equally forcefully for Hidden Fortress (1958), a rip-roaring adventure, which had a profound impact on George Lucas, featuring two peasants enlisted into the service of a notorious general and the princess of a defeated clan (and represented Kurosawa’s first feature in widescreen TohoScope); the western-inspired Yojimbo (1961), about an itinerant ronin (masterless samurai) who arrives in a small town caught in the grip of two feuding factions; or his late-career return to international acclaim, Kagemusha (1980), co-financed by 20th Century Fox.

However, this eerie restaging of Macbeth in 16th-century Japan is worth singling out as a counterpoint to these more action-driven pieces. With its expressive use of light and shadows and stylised use of Noh’s theatrical conventions to convey the psychological torment of its protagonist, it is regarded as one of the most successful cinematic renditions of the Bard ever made. Kurosawa would later return to Shakespeare with his 1985 jidaigeki version of King Lear, Ran.

Harakiri (1962)

Director: Masaki Kobayashi

Harakiri (1962)

The first jidaigeki by Kwaidan (1964) director Masaki Kobayashi, about a young ronin during the early Tokugawa period (c. 1620) who is obliged by duty and honour to commit ritual suicide, is about as austere a critique of feudal traditions as one could imagine. As its title suggests, the relatively slow drama comes punctuated by moments of extreme goriness, mercifully rendered in monochrome.

Formally, the film is quite stunning, making impressive use of the peculiarities of Japanese architecture, selective lighting effects and judicious placement of its characters across the scope frame to create a striking collection of grid-like compositions conveying the oppressiveness of this highly-structured society. Toru Takemitsu’s percussive, atonal soundtrack similarly adds to the haunting air of detachment.

Samurai Assassin (1965)

Director: Kihachi Okamoto

Samurai Assassin (1965)

In Samurai Assassin, set in 1860 in the dying days of the Tokugawa Shogunate, Toshiro Mifune plays a roguish ronin unaware of the identity of his nobleman father, and who’s driven with ambitions of securing samurai status at a time when this warrior class is on the cusp of being abolished. He becomes involved in a plot to assassinate Ii Naosuke, a powerful official in the shogunate’s military government whose calls for opening up the country to foreign trade anger nationalists. The scene is set for the final implosion, and one which will see the age of the samurai over once and for all.

This strikingly-shot dramatisation of an incredibly complex defining point in history (one tackled in a number of films, including Masahiro Shinoda’s first period drama, Assassination, in 1964) highlights a hurdle western viewers often encounter with samurai films: sorting out the fact from the fiction.

The historical background, delivered in a combination of terse voiceover narration and whispered intrigues, is dense in detail. The climactic battle, however, framed in spectacular monochrome scope during a snowstorm at Edo Castle, provides more than adequate reward for patience. Directed by one of the stalwarts of the jidaigeki during the 1960s, Kihachi Okamoto, whose signature works include The Sword of Doom (1966)  and Kill! (1968), this is indeed the stuff myths are made of.

Red Sun (1971)

Director: Terence Young

Red Sun (1971)

While it might be a push to describe Red Sun as a samurai film per se, this oddball French-Italian-Spanish co-production, billed as “the first east-meets-west western”, is of interest as an indication of just how interlinked the mythology of the western gunslinger and the masterless samurai had become in the popular global imagination by the 1970s.

Charles Bronson’s gnarly outlaw, Link, forms an unlikely allegiance with Toshiro Mifune’s taciturn Kuroda, the fish-out-of-water samurai serving as bodyguard to a Japanese ambassador who is murdered during an ambush on a train to Washington to present an ornate jewelled sword to the American president.

The two overcome their cultural differences as Kuroda’s mission to retrieve the priceless sword coincides with Bronson’s hunt for his double-crossing accomplice Gotch (Alain Delon), who made off with the booty. Add to the mix a British director known for his work on three early Bond films, and love interest in the shapely form of Swiss-born actress Ursula Andress, and one is left with a unique transnational curio, one with little in the way of authenticity to any culture, but an enjoyable romp nonetheless.

Lady Snowblood (1973)

Director: Toshiya Fujita

Lady Snowblood (1973)

Meiko Kaji’s most representative screen role, as the kimono-clad avenging angel immortalised in the cinematic diptych adapted from Kazuo Koike’s pioneering manga series of the 1960s, were a clear influence for Lucy Liu’s character of O-Ren Ishii in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill (2003). This first of the two films (Lady Snowblood 2: Love Song of Vengeance was released the same year) is by far the best, as our titular heroine slices and dices her way through Meiji-era Japan in mute displays of bloody carnage as she seeks revenge against those who raped her mother and left her to rot in jail.

Despite the early modern-era setting, the film contains many of the same tropes of earlier samurai films (albeit with a lot more bloodletting), most notably another Koike adaptation that preceded it, the seven-film Lone Wolf and Cub (1972-74) series.

Shogun Assassin (1980)

Director: Robert Houston

Shogun Assassin (1980)

Kazuo Koike’s classic manga series Lone Wolf and Cub features a disgraced former executioner of the Shogun, Itto Ogami, who is wrongly accused of treason and forced to live as an outlaw with his infant son Daigoro following the murder of his wife. He was memorably introduced to the west with this US release, edited together from the first two film adaptations, Sword of Vengeance and Baby Cart at the River Styx, both directed by Kenji Misumi and released in 1972.

Fondly remembered by a generation weaned on VHS (its graphic violence saw the film consigned to the video nasties list in the 1980s), the American version is effectively an ‘edited highlights’ package, adding a relentless chugga-chugga faux-oriental synth soundtrack and a child’s-eye expository voiceover to the lyrical symphony of violence of the original Japanese films.

As the pair trundle around the countryside – Daigoro seated in a large wooden pram armed to the hilt with hidden blades – heads roll and geysers of blood erupt in slow motion against golden sunsets as Itto seeks to clear his name. Shogun Assassin certainly preserves the hyper-realistic arterial spurts and bone-crushing violence of the originals, but loses out on the moments of Zen-like stillness. The originals are undeniable classics and well worth checking out, but Shogun Assassin nonetheless remains a hugely-entertaining guilty pleasure in its own right.

The Twilight Samurai (2002)

Director: Yoji Yamada

The Twilight Samurai (2002)

The man responsible for bringing the loveable travelling salesman Tora-san to the screen in the long-running It’s Tough Being a Man (1969-97) series might seem an unlikely candidate to turn to jidaigeki. As an antidote to Hollywood’s post-9/11 attempt to reframe Japanese feudal history in Edward Zwick’s The Last Samurai (2003), the left-leaning Yamada’s affable take on the samurai as low-ranking everyman, The Twilight Samurai stems from a similar political standpoint as the director’s earlier comedy dramas. Its hero is a petty bureaucrat forced to react against the personal and wider historical circumstances he finds himself beset by in the twilight years of the feudal era preceding the Meiji Restoration of 1868.

The first of Yamada’s ‘Samurai Trilogy’, comprised of The Hidden Blade (2004) and Love and Honor (2006), The Twilight Samurai received a record-breaking 12 Japanese Academy Awards, and was nominated for best foreign-language film at the 2004 Academy Awards.

13 Assassins (2010)

Director: Takashi Miike

13 Assassins (2010)

The critical and commercial success of Yoji Yamada’s Twilight Samurai saw a long-overdue resurgence in interest in the samurai film. As in his takes on yakuza gangster films in the late-1990s, Takashi Miike’s revisionism veers more towards the stylistic rather than the socio-political end of things, in this remake of Eichi Kudo’s 1963 classic of the genre of the same name.

Kudo’s work, produced at Toei and thus little-known in the west, were made during a decline in popularity in jidaigeki and marked with the era’s concern for a greater degree of gritty realism. His signature samurai action films, based on original stories, vibrantly captured the spirit of the times, with titles like The Great Killing (1964) reflecting the turbulence surrounding the leftist student protest movements of the day.

Set in 1844, 13 Assassins follows the Seven Samurai template, featuring a band of samurais who come together to overthrow a despotic lord for the greater good of society. Miike’s version benefits from a far more generous budget, with a wonderful attention to period sets and costumes and some inventively choreographed fight scenes. His subsequent stab at remaking a genre masterpiece, with Hara-kiri: Death of a Samurai (2012), a reworking of the 1962 Kobayashi classic, was an altogether more sedate affair: the first jidaigeki shot in 3D, it was only distributed in its flat version in the UK.

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Originally published: 17 October 2013