Samurai Cinema

August 14, 2020

 

     So, you've finished Ghost of Tsushima, and presumably gotten the Platinum trophy. But the game was so good, that you're still craving more Samurai action. Well I've got good news; I've put together this list of classic Samurai films to help you through this difficult time. I've seen most of the films on this list, the exceptions being certain film series where I haven't seen every film, and I'll mention that when it shows up. Otherwise, the film has my personal recommendation.

 

     Seven Samurai (1954) - THE Samurai film, and an absolute masterpiece of cinema. If you only watch one Samurai film, watch this one. Directed by Akira Kurosawa and starring Toshiro Mifune, two names that will show up quite a bit on this list. A village of poor peasants is being harassed by bandits, so they decide to hire seven Ronin to take care of the problem. Even if you haven't seen this, I can almost guarantee you've seen a version of this story, as it's been remade multiple times. The most famous remake is the classic western, The Magnificent Seven.

 

     Samurai Trilogy (1954) - A trilogy (obviously) of three films about the life of real-life sword master Miyamoto Musashi, played here by Toshiro Mifune. The three films, Miyamoto Musashi, Duel at Ichijoji Temple, and Duel at Ganryu Island make one continuous story, as the trilogy is an adaptation of the epic historical novel Musashi by Eiji Yoshikawa. If you can find the novel, it's absolutely worth reading.

 

     Throne of Blood (1957) - Another Kurosawa film, this tends to get overlooked in his vast filmography. A favorite of mine, what makes Throne of Blood so interesting is that it's an adaptation of Shakespeare's Macbeth, with the setting moved to Feudal Japan. But what really makes this stand out is that the Macbeth character, General Washizu Taketoki, is played by Toshiro Mifune, and it's one of the only times we see him portray a villainous character. His absolute mental breakdown at the end is the highlight of the film.

 

     The Hidden Fortress (1958) - Yet again, Kurosawa and Mifune team up to make a classic. Two peasants agree to help a man and woman cross enemy lines while transporting hidden gold. The two peasants are unaware the pair are actually a princess and a general. If this sounds familiar, it should, it's the inspiration for Star Wars, something George Lucas has been completely upfront about. In fact, Lucas originally wanted Mifune to portray Obi-wan Kenobi.

 

     Yojimbo (1961) - Probably the second most famous Kurosawa film on this list, Mifune portrays a nameless Ronin who wanders into a small town where two rival gangs are vying for control. Initially both gangs try to hire him, but the Ronin instead plays them against each other. This was remade as the Clint Eastwood Western A Fistful of Dollars. It was followed by a sequel, Sanjuro the next year. Sanjuro is a great film, and notable in that it was the first (as far as I'm aware) to use high pressure blood that became a defining staple of Samurai cinema.

 

     Hara-kiri (1962) - A film that's not directed by Kurosawa and doesn't have star Mifune, a poor Ronin arrives at the estate of a high-ranking Samurai clan and asks for permission to commit seppuku (ritual suicide) on the estate grounds. While reluctant, the clan obliges the Ronin's request, but first he recounts his story. Things are of course, much more complicated than they seem. What follows is a brutal subversion of the way Samurai are usually portrayed in movies, noble, heroic, honorable. Instead, the film criticizes the caste system that the Samurai held up for centuries, showing how those in lesser positions are treated. Not for the faint of heart, Hara-kiri is a brilliant film. It was remade 2011, but I haven't seen that version.

 

     The Tale of Zatoichi (1962) - The first in a series of twenty-six films, Zatoichi (portrayed by Shintaro Katsu) is a blind masseur who is secretly a master swordsman. He fights with a blade hidden in his bamboo walking cane. A bit formulaic, the typical Zatoichi film goes something like this. Zatoichi arrives in a town, everyone assumes he's a harmless blind man. Zatoichi uncovers some secret, usually involving a young woman in trouble, and gets involved. Soon his true skills are revealed, and an epic fight ensues. His secret out, Zatoichi leaves the town to continue wandering Japan. This is a series where I haven't seen every film, but despite the common formula, I personally really enjoy those I have seen.

 

     The Sword of Doom (1966) - Another subversion, this follows a violent Samurai who becomes consumed by insanity and a desire to kill.

 

     Lone Wolf and Cub (1972) - A series of six films, Lone Wolf and Cub follows Ogami Itto, formerly the Shogun's executioner, after he is framed by the powerful Yagyu Clan. Itto now walks the path of the assassin with his young son, Daigoro, as he seeks vengeance against the Yagyu clan. Based on the epic manga of the same name, which is absolutely worth reading, Lone Wolf and Cub was initially released in the West as Shogun Assassin. The first Shogun Assassin film is actually the first two Lone Wolf and Cub films edited together. Why I don't know.

 

     Shogun (1980) - Ok, so this one is a bit of a cheat as it's a mini-series, but it's so insanely good it would feel criminal to not recommend it. Based on the 1975 novel by James Clavell (which I've recommended before), Shogun is about an English sailor who is shipwrecked in Feudal Japan and ends up becoming a Samurai. Very loosely based on the real-life William Adams. Starring Richard Chamberlain, John Rhys-Davies (yes, you read that right) and Toshiro Mifune, Shogun had a major impact when it came out, breaking several television taboos, and actually impacting movie ticket sales because so many people stayed home to watch it. I realize in the age of streaming services, tv effecting movie sales is nothing special, but it sure was in 1980.

 

     Ran (1985) - The final Samurai film by Akira Kurosawa, Ran is an adaptation of Shakespeare's King Lear, but once again, in Feudal Japan.

 

     Ninja Scroll (1993) - A classic anime film, Ninja Scroll follows the Ronin Jubei Kibagami as he gets swept up in a battle with Ninjas (all of whom have supernatural powers) in their attempt to overthrow the Tokugawa Shogunate. Highly influential, especially for American anime fans, Ninja Scroll is notorious for its amount of sex-and-violence. Over the top, and not remotely politically correct, Ninja Scroll is a lot of fun for those who can stomach it.

 

Rurouni Kenshin: Trust and Betrayal (1999) - Another cheat, as this technically isn't a film, but four OVAs (Original Video Animation) that serve as a prequel to the anime/manga series Rurouni Kenshin by Nobuhiro Watsuki. Originally released in the West as Samurai X. Set during the Meiji revolution, this tragic series reveals Kenshin's role in overthrowing the Shogunate, and how he got his iconic scar. Out of everything that ever came from the Rurouni Kenshin media franchise, and there is a lot, this is my personal favorite. Now normally, I wouldn't bring up a creator's personal life, but this is one of the few cases where I think it deserves a mention. Nobuhiro Watsuki was arrested for possession of child pornography, and I know for a lot of folks, something like that means they, understandably, feel they can no longer support the work. I won't tell people how they should or shouldn't try to separate the work from the artist, but at least in the case of this particular set of OVAs, my understanding is that Watsuki had very little to do with it besides the general outline.

 

     The Last Samurai (2003) - Believe it or not, Tom Cruise is not the last Samurai, Ken Watanabe is, something I have to keep explaining to people. Set during the Meiji era, this film is about a U.S. army veteran (Cruise) who comes to the newly opened-to-the-world Japan to train their new army. He ends up taken prisoner by a Samurai clan (Watanabe) and learns about their way of life, coming to greatly respect it. Yes, it's very similar to Dances with Wolves, it's still an excellent film. In fact, it was well received in Japan for being researched, casting actual Japanese actors, and having Japanese dialogue coaches. A common criticism of the film is that it employs a "white savior" narrative. However, I disagree. Much like Kevin Costner's Dances with Wolves, the Cruise character is not a savior, he's an observer; and while he comes to greatly respect the Japanese culture, there is nothing he can do to stop the time of the Samurai coming to an end.

 

     The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi (2003) - This revival stars Takeshi Kitano (Beat Takeshi) in the title role as the blind masseur. The film follows the typical Zatoichi plot mentioned earlier. Zatoichi comes to a village, finds out innocents are being hurt/taken advantage of, a bloodbath ensues. However, unlike the classic series, this one is in color, and much more violent. Western viewers might recognize Beat Takeshi as the main host of Takeshi's Castle, a game show where contestants have to overcome a series of wacky challenges. It aired in the U.S. under the name MXC: Most Extreme Elimination Challenge.

 

     Sword of the Stranger (2007) - Another anime film. A nameless Ronin ends up protecting a young boy who is being hunted by assassins from China. With the Chinese assassins is a mysterious westerner who seems to have some connection to the Ronin.

 

     13 Assassins (2010) - Set near the end of the Edo period; a sadistic Lord commits numerous crimes against nobles and commoners alike. Despite his unforgivable actions, the Lord never suffers any repercussions because his brother is the Shogun. Even worse, the Lord is soon going to be promoted to the Shogun's council. Realizing what will happen if such a man gets control of the country, an old retainer hires thirteen men to kill the Lord. However, as the Lord is already on his way to Edo, the assassin's will have to kill him while he's surrounded by hundreds of retainers and bodyguards on the open road. Intense, violent, and well-choreographed, this is everything a Samurai film should be. Interestingly enough, this is actually a remake of a classic film from 1963 of the same name. Both are worth watching, but this is one of the handful of films where I can say the remake is actually better.

 

     Blade of the Immortal (2017) - A Samurai film with a sci-fi twist. Looking for revenge on the men who killed her parents, Rin Asano hires a Ronin named Manji who she eventually learns has been cursed with immortality. From the director of 13 Assassins (Takashi Miike), Blade of the Immortal is based on the manga of the same name. The film itself is kind of hard to explain without spoiling too much, you just have to see it for yourself. However, one thing I will say, one of the coolest things about this film is that the opening action sequence is shot in black and white, imitating classic films.

 

     Honorable mention - 47 Ronin. This is a famous story in Japan that has received multiple adaptations on both TV and film. I've seen a couple adaptations, but not all of them. There was a terrible American version released in 2013 that turned it into a fantasy. Don't watch that one.

 

     Well I hope that's enough to hold you over until we learn about either a sequel or DLC for Ghost of Tsushima. Of course, what I've listed is nowhere close to a comprehensive list of awesome Samurai films. And it gets even better if you're open to Samurai TV series, live action and animated. Until next time, Jaa Mate!

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