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Samurai Cinema


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.