Fans of samurai films, get in here.
Looking for the best samurai films? You’ve come to the right place. We’ve rounded up six must-see movies for you.
A lone, masterless samurai (played by Toshirô Mifune) wanders the countryside. At each fork in the road, he decides which way to go by throwing a stick in the air and letting it point him along. He blows into a small village and finds it caught between rival gangs. Instead of just joining one side, he offers to help both — hoping to save the town by playing the gangs against each other. If this premise sounds familiar, it’s because The Road Warrior, A Fistful of Dollars, and Last Man Standing, among others, all use Yojimbo as the basis for their plots. Directed masterfully by Akira Kurosawa, Yojimbo is a must-see among samurai films, as well as the samurai-without-a-name’s further adventures in Yojimbo’s sequel, Sanjuro.
Throne of Blood (1957)
Throne of Blood (originally Spider’s Web Castle) is a dreamlike retelling of Macbeth in feudal Japan. When Taketoti Washizu and his right-hand commander venture into a labyrinthine forest, they come across an ethereal figure spinning thread who tells Washizu he will soon ascend to the title of Great Lord. Returning home, Washizu tells his wife what he was told. Though he has little interest in becoming Great Lord, she urges him to pursue the prophecy. As things begin to mysteriously align and allow Washizu to gain more and more power, he begins to lose his grasp on the ideals he once held most dear.
When the Last Sword Is Drawn (2002)
Through switching flashbacks narrated by two characters, we learn the story of Kanichiro Yoshimura, a down-on-his-luck samurai. Deciding his payment as retainer within the clan is too low to support his family, Yoshimura leaves for the nearby city for better work. Abandoning his hometown clan brings shame to the family he left behind, but he has no choice. We see Yoshimura rise from his lowly station to immense integrity and honor. While becoming the person you have to be for either yourself or your loved ones isn’t always a pretty metamorphosis, Yoshimura perseveres through his transformation with grace, sincerity and love.
Bleak but beautiful, Akira Kurosawa’s Ran—乱 meaning chaos—is a retelling of King Lear set in medieval Japan. When aging warlord Hidetora Ichimonji splits his kingdom between his three sons, two of them turn on their father, leading to immediate disastrous, bloody results. Epic in scope with shots only Kurosawa could achieve, Ran is the filmmaking master’s final great work. It is a desolate story that can be summarized with the proverbial warning “you reap what you sow.” The most iconic shot of this film sees silver-haired Ichimonji sitting center-framed with a look of resignation and defeat on his lined face as flaming arrows streak all around him — a man whose home is burning down, his way of life burning down, and all of it is entirely, without question, his fault.
The Sword of Doom (1966)
Quite possibly the most nihilistic of the samurai films on the list. The main character, Ryunosuke, played quite spectacularly by Tatsuya Nakadai, is a rapist and murderer. He has zero sense of guilt, schemes like all get-out, and his main technique involves lowering his sword, staring at his opponent’s feet and waiting perfectly still until his opponent can’t stand another second of the tension, rushes in and gets immediately cut down. Most of the other characters in Sword of Doom are dirtbags too: human traffickers, cat burglars and other delightful folk. When Ryunosuke is finally revealed for what he is and gets cornered, he [spoilers] cuts his way through the entire mob sent to dispatch him, slowly growing exhausted and more injured as more pour themselves against him. The final shot comes as he turns toward the camera, screams and swings. We pause on his frozen face, twisted by his shout. THE END. Ryunoskue’s carnage is halted but only by celluloid. It’s as if even his own story has grown too disgusted by him to witness any more. Brilliant, but not exactly an upper.
Seven Samurai (1954)
When a village is plagued by crop-stealing bandits, the townspeople scrape together the money to hire seven ronin — or masterless samurai — to protect their livelihoods. A relatively simple premise, but Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai stands as the best of the genre. Its masterful framing, precision editing and energy are seldom seen in modern cinema — of any genre. The violence isn’t prettied up. It’s dirty and hardscrabble without ever dipping into gratuitousness. Unlike many samurai films before, it doesn’t feel like a choreographed dance. It’s raw and desperate, much like the situation we find our characters in. They’re trying to save a town, people’s lives and their way of life. They’re fighting to reestablish peace.
Which titles would you add to the list?