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Ran (Toho)
Ran (Toho)

The 10 Best Samurai Movies of All Time

Picture of Wing Yan Chan
Updated: 8 December 2016
The Samurai were a special social class that took root in the final centuries of classical Japan. Their number included professional soldiers who earned their living through battling the nation’s foes. But more generally, the figure of the Samurai can be seen as a cultural representation of Japanese aestheticism and social values, and, more recently, a mythical symbol of the heroic Japan of yesteryear, made immortal by the silver screen, Hollywood and some downright unforgettable films.
Tales of Ugetsu (1953)
Based on Ueda Akinari’s book of the same name, this movie directed by the acclaimed Kenji Mizoguchi centers on the struggle of two peasant families pursuing different dreams, leading them to follow divergent life paths. The impressive plot structure of the masterpiece is full of surprising twists and there is an ever-present tension between the themes of morality, family loyalty and dreaming that does well to critique the contemporary Azuchi–Momoyama period of Japan. Viewers also enjoy a glimpse of national culture through the eye-wateringly wonderful and Oscar-nominated costumes throughout.
Seven Samurai (1954)

The Seven Samurai is an all-time legendary picture, produced by renowned director Akira Kurosaw. It follows the story of a group of villagers who, upon overhearing the cruel plan of a group of bandits, decide to protect their harvest and homeland by hiring a group of mercenary samurai. Due to poverty and food shortages, the villagers are limited in their choices, but by stroke of luck, they successfully find seven samurai to take on their cause, and a tale of class and cultural conflict ensues (much like in the film’s 1960 Hollywood western re-make, The Magnificent Seven), packed to the brim with heart-thumping action sequences and heart-wrenching twists.

Throne of Blood (1957)

Throne of Blood, Akira Kurosawa’s acclaimed adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, is a cinematic masterpiece like few others in the samurai genre. The story follows the tale of Lady Asaji Washizu (Isuzu Yamada), Kurosawa’s version of Lady Macbeth, who is determined to reach the top of the power chain through her husband General Taketoki Washizu (Toshirô Mifune). The movie showcases the lifestyle of the samurai at the very height of their power, imagining sprawling castles and colossal armies and political machinations worthy of Elizabethan England.

Yojimbo (1961)

Another masterpiece directed by Akira Kurosaw, Yojimbo never disappoints viewers with its enthralling and complex plot lines. Feeling discontent with an ongoing war between gang leaders Seibei and Ushitora, a masterless samurai decides to go vigilante, eliminate the gangs and restore peace in the area. The gripping performance of Toshiro Mifune plays to the idea of samurai morality and righteousness and garnered a deserved Volpi Cup for Best Actor award in the 1961 Venice International Film Festival.

Harakiri (1962)

Set during the peaceful times at the close of the Tokugawa period, this compelling film tells the story of Tsugumo Hanshirō (Tatsuya Nakadai), a samurai who loses his respected position as a fierce warrior in society. With nowhere to go, Hanshirō undergoes a series of challenges and travails in his attempt to reintegrate himself into the world and reconcile his heroic past with the realities of the present. In essence, the message of Harakiri is a timeless one, dealing with the interfaces between epochs and generations, and the dark side of feudal control in Japan.

Sanjuro (1962)

Another masterfully directed and acted moving picture from Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune, Sanjuro is the sequel to the director’s 1961 Yojimbo. Sanjuro – a ronin who happens to overhear the plans of nine young samurai to fight against their corrupt superintendent – decides to lead the ploy and the fight for justice. The action comes to a head with one of the most intense stand-offs in Japanese film history, while the movie also makes a commentary on the nature of violence and life – “the best swords are the ones that are kept in their scabbards” reads the final mantra.

Kagemusha (1980)

A must-watch film from Kurosawa of Palme d’Or fame, Kagemusha tells the story of a lowly criminal raised to all new social heights by learning to impersonate a local warlord and stave off attacks from nearby warring clans. During the production, Kurosawa hired over 5,000 extras as fodder for the dramatic final battle scene and selected only the best 90 seconds for the final release!

Ran (1985)

Ran was the most expensive Japanese film ever produced at the time of its release, with a budget of more than $12 million. It tells the story of Hidetora Ichimonji, who decides to divide his kingdom among his three sons but soon discovers he lacks loyalty from two of them (recognizing any King Lear overtones, anyone?). During production, more than 1,400 uniforms and armor sets were hand-crafted by master tailors and the crew traveled Japan endlessly in search of ideal real-life locations, while Kurosawa even built a real castle on the slopes of Mount Fuji, only to burn it down for one final scene!

Shogun’s Shadow (1989)

Takechiyo is in great danger, as his father Lemitsu, the Tokugawa Shogun, has ordered him assassinated to name his youngest son, Tokumatsu, as his new heir. Takechiyo’s personal bodyguard, Igo Gyobu (Ken Igata), is determined to bring Takechiyo to safety and escape the Shogun’s grip. Being one of the most expensive films of the last century, director Yasuo Furuhata introduced a whole host of new elements to the Samurai genre with this film, including rock music and high-energy combat scenes to boot!

The Last Samurai (2013)

Unlike the classic samurai movies produced in Japan, the majority of the cast of The Last Samurai was from the U.S., and most all of the movie was filmed in New Zealand. The unique plot setting of the film enables it to present traditional Japanese samurai values in a revolutionary context. Instead of accepting the samurai as a paradigm, the movie reveals the struggle between modernity and traditional Japanese culture and re-evaluates the blind promotion of Westernization in the East. The contrast between friendship, romantic love, nationality and loyalty is also investigated by the tough decisions forced upon the protagonist.