In the US, they had cowboys. In Europe, they had Medieval knights and swashbucklers. In Japan, they had the samurai. Japanese noblemen have been a fascinating archetype for years in pop culture, not least in Japanese cinema. Once upon a time, the samurai movie (known as chanbara in their homeland) was the dominant genre in Japan’s filmmaking landscape. Samurai films were regularly pumped out into the 1970s, but as with their Western counterparts, the genre gradually became less popular with audiences. Today, they appear infrequently. This was caused by numerous factors: iconic stars like Toshiro Mifune either got old or passed away, audience tastes evolved and the Japanese film industry experienced decline. All this meant that centuries-old tales of heroism and conflict were no longer big business.
The earlier samurai films were characterised by sombre dramas but eventually became more action-packed until they hit a critical and commercial high point with the work of Akira Kurosawa, arguably Japan’s greatest filmmaker. The more recent samurai movies take a distinctly postmodern view, either examining the psyche of what it means to be a swordsman or giving Hollywood a run for its money with all-out action designed to leave audiences gasping.
Most chanbara are set during the Tokugawa period (1600-1868), and almost all of the films on this list take place during that era. There is one inclusion that may surprise some, Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (read on to find out why it made the list), and one notable omission – The Last Samurai, a Tom Cruise vehicle which, for all its grandeur, is essentially an excuse for a turgid white saviour story (though it has one redeeming feature in that it revitalised the career of actor Ken Watanabe).
In chronological order, here are the best samurai movies ever made.
Based on Ueda Akinari’s book of the same name and directed by acclaimed filmmaker Kenji Mizoguchi, Tales of Ugetsu was one of the first major films to emerge from Japan as it rebuilt itself following the nightmare of World War II. The film is a romantic fantasy that focusses on the struggle of two peasant families and the twists of fate that befall them. Utterly unique, the movie combines themes of morality and family loyalty with spirituality and the power of dreams. The film is also gorgeous to look at and received an Oscar nomination for Best Costume Design.
Akira Kurosawa, the eternal grand master of Japanese film, dominates this list. To choose one perfect film by the auteur would be a struggle, but Seven Samurai would be a very good pick for the top spot. When a group of villagers are routinely targeted by bandits, they take matters into their own hands by recruiting a crack team of hired guns to fight back. A tale of class and cultural conflict ensues, packed to the brim with heart-thumping action sequences and gut-wrenching twists. Remade more than once, the original is simply impossible to top.
Shakespeare’s Macbeth is transposed to Ancient Japan in this stunning film, adapted from the Bard’s classic by Akira Kurosawa and with Toshiro Mifune in the leading role. Lady Asaji Washizu is determined to seize power through her husband, and the two lead a bloody campaign where alliances are shattered and dead bodies start to accumulate. Despite the language barrier and some deviations from the plot of the original, the respected film critic Derek Malcolm wrote in 1999 that the movie was: “…possibly the finest Shakespearean adaptation ever committed to the screen”. Even with no knowledge of the play, this is still a superb film – a supernatural epic where human ambition and cruelty are as sinister as any other worldly force.
Kurosawa returns again, this time with a rip-roaring story of a renegade samurai pulled into a bitter war between rival clans, which in turn wreaks deadly havoc on a small village. The ronin takes matters into his own hands and decides to save the day with his ingenuity, deceiving each side in order to ensure they wipe each other out. More than anything, the film is a wonderful vehicle for the inimitable Toshiro Mifune, Japan’s supreme leading man, whose charisma and physicality loom large in this blast of entertainment. Judges agreed, as Mifune picked up the Volpi Cup for Best Actor award at the 1961 Venice Film Festival.
Set during the end of the Tokugawa period, this compelling film tells the story of Tsugumo Hanshiro (played by the great Tatsuya Nakadai), a samurai who loses his respected position in society. With nowhere to go, he tries to reintegrate himself into the world and reconcile his heroic past with the harsh realities of the present. An ode to the human spirit and a reflection on the follies of mortality, the film is also a profound meditation on the ending of an era, as well as a look at the more tragic aspects of being part of the samurai class in Ancient Japan.
Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune reunited for this sequel to Yojimbo. When Mifune’s ronin overhears the plans of nine young samurai to fight against their corrupt superintendent, he again takes matters into his own hands and decides to lead them and their fight for justice. The action comes to a head in the film’s climax, with one of the great samurai stand-offs in Japanese cinema, in which Sanjuro faces down his nemesis in a deadly duel. Running throughout the movie is a subtext on the futility of violence and war. One line in the film says it all: “The best swords are the ones that are kept in their scabbards.”
One of the bloodiest and most engorged offerings on this list, Shogun Assassin is an abridged version of the Lone Wolf and Cub films from the 1970s, which were adapted from the manga of the same name. A samurai executioner is betrayed by his master, who sends ninjas to kill him. But they don’t. His wife is cut down instead, leaving him to fend himself for himself and his infant son. Swearing vengeance, he slices his way through anyone unfortunate enough to get in his path. And quite a few people do. A grindhouse classic that was a huge influence on Quentin Tarantino (it’s even name-checked by a character in Kill Bill: Volume 2), this is pure carnage but enormous fun from start to finish. Hip-hop aficionados will recognise quotes from the film (and snippets of its soundtrack) used in 1995’s Liquid Swords, the landmark album from the Wu-Tang Clan’s GZA.
Kagemusha very nearly didn’t happen. Huge production costs threatened to scupper the project when Toho Studios couldn’t find enough cash, but help was at hand from filmmakers George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola. Both were huge fans of Kurosawa and convinced 20th Century Fox to help finance the project in return for international distribution rights outside Japan. The story revolves around a lowly criminal hired to impersonate a dying warlord in order to stave off attacks from warring clans, but he gets more than he bargained for. Worth a special mention is the film’s climactic Battle of Nagashino, based on a real-life skirmish that took place in 1575 and claimed the lives of over 10,000 men. Over 5,000 extras took part in its cinematic depiction, and the end result is one of Kurosawa’s most memorable battle scenes.
The final Kurosawa film on this list. Ran was the most expensive Japanese film ever produced at the time of its release, with a budget of more than $12 million. A baroque riff on Shakespeare’s King Lear, it tells the story of ruler Hidetora Ichimonji, who decides to divide his kingdom among his three sons only for a brutal power struggle to ensue. Kurosawa was no stranger to widescreen epics, but he digs extra-deep in this sprawling beast of a film, which would sit comfortably alongside the all-time great war movies. The battle sequences made use of 200 horses, and more than 1,400 uniforms and sets of armour were handcrafted by artisans for the production. The director was given special permission to film at ancient castles at Meiji and Kumamoto and he even built a real castle on the slopes of Mount Fuji, only to burn it down during the film’s final scene. So huge were the demands of making the film that when Kurosawa’s wife of 39 years, Yoko Yaguchi, died during filming, the great director only took one day off to mourn before resuming production. The end result is a monumental achievement in world cinema, with battle scenes so vivid that you can almost smell the blood, sweat and gunpowder.
A breath of fresh air in samurai cinema, Shogun’s Shadow is a high-octane affair that dramatically breaks with stylistic convention in its depiction of feudal struggles. A small boy, who is the shogun’s heir, finds his life in jeopardy when he is targeted as part of a political plot. But the boy’s personal bodyguard is determined to protect him and undertakes an epic journey across Japan to deliver the boy to safety, with hordes of hostile armies in pursuit. Director Yasuo Furuhata took his cues from Western action cinema, with over-the-top action scenes and a rock soundtrack in one of the most expensive films ever made in Japan at the time of release. All this added up to a hugely enjoyable movie that never lets up.
Jim Jarmusch pays homage to hip-hop and samurai cinema in this glorious outing, in which Forest Whitaker plays a hitman who is double-crossed by his mob employers and must fight for his life. Ghost Dog is set in modern-day Brooklyn with nary a swordsman in sight, so it seems as far as one can get from chanbara. But dig deeper and the parallels are plain to see: a stoic warrior adheres to a strict code of honour; an executioner is betrayed by his masters; and the film is interspersed with quotes from the Hagakure, a philosophical Bushido warrior handbook that dates back to 16th-century Japan. Add to this a fantastic score with Japanese-influenced musical motifs from the Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA and you have a bona fide samurai film.
A perfect showcase for the magnificent talents of actor Hiroyuki Sanada (who has an honorary MBE thanks to his theatre work in the UK), this film tells the story of a noble, impoverished samurai who must struggle through turbulent times, the prejudices of others and a love affair tinged with ennui. With much to say about class systems, love and the perils of being a good person in a bad world, this is one of the more recent high-quality excursions in samurai cinema.
Zatoichi was a fictional character who featured in a long-running TV series and several films before being dusted off for this remake, courtesy of the legendary Takeshi Kitano, who stars and directs. Kitano, Japan’s favourite grumpy old man, is clearly having a blast with this update of the iconic warrior, a beloved Japanese pop culture icon. The story revolves around a blind, peaceful swordsman who wanders across feudal Japan before being pulled into a conflict where he is tested to his limit. Kitano is perfectly suited to playing the titular character in a vibrant, mischievous film that celebrates the curmudgeonly creator’s more playful side.
Takashi Miike has never made a dull film, but he is at the height of his powers in 13 Assassins, his masterpiece. When a sadistic warlord threatens to undo a hard-won peace in feudal Japan, a group of rogue samurai must team up to cut him – and his army – down in bloody swathes. What starts out as a sombre, beautifully filmed historical drama eventually descends into pure spectacle with an all-hell-breaks-loose finale that must be seen to be believed. With major talent both in front of and behind the camera, this is a film that has its blood-soaked cake and devours it whole.
Rurouni Kenshin is a manga and anime about a reformed samurai that gained popularity both in and outside its home country in the 1990s. In addition to the animated adaptation, it spawned a live-action version in 2012, which proved so popular that it got two sequels. In the first movie, set during the Meiji restoration, a former assassin makes a vow never to take another life and devotes his existence to wandering the land, helping others. His noble ways, though, are soon put to the test as he comes up against merciless killers. With great fight choreography and a fresh-faced cast, the movie perfectly captures the spirit of the source material, with its themes of atonement, the desire for inner peace and what it means to help others.
Takashi Miike’s other entry on this list is an adaptation of the acclaimed manga, which tells the story of a cursed, immortal swordsman who must kill 1,000 evil men in order to regain his mortality. This set-up makes for perfect Miike fare, with one gore-soaked encounter after another. In 2017, when previewing the movie during an 11am screening at the London Film Festival, Miike said his intention was for it to be watched “at night-time”. And make no mistake, this is a Friday night film of the highest order, with dead bodies in piles and a hero who can’t be stopped no matter how many people stick swords in him.
This article is an updated version of a story created by Wing Yan Chan.