10. Samurai Vendetta (1959)
If John Ford had ever directed a samurai movie, it might have come out looking a little bit like Samurai Vendetta. The tone of the film has a lot of the same old-Hollywood naiveté in its presentation, though storywise this is more The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance than She Wore A Yellow Ribbon. In contrast to American films of the same era, some Japanese films touched on material that might have been considered too dark or risqué for 1950s Hollywood. Samurai Vendetta, while no exception, never lapses into bad taste or loses a sense of decorum, and handles even the darker story points with an element of class.
The main narrative of Vendetta dovetails with the story of the 47 ronin, with Shintaro Katsu (best known as the star of the fan-favorite series of Zatoichi films) in an early breakout role as Yasubei Horibe, one of the samurai who partook in the revenge attack on Chamberlain Kira for disbanding the Asano clan (famously dramatized in 1942’s The 47 Ronin Parts I and II). The opening moments of the attack are shown at the end, and on the way to Chamberlain Kira’s mansion Yasubie recounts the film’s main story in flashbacks.
While engaging in a fencing competition with a rival school of swordsmanship, Yasubei is observed by Tange Tanzen (Raizo Ichikawa), who is on official Shogunate business. Later, his classmates and teachers berate him for not jumping in to help their school (which suffered an embarrassing single-handed defeat from Yasubei). He is kicked out, but later has the opportunity to make Yasubei’s acquaintance when the ronin helps him out of a sticky situation. It is at this point that both men meet Chiharu, a young woman with whom Yasubei quickly falls in love but who later marries Tange. When
Yasubei is attacked by members of the defeated school, Tange comes to his aid, handily beating his five opponents and disfiguring them. The same men later drug and rape Chiharu while he’s away, resulting in Tange having to find a way to end his marriage that won’t mean his having to kill her or Chiharu having to commit seppeku, as the samurai code demands. He also loses his right arm to her enraged brother, a fate he accepts as penance for what has happened. He vows to kill the five men responsible, biding his time until he can lure them out, as Yasubei follows a path of revenge against the hated Kira.
Though sentimental in the extreme, Vendetta never fails to be an engrossing drama of honor and vengeance. Ichikawa’s character is the personification of the bushido samurai code tempered with compassion, going out of his way not only to protect his wife’s honor and stay as close to her as the mores of the time will allow, but to take revenge at any cost, even after a serious maiming. This is not, strictly speaking, an action movie, but what fighting there is really resonates. The opening is rousing, with Katsu’s character squaring off against several men with a sword in each hand, and the finale, in which Ichikawa, missing an arm and shot in one leg, takes on over a dozen attackers from the ground, is as heroic a scene as you’re likely to come across in samurai cinema.
9. Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999)
“This ain’t no ancient culture here, mister.”
“Sometimes it is.”
Wait a minute, you might be thinking, this isn’t a samurai movie, is it? If you think it’s not, then you’re only half right. It’s an American independent film, directed by Jim Jarmusch and starring Forest Whitaker with a score by the Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA. The story takes place in urban New Jersey, and much of the screen time lovingly presents the streets, moods and culture of that part of the US. Yet at the center is a hitman, known only as Ghost Dog, who in every moment of his life strives to embody the highest ideals of the samurai. Quotes appear throughout from Yamamoto Tsunetomo’s Hagakure; Ghost Dog not only studies Japanese martial arts, but attends to the weapons of his trade (specifically automatic pistols fitted with home made silencers) with the same care and craftsmanship as a samurai looking after the condition of his swords.
Jarmusch kills two birds with one stone, paying homage to both the samurai and gangster film genres, tossing in occasional references to Seijun Suzuki’s Branded To Kill and Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai (which is hardly surprising). Ghost Dog walks an interesting line between realism and cartoonishness (classic cartoons actually play an important role in underscoring several story points), as well as incorporating key elements of samurai cinema, making it one of the best American tributes to Asian action films yet.
8. Kill! (1968)
It’s interesting how different national film industries call back and forth to one another. Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars was a Western adaptation of Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, and Kihachi Okamoto’s Kill! is a later reworking of the same story, borrowing not only plot elements from Yojimbo and Dollars, but often employing Ennio Morricone-style musical themes throughout.
In an abandoned, wind-swept village, two men meet for the first time: a farmer who wishes to go to Ayuzawa Castle and implore those in authority to make him a samurai, and a former samurai who’s had his fill of that life and makes his living as a yakuza. They witness the assassination of a chancellor by members of his own clan, under the orders of clan leader Ayuzawa, who then commands that everyone involved in the assassination be killed, along with the band of ronin sent to do the job.
The farmer sides with the attack force tasked with killing the remaining band of assassins, who await reinforcements that never come, while the former samurai (played by Tatsuya Nakadai, a frequent lead actor in Kihachi Okamoto’s work) schemes to undermine Ayuzawa’s plans, dispatching just about anyone who tries to thwart him with exemplary sword and knife-throwing skills. After suffering a terrible beating at the hands of Ayuzawa’s men, he brings his plot to a head, which might turn the tide of power in the region and free the indentured wife of a fellow samurai to boot.
Kill! is a deft and whimsically comical handling of material that one might initially think would get stale the third time around. Quite the contrary: this might be the best iteration of the story. The comedy, while broad and farcical at times, finds itself in the company of some harsh, bloody violence, but it does a good job of keeping the proceedings from getting downbeat. Tatsuya Nakadai is a charismatic comic foil to the earnestness of those surrounding him, and co-star Etsushi Takahashi as the farmer does an excellent job of portraying a buffoonish, physically powerful and ultimately very likable hero. Highly recommended to fans of Japanese cinema who like their humor and bloodshed in equal doses.
7. The Samurai Trilogy (1954-1956)
Directed by Hiroshi Inagaki and based on a novel by Eiji Yoshikawa, these three films depict the life of legendary 16th and 17th Century swordsman and philosopher Musashi Miyamoto (played by Toshiro Mifune), who wrote the classic text on marital arts and battle tactics The Book of Five Rings. Musashi is said to have partook in a large number of duels and battles throughout his life, and is credited with developing a style of fencing utilizing two swords at once.
The films dramatize three distinct periods of Musashi’s life, as follows:
Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto
The wild and untutored young warrior shows incredible native skill at fighting, defeating anyone who faces him and becoming the target of a local manhunt until a Zen monk captures him, hangs him from the bough of a tree until he calms down, and schools him in the refined samurai arts of reading, writing and philosophy.
Samurai II: Duel at Ichijoji Temple
Musashi, now educated and more confident than ever, goes on the road to hone his craft by dueling with anyone who will take him on. Although he is an adept fighter, he has not yet learned the finer points of mercy and wisdom. He challenges the adherents of the Yoshoika School of martial arts, sparking a sequence of events ending with him being ambushed by followers of the school’s master. It is at this point that we see Musashi use the duel-sword fighting technique that he made famous.
Samurai III: Duel at Ganryu Island
Musashi, having largely given up the warrior’s life, finds himself challenged by Sasaki Kojiro, a rival who made his first appearance in the second film in the trilogy. His specialty is fighting with a long-sword that he has nicknamed “Clothes Rod”, and he seems good enough to be a genuine threat to Musachi. Musashi accepts the challenge, and the two meet on a beach on Ganryu Island to see who will be the victor.
Mifune’s incredible physicality as an actor comes through in these three films, as well as his range. He goes from an undisciplined, violent rogue (echoing in some ways his peasant-cum-swordsman character in Seven Samurai) to a fairly sophisticated and chivalrous freelance samurai. The trilogy renders Musashi Miyamoto’s history as an old-fashioned story of personal growth, unrequited love and derring-do, but it also has some interesting things to say about the nature of a warrior’s life.
It is in the last film, after Musashi has slain Sasaki Kojiro, that we see not only how far he has come as a samurai, but the high cost of living a life by the edge of a katana. We see him weeping in the boat that takes him back to the mainland, and realize that in killing the other man he has essentially killed a part of himself. Sasaki Kojiro is arrogant and conceited as a swordsman, much as Musashi Miyamoto was in his earlier life, and in defeating him he has done in not only his greatest rival, but his past self as well. He is a man who has cast aside personal involvement in the world for the sake of fighting, and the consequences of such a decision take a toll even on a man of his determined character.
6. The Twilight Samurai (2004)
“Twilight” Seibei is a financially strapped, low-ranking samurai living in the late 19th Century just before the Meiji Restoration. His wife recently died from tuberculosis, leaving him in debt and raising two young daughters on his own, as well as looking after his senile mother. His nickname, “Twilight”, refers to the fact that he’s let himself go to such an extent that his clothes are threadbare and his complexion’s grown swarthy from hours spent cultivating crops on his land. He socializes little, and out of pride he refuses any help offered to him from friends and relatives.
One thing he has going for him is his uncommonly good swordsmanship, though he has very little interest in fighting. Word gets out after he beats his best friend’s jerk of a brother-in-law in a duel with nothing but a short wooden training sword. Senior clan officials then approach him with an important job—kill an older samurai who has refused an order to commit seppeku and barricaded himself in his house. What he discovers after he takes on the assignment tells him a lot not only about the fate of many samurai in lean times, but of the approaching fate of the samurai class in general.
Twilight Samurai is not an action film by any means, but rather a closely studied drama of quiet, human moments and casually beautiful cinematography, punctuated by rare instances of violence that are there to make a point about the brutal realities of a samurai’s existence. Many samurai movies tend to glamorize the lifestyle to some degree—Twilight Samurai seeks to demonstrate that it was possible to be included in that exalted class and still be as wretched and miserable as many of the commoners of the time.
This would be a good film to view alongside Samurai Assassin, as both films depict roughly the same period of history, when the Shogunate was on the verge of disappearing from Japanese culture and Japan itself was about to go through many ground-shaking changes. In that sense, the “Twilight Samurai” of the title isn’t just Seibei himself, but all samurai before the Restoration who were about to see the sun set on the world they took for granted.