Those strong, still cameras. The still, silent samurai in the midground; the glaring katana in the fore; the windblown reeds in the back. Cut to his opponent, matching the stoic attitude, in the few tense seconds before a flare of slashes decides the victor. There are hundreds, thousands of these moments, each as thrilling as the next. And yet, the “each” gets ninety percent of the attention, while the “next” gets ten.
These ten samurai movies are as good as Kurosawa (‘s most well known work; there’s a lesser-known Kurosawa in here, too), sometimes better. The name Musashi Miyamoto conjures thoughts of Inagaki’s trilogy, but there’s a five-part series from Uchida Tomu that blows it out of the water!
And yet it, and the rest of these movies, wait patiently on the sidelines, hoping that Seven Samurai will one day tear its ACL. Whatever it is you’re looking for in a samurai movie, the following will rarely, if ever, get mentioned, yet will give it to you in spades:
1. A Diary of Chuji’s Travels (1927, Daisuke Ito)
It’s all but still lost. Fragments of this four hour trilogy were found by Ito himself in a soda can or something in the 70’s, and in 1991 they gave it a “restoration.” So, what is this movie, in context? It’s the foundation of the Samurai movie. And boy, is it amazing, even in its fragmented surviving form. You’re not seeing a masterpiece; you’re seeing the remnants of what obviously was a masterpiece. And it’s still great!
Ito got his nickname, “Loves Movement,” as a play on his name’s spelling. His camera loves to jump around. Frequently, he uses the image of the solitary hero inside a ring of kids dancing around him. Kids love this guy, even if he is an outlaw.
So Ito starts outside, cuts to the inside of the circle looking out through the kids, then back into the circle. He loves the gleam of the moonlite on a katana blade. He makes a bold statement about the then-current state of Japanese honor and tradition, when a woman protecting our sick hero from a rat in the group ingeniously “smokes” him out by planning a knock at the door and pretending it’s the people who will give the rat of the group away.
The rat jumps up, giving her the cue to kill him. So she pulls out the katana, right? Nope. This samurai movie from 1927 has a different plan. She pulls out a pistol, and she guns him down.
This is a must watch samurai movie if you can possibly get your hands on it. It’s as thrilling as any shoot ‘em up you’ll find, and while this list shouldn’t start off on such a somber note, it’s an important movie, too. Hands on your hearts, please.
2. 47 Ronin (1941, Kenji Mizoguchi)
Mizoguchi is in stellar form here. Where Inagaki takes an active camera to his subjects in his treatment of the story, actively moving to get to know them better, Mizoguchi takes a passive, reactionary stance. His cameras are already set up to be eventually obstructed.
The camera tracks the subject as it leads him to the person that will eventually fill the gap in the frame, and hones in on this new character. When the bad news is delivered to this new character, the first one walks away. The camera can’t bear the sobbing, and rises up to follow him out of the room, leaving the unfortunate soul to cry alone.
He has to get around his characters, follow them into different rooms and listen in. The audience is very much a steward, a fly on the wall, embarrassed and heartbroken to see such good people meet such a stupid, violent end. If it seems as though it will be very obvious you’re inside a movie, then that is precisely correct, and probably what Mizoguchi was going for.
While, “the medium is the message” is not the whole point of the entry, it is one of the foundations of the movie. The point is to get you to watch this undersung masterpiece; one of the reasons it’s so good is because of how the director made this story, told on TV, film, and books, one that could only be told his way. In a movie.
Like Max Ophuls and Lau Kar-leung, Mizoguchi made movies because the information he wanted to get across would make for bad art in another medium. He mastered the art of the cinematic punchline: The beginning of a shot sets up an expectation to be shattered by the result of the shot.
The audience thinks a big crane shot establishes the next scene, but by the end of the shot, the camera has moved down, followed a character into a building, and sits with the characters as they carry on a conversation. It doesn’t set up the next scene; it’s the scene.
And he uses this punchline idea in dozens of different ways throughout the four hours to achieve the effect of subversion. Not only is the audience watching a movie about subversion, but it’s constantly being subverted the whole time. Mizoguchi syncs up the theme to the technique.
The medium is the message. The medium is the theme. What a way to make movies!
3. The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail (1945, Akira Kurosawa)
This is essentially an exercise, a single thought fit snugly into an hour: how to build and release tension. A group of samurai dressed as monks are protecting their leader, and they have to cross a border set up by the people looking for them. All they have to do is play the role of monks convincingly, because their enemies were told about their disguise. Kurosawa had a tall task; it’s all or nothing. If the climax doesn’t work, the entire movie fails.
Thankfully, it succeeds in spades. The leader does all the talking, and has to keep cool as a cucumber under intense interrogation. An entire army has spears pointed at group. The head honcho’s assistant is super suspicious, so much so that he disobeys command and insists that they’re the people they’re looking for. He orders their arrest. The mechanics of a thrill involve a surprising amount of empathy to be effective.
We have to care about the characters if their demise or success is important to us at all, and thankfully a good chunk of the runtime is devoted to tapping into their minds and motivations. Maybe a fifth of the movie, which is really one long extended scene (though technically three), is devoted to the actual showdown, and the rest is world building.
In the samurai group are the muscle, the veteran, the adventure seeker, the prideful, the lowly comic relief porter, the prize to protect… The leader is the wisdom, a beacon of self control. When they’re all debating about how to cross the pass, everyone throws in their two cents. Smash through, sneak around, find another disguise.
Leader knows the score; they’ve gotten good at their monk routine, and need to stick with it. The other samurai must follow his lead, even to death. If he stays cool, they need to stay cool. And under pressure, they start to not stay cool.
As the interrogation is underway, and The Prize is disguised as another lowly porter, they ask Leader all kinds of insane questions: what does every article of clothing represent to a monk? What are the tenants of their sect? Why the staff? Why the sword? Leader keeps it cool, his eyes so calm, that they’re in constant danger of closing out of boredom.
He recites b.s. mantras on the fly, he laughs at the impudence of these soldiers insulting he and his fellow monks, he reads a fake decree from a blank scroll. It’s all nonsense. But he loses. The honcho’s assistant calls him out. But! Leader relies on the level head of the honcho, whose eyes are constantly closed in deep, honest, fair thought. His job, and thus life, is on the line. But he’s a decent person, and can only do his job so well before he’s flat out insulting his own faith. He lets them go. He believes them. And then, the unthinkable happens.
4. Vendetta of a Samurai (1952, Kazuo Mori)
Immediately, seconds into the movie, we’re in an epic sword fight with Mifune Toshiro as our hero. Life doesn’t get much better. But Mori stops the movie. He tells the audience that this legendary showdown is remembered incorrectly. One man doesn’t slice down a thousand meaningless to-be corpses. The reality is that this vendetta was settled between two people, and Mifune was on the sidelines, settling a score of his own.
A bold move, considering the director is point blank telling the audience, “There will be no sloppy epic showdown at the end. There will be a highly skilled, personal vendetta to be settled.” Really, though, it was Kurosawa Akira who told the audience; he wrote the script.
Mori puts another great touch on the movie, still only in the opening sequence. He cuts to present day, same place as the showdown in the streets a few hundred years prior. The buildings are modern, children walk out of stores dressed in the fashion of the 1950’s eating ice cream, a bus drives by. Telephone wires are everywhere.
The camera rests on “The Key House,” a tea house, which is historically significant, since it existed even back in the 1600’s, when the main story takes place. The narrator informs the audience it is under new ownership (!). Then we cut to the actual story, which is now the third world to have been introduced.
Most jidaigeki movies center around the inconsistencies of the samurai code, the tension between what it seems is worthy of honor and what the characters feel is right. Sometimes, the code wins, and it should. Sometimes, the code wins, and it shouldn’t. Sometimes, the code loses, and it should. Sometimes, the code loses, and it shouldn’t.
Vendetta of a Samurai is quite a mishmash of all of them, falling somewhere in the middle. Mifune and Shimura Takashi are old friends who have to end up on the opposite sides of a feud between younger samurai; they will eventually have to kill each other. Mifune spends the movie leading his faction of samurai to hunt down the man they’re looking for.
By the end, the vendetta has lost all meaning to the one holding the grudge, and it’s up to Mifune to trudge everyone into battle, scared and tired, as honor dictates they should. To be as generous as possible to Mifune, it’s a morally complicated result, one that is not the apparently storybook battle that made it into the history books.
Mori managed to switch the audience’s values somewhere in the middle of the movie, so that by the end, what matters is how the characters handle themselves in their dying hour more than the director’s ability to stage a fight. Not to worry, though. Mori handles those just fine, too.
5. Daibosatsu Toge (1960, Kenji Misumi)
The Great Buddha Pass is a novel, one of the longest ever written, that is a staple in the world of jidaigeki. It’s seen many adaptations, most famously in Sword of Doom made six years later than this. But what sets Misumi’s take on it far apart from the rest is how he sets his characters in a universe opposite from that of Okamoto’s.
Okamoto did a fantastic job creating an external world that reflects the mental state of its main character, a psychotic, roaming samurai. Misumi, however, created a more formal universe, a traditional jidaigeki setting, in which this lunatic simply won’t fit. It reeks of the uneasy realities Nicholas Ray loved to create, where something is awry deep inside the status quo. The movie opens with our, y’know, “hero,” killing an elderly man he’d just met on the street in cold blood, to test his new technique.
Jidaigeki most frequently toy with the value of the samurai in a society that tests his own values. What does a good person, who happens to be a samurai, do in certain situations? Daibosatsu Toge, and Misumi’s interpretation of it in particular, flips this notion on its head. Who cares about good people, really? They’re more of a steadfast counterweight to the real interesting characters of this story.
How bad do you really feel for the wife (who cheated on her old husband to be with her current one), trapped in a marriage to this psycho? Yes, she does try to kill herself as her only means out, but she tries to take her infant child with her. Who Can Kill A Child?
Misumi instead wants to show the bad guys and girls, and how they (don’t) fit into the formal world, where things operate like a well oiled machine. People aren’t supposed to die in a sparring match. That now-dead man’s brother devotes his life to training, since the main character is a master swordsman with an unbeatable style. He endlessly trains to eventually be good enough to beat him (this is the character we would typically be following in a traditional jidaigeki).
When the main character gets drunk at a brothel with a “haunted room,” he goes nuts destroying the “ghosts,” (this is the precise moment where Sword of Doom ends) and finds himself outside, facing the brother of the man he killed. They stare each other down, ready to face off. Not to give too much away, but Daibosatsu Toge ends with.