In Japanese cinema, the genre of jidaigeki refers to films set in a pre-20th Century period of Japanese history. A sub-genre of jidaigeki is the chambara–or sword fight–movie, a type that most often features samurai in various kinds of dramatic action, and in nearly every case showcasing displays of great swordsmanship and valor.
The most legendary practitioner of the chambara genre would be the incomparable Akira Kurosawa, who with such films as Rashomon, Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, The Hidden Fortress and Sanjuro created long-lasting shockwaves throughout the cinematic world that significantly influenced the works of, among others, Sergio Leone and George Lucas.
We’re not going to talk about any of his films in this article.
Instead, we’ll be looking at other important achievements in samurai cinema, spanning across several decades. A few readers may be taken aback by some of the movies chosen to appear on this list, which range from the iconic to the historic, the superheroic to the not-even-Japanese. The intent is to show the broad spectrum of stories it’s possible to tell in the samurai genre, and that even if one opens the playing field in terms of what’s allowable in story and setting, certain films can still be properly called a “samurai movie”.
An actor you’ll be coming across fairly often in this list is Toshiro Mifune, a performer of great athleticism and magnetism who for many years was the De Niro to Kurosawa’s Scorsese. He appeared in many films by different directors in the chambara genre, and we’re pleased to touch on a few projects he did outside the Kurosawa category with which he is so often associated. You’ll also see a few films listed here by director Kihachi Okamoto, a filmmaker whose work deserves to be ranked alongside that of Kurosawa as among the most important in Japanese and world cinema.
15. Lady Snowblood (1973)
From Kazuo Koike, the same creative mind that spawned the Lone Wolf and Cub manga series, comes the inspiration for this film, a bloody and beautifully shot entry in the “arterial bloodspray” sub-genre of chambara that came into prominence in the early 1970s.
Young Yuki, armed with a short-sword hidden in the handle of her umbrella, has embarked on a mission of vengeance, seeking out three people responsible for raping her mother and brutally murdering the man she was married to, along with their son. Born in a womens’ prison, Yuki is trained from childhood by an elderly swordsman in the art of fencing so that she can live out her mother’s final request to take revenge.
Though frustrated in her attempts by two of her targets’ early demises (one hangs herself before Yuki can get to her, and Yuki spitefully slices her swinging body in two), a young journalist interested in her story helps her to find the last offender, tracking him down to a posh gala, where she does battle with several attackers before finally fulfilling her destiny (but not without getting shot in the process).
Not quite as big budget or flamboyantly gory as the similar Lone Wolf and Cub series, Lady Snowblood is still a highly watchable and blood-drenched melodrama, probably most famous in the last ten or so years for being one of the chief inspirations for Tarantino’s Kill Bill movies. Much of the plot and out-of-sequence story structure is borrowed from Lady Snowblood, and the O-Ren Ishii character played by Lucy Liu and Uma Thurman’s The Bride are spiritual descendants of Yuki.
14. When The Last Sword Is Drawn (2003)
A low-ranking samurai named Yoshimura Kanichiro abandons his family and his lord to join the Shinsengumi, an organization put together to fight for the Tokugawa Shogunate as it teeters on the brink of collapse. At first his motives are difficult to understand; he seems inordinately concerned with money, constantly bargaining for more as he fulfills his duties for the Shinsengumi. But in time it becomes obvious that he is equally driven by a profound sense of obligation to the Shogun and to his impoverished family, to whom he sends money whenever he can.
He befriends another samurai who is his polar opposite, nihilistic and emotionally unattached. In time, however, as the inevitable fall of the Tokugawa government approaches and they gird themselves for a final confrontation with the Emperor’s army, this unfeeling samurai finds that he has grown fond of his idealistic companion, an experience that affects him profoundly well into old age.
Told in flashbacks at the turn of the 20th Century, When The Last Sword Is Drawn is an interesting and compelling blend of violent samurai epic and tear-jerker; in some ways, the movie it most seems to resemble in tone is Forrest Gump. The character of Yoshimura (Kiichi Nakai) comes off as an odd kind of samurai, amiable to the point of being silly, yet so skilled with a sword (and so willing to kill) that he inspires a grudging respect in all who meet him.
The story can be melodramatic and weepy in the extreme (especially in the last act), but it’s not without those elements that will delight most samurai film fans. Sword fights are plentiful and often bloody, the movie is shot beautifully and makes good use of natural locations, and draws heavily from real Japanese history in the late 19th Century. Unlike many other films on this list, this film doesn’t have a cynical bone in its body, coming off more as a celebration of old-fashioned values and gumption than as a piercing analysis of Japanese politics.
13. Samurai Fiction (1998)
A samurai movie for the age of irony, suffused with a snarky attitude and great physical humor, Samurai Fiction is an unusual creature: released in 1998, it’s shot in black and white, and scored with a variety of traditionally “Western” music styles from hip hop and country to blues and surf guitar (provided by musician Tomoyasu Hotei, who makes his screen debut as the thieving antagonist Kazamatsuri). Although the black and white photography is clearly meant to evoke the older samurai stories of Kurosawa and others, the director wishes to undercut the seriousness and stoicism typical of many samurai films while at the same time respecting many of the conventions.
Young samurai Inukai Heishirō wants to retrieve a stolen sword for his clan, a gift from the Shogunate now in the hands of the master swordsman who took it. His father tries to discourage him, but when the boy takes off anyway, his father sends two of his house ninjas to track him from a distance. After suffering defeat at the master swordsman’s hands, he’s taken in by the man who saves him from being killed during the attack. More determined than ever, Inukai wants to go after the thief (though he’s torn by his feelings for the man’s daughter), but it will only be with the aid of his savior—a master of fencing himself who has sworn never to kill again—that he’ll have any hope of getting the sword back for his clan.
First time feature film director Hiroyuki Nakano isn’t interested in making any grand statements about the way of the samurai or Japanese history, but rather occupies himself with filming an amusing, somewhat broad comedy with influences from earlier Japanese masters and a hip, sarcastic sense of the ridiculous. As seems to be the case with nearly every martial arts movie, this was borrowed from by Quentin Tarantino in Kill Bill Vol. I, specifically by using the image of two silhouetted samurai dueling in front of a latticed red backdrop during the opening credits as a part of the final action sequence.
12. Shogun’s Samurai (1978)
Following the death of the Shogun Tokugawa Hidetada, his two sons vie for power the only way they know how: by intrigue and subterfuge. Things get off to a bad start when it comes to light that the Shogun was poisoned, and become worse when Yagyu Munenori, fencing master to Iemitsu Tokugawa, admits to the prince that he was directly involved in the plot to kill his father in order to open the way for his ascendancy to the Shogunate.
To help push things along, Yagyu enlists the aid of a clan of ninjas closely associated to him, promising that with victory over Tokugawa Tadanaga they’ll regain their native homeland. Heading the clan is Yagyu Jubei (played by Sonny Chiba), the son of Munenori and a capable swordsman as well. What occurs in the wake of the Yagyu plotting (the alternate title of the film is Yagyu Clan Conspiracy) is a series of assassination attempts, battles, betrayals and duels that leads to a very weird and very satisfying ending.
Director Kinji Fukasaku spins this tale the same way he did the Battles Without Honor and Humanity yakuza films, with a labyrinthine attention to detail that sometimes threatens to lose the viewer in a hail of names, schemes, cross-plots and revelations. At no point, however, does the action become dull, though a considerable amount of the run time is devoted to scenes of dialogue.
What you get in return are ninjas squaring off against samurai, strange characters (keep an eye out for the Emperor’s fey envoy), and some very cool fight scenes and battles, set against what some sources believe to be a pretty accurate depiction of this historical period, despite the magical martial arts techniques that come up from time to time. Fukasaku takes a cynical view of Shogunate politics, framing it almost strictly in terms of lies and deceit, and while the voiceover at the end ensures us that the events shown are mostly fiction, it adds that later successions to the position of Shogun were much like what we see in this film.
Sonny Chiba is good in the role of Jubei Yagyu, but the actor who stands out the most is Kinnosuke Yorozuya as the elder Yagyu. He plays his character throughout with a barely contained, sinister rage that comes to a boiling point at the end, when the successor he favored and fought to make Shogun is killed. His instant descent into madness manages to be both disturbing and funny at once, ending the film on the perfect note given everything that has come before. Toshiro Mifune also appears in a brief role.
11. Red Sun (1971)
In the Old West, a train carrying a Japanese ambassador on his way to Washington DC is robbed by a gang led by Charles Bronson and a ruthless gunslinger played by Alain Delon (who you might remember as the lead from Le Samourai). In the course of the robbery Delon leaves Bronson for dead, but not before taking a golden samurai sword intended as a gift for the US president. Reluctantly, Bronson teams up with one of the ambassador’s bodyguards (Toshiro Mifune), and together they seek out Delon’s girlfriend (Ursula Andress) with the intention of ransoming her for the sword. They have only a week to do all this; if he fails, Mifune must commit seppeku.
An international production in the truest sense (starring European, American, and Japanese actors, directed by English director Terence Young), Red Sun does a capable and entertaining job of pairing the spaghetti western with the samurai film, driven by the engaging performances of its stars. Bronson and Mifune are great together as they journey through the deserts of the American southwest (actually Spain, but you hardly notice the difference) encountering nasty-tempered gunfighters, hostile Indians, and the proprietors of a desert bordello.
Bronson is uncharacteristically funny as the robber-turned-hero, Delon makes a great cold-blooded, dapper killer, and Mifune brings all of his powerful screen charisma to bear in his portrayal of a dutiful, possibly doomed samurai (and he handles his English dialogue pretty well). A very fun Western with a top-notch cast and a cool gimmick.