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Top 10 Samurai Movies

Updated on February 1, 2015

1. Seven Samurai (1954)

This one is obvious and most people have seen it or at least know about it. It's Akira Kurosawa's black and white epic filmed in 1954 with an all star cast of warriors, peasants and bandits. The film is set during the Sengoku period in Japan (1467-1603) when several Samurai clans competed for total control of Japan. A poor peasant village hires an experienced ronin to assist in recruiting a group of samurai to aid them in repelling an attack by mountain bandits. The beginning of the movie is focused mainly on the different samurai that are found and their personalities. The samurai find their way to the village and begin training the villagers in fighting and set about building barricades. Seven Samurai created a new standard for the cinema industry influencing many western directors to create their own epic scale movies with "buddy" casts. The poignant moments in the movie are also not lost on the viewer.

2. The Hidden Fortress (1958)

The hidden fortress is an epic adventure set in a time of war in Japan featuring a diverse cast of characters. The film starts with two peasants looking to join the victorious Yamana clan army, but find they've arrived too late. The Akizuki samurai clan is destroyed and the Yamana clan are hunting down a princess who has fled with her servants and the clan's treasury. The two peasants meet a general named Makabe Rokurōta (Mifune) who guards the princess and he convinces them to aid him in fleeing across the border by offering them a share of the gold. There's a great scene towards the end of the movie where the princess and general are tied up after having been captured. With her captor in front, and knowing she will be executed soon, she sings a depressing and poetic song. The Hidden Fortress is full of action and great story and can even be said to have been the inspiration for much of the original Star Wars. The peasants obviously resembling R2D2 and C3PO, the general being re-used as Han Solo/Obi Wan and the tough and independent nature of the princess being the inspiration for Princess Leia.

3. Chūshingura - 47 Ronin (1962)

Filmed in1962, Chūshingura is about the ancient tale of the 47 Ronin who plot for several years to avenge their master and reclaim their honor. The movie follows a young lord attempting to combat corruption in the Shogunate bureaucracy. He refuses to pay a "customary" bribe to a Chancellor, and is goaded into attacking the Chancellor while special envoys have arrived. The crime is punishable by death and soon the lord is forced to commit ritual suicide and his clan is destroyed. His loyal servants disband and plot undercover to seek revenge when the time is right and eventually kill the Chancellor. The movie is epic in scale and very colorful with great sword fighting at the end in what is an epic 20 minute battle. The ending of the film is especially poignant as the Samurai parade through the town dressed in their armor and weapons showing them returning from battle. The villagers all come out to watch with many appearing to bow in respect as they know what the punishment will be for the Samurai.

4. GI Samurai/Time Slip (1979)

Time Slip is an amazing lesser known film of the 70s about a platoon of JSDF soldiers transported back in time to the Sengoku period. They have no idea how, but resolve to try to get back by creating a time paradox from changing history. They have a navy ship, helicopter, tank, jeeps, and lots of guns and ammo. The platoon's leader played by Sonny Bono decides to ally with a Samurai lord to conquer Japan. There's a plot twist at the end, but it's not that much of a surprise and also a giant battle where the depleted platoon takes on an army of thousands of Samurai. It's one of the most epic battles ever put on screen. All of the music in the movie is campy pop rock but very amazing to hear and memorable and you can genuinely feel sorry for the soldiers towards the end of the movie as they run out of ammunition and numbers.

5. Ninja Scroll (1993)

Ninja Scroll is a classic anime from the 90s that follows a skilled ronin warrior named Jubei Kibagami who becomes involved on a government conspiracy to steal a fortune of gold. A clan rivaling the Shogunate has hired an assassin team of demon samurai to help retrieve the gold. Jubei kills one of them and becomes marked for death and is forced to help a government spy to stop the demons. Things become more complicated when it's revealed the demons are led by an old rival of Jubei that has returned from the dead. The demon ninjas all have different abilities and are monstrous in appearance, although their origins are never explained. The anime features interesting characters, great fight scenes, and is considered a cult classic.

6. Ran (1985)

Another critically acclaimed masterpiece by the filmmaker Akira Kurosawa, Ran is essentially a remake of the Shakespeare tragedy "King Lear" starring Tatsuya Nakadai as Lord Hidetora Ichimonji. The film starts with the Lord and his three sons gathered on a grassy hill where he will decide who will inherit his kingdom. The sons will each receive a castle and the eldest son Taro will become the leader of the clan to which the other two sons are to lend him their support. One of the sons laughs at the idea that they will be united and tries to demonstrate to Lord Hidetora that it's foolish to expect his sons to be loyal. The son is banished and he soon sets out to save his father, while the other two sons begin to scheme to get rid of Hidetora. The movie has magnificent coloring and there is an unbelievable battle scene in the middle where Hidetora's castle is set fire and his servants all killed while he walks from it like a ghost. Ran was Kurosawa's last epic samurai movie, and the most expensive one he made and much time was spent on production. Kurosawa actually spent ten years storyboarding every shot in the movie as paintings. The entire movie is nothing short of a masterpiece of cinema.

7. The Hidden Blade (2004)

Directed by Yoji Yamada, the Hidden Blade is a complex samurai drama revolving around a transitional period in Japan when the samurai and it's class structure was changing. Samurai Yaichiro says goodbye to his friends Munezo and Samon as he leaves to serve an important position in the Shogunate. Munezo lives modestly with his mother, sister and a farm girl named Kie who serves as a maid in their house. His father was forced to commit suicide after the failure of his bridge project. Soon Munezo's mother dies, and his sister marries Samon. The maid Kie also is married to a merchant family who end up abusing her leading to her almost dying from illness. Munezo rescues her and they live together, but cannot get married due to their class differences so she is sent back to live with her father. Munezo's friend Yaichiro is caught in a failed political incident and sent home in disgrace, imprisoned in a cage. After breaking free, Yaichiro is forced by his clan to hunt down his friend. Believing himself unable to do it, Yaichiro seeks help from his swordmaster teacher Kansai Toda who taught him the "Hidden Blade" technique. For a contemporary samurai movie, The Hidden Blade does a good job of demonstrating the feelings of the time when Japan was beginning to modernize and cast away it's warriors.

8. Sanjuro (1962)

Sanjuro is a Kurosawa comedy/drama where a lone wandering ronin comes to a town facing troubles with a corrupt official. The ronin (Toshiro Mifune) overhears nine young samurai discussing whether their chamberlain is corrupt after he tore up a petition against organized crime pondering saying that "maybe he was behind the crimes". They tell their superintendent and he agrees to intervene, and they decide to meet secretly to discuss it to which the ronin Sanjuro tells them that the superintendent is the corrupt one and has laid a trap for them. Soon their building is surrounded by men and Sanjuro must save them. He beats off the attackers, after which they decide the chamberlain must be in danger. Upon arriving at his house, they find the chamberlain and his wife and daughter have been kidnapped. They free the women, but must figure out a way to save the abducted chamberlain. Sanjuro is a funny, but also dramatic samurai movie with a somewhat unconventional plot than most films. The ending duel is bloody and as shocking today as it was back in 1962.

9. 13 Assassins (2010)

Takeshi Miike's magnificent bloody action drama, 13 Assassins follows veteran samurai Shimada Shinzaemon who is tasked with the mission of assassinating the Shogun's corrupt half-brother, Lord Matsudaira Naritsugu. The lord is sadistic and rapes, murders and tortures his victims and his appointment to a higher political position finally forces the Shogunate Justice Minister to plan his assassination. Shinzaemon gathers 11 trustworthy samurai and plans to ambush Lord Matsudaira while he is traveling to his lands, but his spies soon learn of the plot. The retainers of Matsudaira are led by Hanbei who is a student of Shinzaemon, and he soon warns his teacher if he tries to carry out his mission he will fail. The group soon leave for the ambush point, and end up becoming lost taking a shortcut through a forest. They find a wild man imprisoned in a hanging cage and set him free with the promise that he will lead them out and he soon joins their squad of warriors. Reaching the town Ochiai, with legal authority and money from the Justice Minister, they buy out the town and begin setting traps. The end of the movie has heartbreaking moments as the lone samurai fight Matsudaira and his army of bodyguards, the fight scene is almost 40 minutes of pure action and swordplay and it is amazing.

10. Zatoichi Challenged (1967)

Directed by Kenji Misumi, this is another great entry in the classic Zatoichi the Blind Swordsman movie series starring Shintaro Katsu as the blind samurai. Zatoichi checks into an inn and shares a room with an ill woman and her young son. Before the woman dies she asks Zatoichi to take her son to her father who is an artist in the town of Maebara. Arriving there, Zatoichi finds the father has been forced by mafia to create illegal pornography to pay off gambling debts and makes it his mission to save the man and his family. Doing this though brings Zatoichi into conflict with another samurai he befriended before arriving in the town which leads to an amazingly tense fight scene set in a snow filled back alley. Zatoichi gets the upper hand on his opponent wounding him, and the samurai orders his partner to kill the father. Zatoichi skillfully throws his sword and kills the attacker, but is left defenseless against the samurai he was fighting. Despite not having a weapon he holds the assassin back and is about to be struck down when the samurai stops himself unable to kill Zatoichi. Despite the fact he will have to probably kill himself for disobeying his orders, the samurai cannot break his code and finds it more honorable to not kill him, and face the consequences. One of the best endings to a samurai movie.


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