The caste samurai
Today's big filmy list looks at the best ever Samurai movies. These range from the classic 'Easterns' of Akira Kurosawa, to the modern day epics that pay such homage to his work. There's something deeply satisfying about watching a samurai film; about seeing historical figures demonstrate total control over mind and body (as you lazily break open another tin of Quality Street while slouched on the sofa).
Oh, and as a special favour to all you purists out there, there isn't a single Tom Cruise movie in sight. Although, there are worse films than The Last Samurai. Several. Anyway, enjoy.
15. G.I. Samurai (1979)
The Movie: This B-movie classic sees kung-fu legend Sonny Chiba as a present day military man who finds himself transported 400 years into the past, along with the rest of his squadron. Under attack from hordes of samurai, he joins forces with an ancient warlord and agrees to help turn the tide in war-torn Japan.
The Samurai: Yoshiaki Iba, a grunt from the Japanese army, who soon realises that modern weaponry won't be enough to outdo the skilled warriors of old. Luckily, he's also a dab hand with a samurai sword.
Why It's Great: Chiba is on fine form throughout, and even though the premise is frankly ludicrous, there are some truly excellent fight scenes on show. Definitely one to file under 'guilty pleasure'.
14. The Twilight Samurai (2002)
The Movie: Favouring character-driven drama over more traditional action beats, Twilight Samurai follows the tale of a 19th century samurai who attempts to protect a battered woman (who is also a former love) whilst conforming to the rigid demands of feudal society. Wildly popular in Japan, it was picked up on by Western critics and eventually nominated for a foreign language Oscar.
The Samurai: Seibei Iguchi is a profoundly likeable hero, what with his slightly dog-eared appearance and long-suffering expression. Having sold his sword to pay for his wife's funeral, defending the honour of his childhood sweetheart is going to be harder than it ought to be.
Why It's Great: While the idea of a samurai movie conjures up ideas of complex choreography and severed limbs, this low key character piece shows a different side to the genre. Well worth seeking out, it's a thoughtful, affecting drama with a pleasingly uplifting ending.
13. Ghost Dog: The Way Of The Samurai (1999)
The Movie: It may not be a samurai movie in the strictest sense of the word, but Jim Jarmush's tale of a solitary, sword-wielding hit man is a love letter to the genre, and a thrilling story in its own right.
The Samurai: Forest Whitaker is excellent as Ghost Dog, a pigeon-keeping mafia hit man who models himself upon the samurais of old, from his expertise with a sword to his unswerving loyalty to his master, even when said master is trying to have him bumped off.
Why It's Great: It's an excellent way of breathing new life into an old genre, as modern context aside, most of the themes on display here could have been plucked out of a samurai movie in the traditional style. Themes of duty and loyalty are at the fore, whilst Jarmusch ensures that the whole thing is punctuated by an all-pervading sense of cool. RZA's brooding score helps no end in that regard.
12. Goyokin (1969)
The Movie: Hideo Gosha's impassioned redemption story tells the tale of a reclusive ronin (a samurai without a master to you and I) wracked by guilt over a massacre ordered by his former clan lord. When he learns that the fiendish old man is planning to repeat the trick, he resolves that there will be no more innocent-slaying on his watch.
The Samurai: Samurai are rarely care-free, happy go lucky sorts, and so it is with Magobei Wakizaka, a skilled swordsman disillusioned with his path in life on account of the corruption of his former master. As is often the case in samurai movies, a shot at redemption presents itself sooner rather than later.
Why It's Great: it's a tightly plotted story containing the usual conflict between duty and conscience, beautifully shot and containing some stand-out battle scenes. The imagery is also worthy of note, with Gosha using a recurring flock of crows to good effect. Plus, Tatsuya Nadakai makes for an excellent crusading avenger.
11. Chushingura (1962)
The Movie: Based upon one of Japan's most revered folk stories, oft-described as the country's "national legend", this famous adaptation follows a group of 18th century assassins seeking revenge on the court official who forced their master to commit seppuku.
The Samurai: 47 loyal samurais, who suddenly find themselves masterless after Lord Asano is forced to kill himself. Knowing they too will be fired to commit seppuku should they exact their revenge, they get set to embark upon a very bloody mission indeed.
Why It's Great: Whilst film's like Seven Samurai are more relatable to a Western audience, Chushingura is immersed in the rules and regulations of the traditional samurai, a world in which bloody revenge can be taken, but only on the understanding that one will have to kill oneself afterwards. A must-watch for anyone hoping to understand what the way of the samurai is all about.
10. Samurai Rebellion (1967)
The Movie: Masaki Kobayashi presents this downbeat tale of a ageing samurai who, reflecting on a life he feels is empty of accomplishment, decides to rebel against his cruel master. Naturally, this doesn't go down too well
The Samurai: Isaburo Sasahara is a study in disillusionment, but in defending his family and rejecting the cruelty of his master, he eventually finds something worth fighting for. And fight he does, going so far as to knock through the walls in his house in order to give himself more room to swing his sword.
Why It's Great: Kobayashi's films frequently puncture the legend of the ever-obedient samurai, scrutinising the value of such a rigid feudal system without completely dispensing with the adrenaline-soaked fun of a good old-fashioned sword-fight.
9. Throne Of Blood (1957)
The Movie: Akira Kurosawa takes on the Bard with this reimagining of Shakespeare's Macbeth, told against the backdrop of feudal Japan. When a witch tells a samurai that he is destined for the throne, he is initially sceptical, only for his scheming wife to push him down a very bloody road.
The Samurai: General Washizu is the man who receives the prophecy, and with a little prompting, starts to turn his samurai skills upon his rivals. If Macbeth was something of a loose cannon, his sword-waving counterpart takes it to the next level.
Why It's Great: Kurosawa captures the play's oppressive sense of doom to a tee, whilst making the tale his own with a host of technical flourishes and memorable visual sequences. The grand finale is particularly operatic, with Washizu's legions of bowmen turning upon their treacherous master.
8. Samurai Assassin (1965)
The Movie: Toshiro Mifune stars as Shinno, one of a group of assassins gathered outside a palace with a view to assassinating the lord of the House of Li. Convinced that he is born of noble parentage, Shinno plans to prove himself a samurai by slaying the lord, thus earning his father's respect and learning his identity.
The Samurai: Shinno is the kind of tragic figure that Shakespeare might have dreamed up, undone by his desperation to prove himself and establish his place in society. Sadly for him, the man he has made his target is also the man whose identity he has been searching for That's right, it's his father.
Why It's Great: This is the samurai movie as historical tragedy, with the framework of samurai lore lending itself perfectly to a grimly black story arc. That aside, it also delivers as a thrilling exercise in tension, as the gathered assassins begin to suspect the presence of a traitor in their midst.
7. The Hidden Blade (2004)
The Movie: Yoji Yamada's stately period piece tells the story of a samurai struggling to adjust to Japan's transition from a feudal to modern society. Light on action but heavy on detail, think of it as a more insightful version of The Last Samurai.
The Samurai: Katagiri is a low level samurai caught between the increasingly corrupt principles of his ancient masters and the uncertain future of a newly Westernised Japan. This conflict becomes more than a theoretical struggle, when Katagiri is ordered to kill a rogue samurai by his clan leader.
Why It's Great: It might be a little slow-moving for some tastes, but as a snapshot of one of the most pivotal shifts in Japanese society, it takes some beating.
6. 13 Assassins (2010)
The Movie: Takeshi Miike takes on the samurai movie with this lavish period drama set in mid-nineteenth century Japan, following the exploits of a band of assassins charged with murdering the sadistic brother of the ruling Shogun.
The Samurai: Shinzaemon is the man charged with assassinating the despot in waiting, and sensibly, he decides to recruit a further twelve sword-swingers in order to combat Lord Naritsugu's private army. Honourable, wise and battle-worn, he's just the kind of character you want to see leading the charge.
Why It's Great: It's not perfect, with several of the titular 13 afforded little in the way of characterisation, but in terms of kinetic, blood-spattered action, 13 Assassins delivers in spades. Miike deserves credit for reviving a flagging genre, without sacrificing any of the old-school trappings that made it great in the first place.
5. Humanity And Paper Balloons (1937)
The Movie: Sadao Yamanaka's period melodrama was arguably the high point of Japanese cinema in the '30s, telling the story of a struggling ronin who becomes embroiled in the kidnapping of a young heiress by his neighbour, a barber. It would prove to be Yamanaka's final film, as the director was drafted into the Japanese army on the day the film was released, and died in combat aged just 29.
The Samurai: Matajuro is an out of work samurai, desperately striving to make ends meet while his wife sits at home making paper balloons. His story is a particularly downbeat one, even for a samurai film, as he struggles to escape from poverty without turning to a life of crime.
Why It's Great: Yamanaka shines a light on the less frequently documented side of feudal society, presenting plenty of poverty and despair to counter-balance the traditional themes of duty and honour. Bookended by a pair of suicides, it's not exactly cheerful, but it will linger in the memory long after the final credits roll.
4. Lone Wolf And Cub: Sword Of Vengeance (1972)
The Movie: The first in a series of six films, Lone Wolf And Cub: Sword Of Vengeance follows the adventures of Ogami Itt, a wandering assassin for hire who roams the Japanese countryside with his young son Daigoro in search of the hit squad who murdered his wife.
The Samurai: Itt is a gruff, unsmiling sort, which is probably to be expected given what's happened to him. As for his parenting skills, he's fairly hardline. When Daigoro was a baby, Itt gave him the choice between a ball or a sword. Had the youngster chosen the ball, Itt had resolved to kill him. Good job he grabbed the sword then, isn't it?
Why It's Great: It's a ridiculously cool revenge story, and the final showdown provides everything you could hope for from such a scenario. Even Daigoro's baby carriage comes into play, harbouring an armoured underside and a host of concealed weaponry. Gratifyingly grisly, it's the samurai movie at its most down and dirty.
3. Yojimbo (1961)
The Movie: Imagine One Man, Two Guv'nors with less clowning and more samurai swords, and you'll have a vague idea of the set-up for this Kurosawa classic. When a wandering samurai pitches up at a small town terrorised by rival gangs, he hires himself out to both of them before playing both sides against each other.
The Samurai: Toshiro Mifune plays the slippery Kuwabatake Sanjuro (an alter-ego he creates for himself before entering the village), who rids a town of its warring crime loss by convincing both of them that he's in their employ. A mysterious liberator, he's like a character from a Western, blowing in to town, taking care of business, then blowing out again.
Why It's Great: It might not be as balletic as Seven Samurai, but what it lacks in grace, Yojimbo makes up for in sheer force. You won't find a more bone-jarring set of fight scenes than the ones on display here, while Mifune's blood-letting drifter offers a masterclass in justice-dispensing cool.
2. Harakiri (1962)
The Movie: Set in peace-time Japan circa 1630, Masaki Kobayashi's film tells the tale of a cast-adrift ronin who begs the master of a rival clan to allow him to kill himself in his forecourt, thus restoring his honour. The master however has other ideas, and instructs the ronin to stay alive in order to take care of his young family.
The Samurai: The ronin in question is one Hanshiro Tsugumo, a fearsome warrior who finds himself rudderless when his lord is deposed. His steadfast belief in ancient and perhaps outmoded codes of honour, provides Kobayashi with the perfect device by which to examine the flaws of Japan's feudal era.
Why It's Great: Whilst there is plenty of swordplay involved, it's the war of words and ideals that really captures the imagination here. The ancient rules of the Samurai come under severe scrutiny, with Kobayashi turning the focus on such a code's impact on wider society. Rather than celebrating the way of the Samurai, Harakiri gives Japan's ancient culture of barbarism a thorough and unflinching grilling.
1. Seven Samurai (1954)
The Movie: Akira Kurosawa's three-hour epic, probably the most famous samurai movie of all time, tells the story of a group of ronin as they strive to defend their village from a posse of marauding bandits. An undisputed triumph, its shadow loomed large over subsequent filmmakers, even those operating in different genres, John Sturges's The Magnificent Seven being the most obvious example of its influence.
The Samurai: A septet of mercenaries hired by the villagers, with varying skills and personalities. The battle-hardened Kambei Shimada is the leader, and the man charged with recruiting a suitably badass team of warriors.
Why It's Great: Kurosawa plays with the myth of the stoically noble samurai, introducing a mercenary taint to proceedings without completely disregarding the old principles of honour and duty. Oh, and the action sequences are a bit special as well.