The 15 greatest samurai movies ever

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.

George Wales

George was once GamesRadar's resident movie news person, based out of London. He understands that all men must die, but he'd rather not think about it. But now he's working at Stylist Magazine.