Samurai movies may be fictional. However, it reminds us that a number of their values are still deeply rooted in Japanese society.
These warriors were always the subject of fascination for filmmakers both in the East and West. Because of that, we’re given a number of what we consider, the best Samurai movies of all time.
Here, we’re giving you a list of the most accomplished, memorable, and striking Samurai movies that were ever created.
Seven Samurai (1954)
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Seven Samurai is a film by Akira Kurosawa, and it’s a monumental tale of humanism and heroism. The story is set in the late 16th century, during the times of the lawless and chaotic Warring States Period.
This film is the director’s most popular work and is one of the best Samurai movies of all time.
The film revolves around seven Ronin who group as one to protect a harassed farming community. Those oppressing the people are a group of marauding bandits.
This entire movie runs about 3 ½ hours. With on-location shoots and the use of multiple camera set-ups, it became the most expensive Toho studio production of its day.
What’s most impressive about the film is its utilization of natural weather conditions and geography to maximize the drama.
Officially, the film was remade as the Hollywood movie, The Magnificent Seven in 1960. It’s the archetype for some international productions like The Dirty Dozen in 1967, and the Bollywood film Sholay in 1975.
The Samurai Trilogy (1954-1956)
Director: Hiroshi Inagaki
The Samurai Trilogy was directed by Inagaki Hiroshi. The first movie is “Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto”, followed by “Samurai II: Duel at Ichijoji Temple”. The last movie in the trilogy is “Samurai III: Duel at Ganryu Island”.
Toei is the largest producer of period dramas to date. With that, their entries offered foreign viewers a window to Japan’s mythic past.
The Samurai Trilogy is about the master swordsman named Miyamoto Musashi. He was a skilled and popular swordsman famed for his unique two-handed fighting-style technique. The warrior was also known for his delicate expertise with the Zen ink brush or better known as Calligraphy.
These attributes of the swordsman were immortalized occasionally in different films, including a 1944-version by Mizoguchi for Shouchiku. Interestingly, this was Toho’s first colored production, as well as the first installment of Inagaki’s remakes.
This Samurai Trilogy film stars Mifune Toshiro, who acts like the famous swordsman, Miyamoto Musashi. He’s accompanied by Tsuruta Kouji who plays the role of his long-time rival, Sasaki Kojiro.
Generally, these films are based on the novel created by Yoshikawa Eiji. The story is mainly about the popular duelist and author of the famous book, The Book of the Five Rings.
The Hidden Fortress (1958)
Director: Akira Kurosawa
The Hidden Fortress is another film by Kurosawa Akira. The story begins with two greedy peasants living in the time of feudal Japan. They were Tahei and Matashichi, who returned home after a failed attempt to earn from a battle between clans.
On the way, they encounter a few people from the defeated tribe consisting of a famous general and a princess.
These were Samurai General Rokurota Makabe and Princess Yuki who had to escape to Allied territory. They had with them their huge supply of gold to help rebuild their fallen clan. To succeed, they trick the peasants into assisting them, promising a huge stash of gold once they reach the destination.
Along the way, the prowess of General Makabe is tested since he has to guide four, and later, five people at the party. The fifth member is a freed slave.
The party engages in close encounters with pursuing enemies. They also face different challenges and difficult situations that the peasants manage to get the party into.
This film was shown in and directed by Akira Kurosawa.
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Kurosawa Akira once again returns with another best Samurai movie of all time. Yojimbo is a roaring tale of a renegade Samurai led to a bitter war between rival clans. In turn, the battle wreaks great chaos in a small village of innocent people.
The Ronin, Yojimbo, takes the matter into his own hands and saves the village with his wit and ingenuity. He deceives each clan to guarantee they wipe each other out at the end of the battle.
More than anything, Yojimbo is an excellent role for the inimitable Mifune Toshiro. Called as Japan’s ultimate leading man, he has great charisma and looming physicality that’s perfect for this blast of entertainment.
Director: Masaki Kobayashi
Harakiri is a film directed by Kobayashi Masaki and was the first Jidaigeki (period films) created. It’s a story about a young Ronin at the time of the Tokugawa era. He was obliged by honor and duty to perform Harakiri, the ritualistic suicide.
Just as its title suggests, the slow drama comes by intense gore rendered in black and white. Because of its theme and story, Harakiri joins the list of best Samurai movies of all time.
Overall, the movie is stunning and interesting, making excellent use of the uniqueness of Japanese architecture. They also utilized selective light effects, as well as smart placement of its characters across its scope frame.
This is mainly to establish a striking set of grid-like compositions, displaying the oppressiveness of that time’s highly-structured society.
Adding to the intensity is the film’s percussive soundtrack by Toru Takemitsu. The tunes increase the haunting and chilling air of detachment in the movie.
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Another best Samurai movie of all time created by Kurosawa Akira, Kagemusha almost didn’t happen since huge costs of production threatened to scrap it when Toho Studios couldn’t provide adequate funds.
Yet aid was at hand from George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola. Both filmmakers were big fans of Kurosawa and were able to convince 20th Century Fox to help finance this. In return, Kagemusha would have international distribution rights out of Japan.
The story is about a lowly criminal hired to pose as a dying warlord to fend off assaults from warring clans. However, the criminal gets more than what he bargained for.
A worth mentioning scene in the film is the climatic and exciting Battle of Nagashino. This battle was based on a real-life scuffle in 1575, which claimed the lives of more than 10,000 men.
In the film, they required more than 5,000 extras to take part in this cinematic representation. This resulted in one of Kurosawa’s most epic battle scenes.
Shogun Assassin (1980)
Directors: Kenji Misumi, Robert Houston
Shogun Assassin is more like a “greatest hits” film than a stand-alone movie of its own.
Here, a wandering Shogun is forced into exile. This was after he got framed and his wife, brutally murdered.
He gives his infant son a choice between merciful death and a life of constant danger. These choices were represented by a ball and sword, respectively, and the child reaches for the blade. This marked the beginning of a violent battle of father and son as they survive in a sea of assassins.
From this point on, the plot is considered secondary. That’s because the scenes are mostly a series of brutal scenarios.
Using excellent swordsmanship combined with a cleverly-designed deadly baby carriage, the duo constantly stays in a state of heightened awareness. The father and son are both conscious and ready for instant death that may lurk upon them anytime.
The Twilight Samurai (2002)
Director: Yamada Yoji
The Twilight Samurai is another film included in the list of best Samurai movies of all time.
This movie is a perfect display of the excellent and amazing talent of actor Sanada Hiroyuki. It’s a film about a noble yet poor Samurai who struggles through prejudice and turbulent times. He’s also stuck in a love affair imbued in sadness.
The Samurai is named Iguchi Seibei, a low-ranking warrior, who leads a life with no glory as a bureaucrat. A widower, the Samurai has two daughters, as well as a senile mother. Due to his situation, he needs to work in the fields and take odd jobs to make ends meet.
However, new prospects and paths open when his long-time love, Tomoe, divorces her brutal and abusive husband.
Yet despite the unraveling feudal system of the Japanese, Seibei remains obligated to the warrior’s code of honor. He also remains bound by his own sense of social supremacy, which causes cruel consequences.
Director: Takeshi Kitano
Another notable and best Samurai movie of all time is Zatoichi.
Zatoichi is a fictional character featured in a long-running television series. He was also in a couple of films before getting brushed off for this remake. It’s courtesy of the legend, Takeshi Kitano, who directs and stars in the film.
The story of Zatoichi is about a peaceful and blind swordsman wandering across Feudal Japan. This was before he got stuck in a conflict where he’s tested to his limits.
Kitano perfectly portrays the character in this mischievous and vibrant film, and it celebrates the playful side of the creator.
The Last Samurai (2003)
Director and Co-Producer: Edward Zwick
The Last Samurai is a film released in 2003 and is an American-period action movie by Edward Zwick. He also co-wrote its screenplay together with Marshall Herskovitz and John Logan.
The main character is played by Tom Cruise and is a US Captain of the Seventh Cavalry Regiment. He has a set of emotional and personal conflicts that leads him into contact with the Samurai. This setting is supposedly in 19th century Japan during the Meiji Restoration’s wake.
The Last Samurai’s plot was encouraged by the Satsuma Rebellion in 1877, which was led by Takamori Saigo.
It was also inspired by Japan’s westernization by foreign powers. However, the film depicts the United States as the main force behind Japan’s westernization.
13 Assassins’ (2010)
Director: Miike Takashi
Takashi Miike never created a boring film, but he does create some of the best Samurai movies of all time. One of them is the 13 Assassins which is his masterpiece.
A brutal warlord threatens to nullify a hard-won peace and order in feudal Japan. Because of this, a number of rogue Samurai team up to destroy him and his army in deadly swathes.
What begins as a peaceful and serenely-filmed historical movie, turns into a sheer spectacle with a chaotic finale.
Set in the year 1844, the film follows the template of the Seven Samurai. 13 Assassins feature a group of Samurai set on overthrowing an evil warlord.
The version of Miike greatly benefits from having a generous budget. He makes use of it by having splendid attention to period costumes and sets, plus gracefully choreographed fight scenes.
His consecutive attempts at recreating a genre masterpiece, and adapting the 1962-Kobayashi classic, was a more sedate and laid-back affair.
It was the very first Jidaigeki (period film) that was shot in 3D. However, it was only delivered in its regular version in the United Kingdom.
Rurouni Kenshin’ (2012)
The last on our list of the best Samurai movies of all time is Rurouni Kenshin. Originally, it’s an anime and Manga that revolves around a reformed Samurai.
It grew popular in and outside Japan in the 90s and eventually produced a live-action version in the year 2012. Due to its popularity, Rurouni Kenshin got two sequels which a lot of people enjoyed.
The first movie was set in the Meiji Restoration period. Here, the former Samurai-assassin vows to never kill again and devotes his life to becoming a Ronin who helps others. Despite his noble ways, he’s eventually put to the test as he faces a few merciless killers.
The Ronin, Himura Kenshin, battles against the evil warrior, Shishio Makoto, who plans to overthrow the entire Meiji government. The fate of Japan is left in the hands of Himura. Because of that, he ends up taking the sword he vowed to never draw and use again.
With excellent fighting choreography, the film accurately and perfectly captures the spirit and essence of the source material.
If you enjoyed this list, you can also check out the “Best Samurai Series of All Time“.