I love Samurai movies. I didn’t love them when I was a kid, when I was busy watching Chinese Martial Arts films. I didn’t fall in love with them until I was an Adult, and finally saw Seven Samurai, at a friends house, where I fell asleep in front of her parent’s fireplace. Well, after I woke up, I watched the movie all the way through the next day, and it became one of a number of movies that just hit me at the right time in my emotional development, to make a huge impact. I also learned that George Lucas was heavily influenced by Akira Kurosawa’s movies, so that was a plus.
Seven Samurai isn’t on this list, because there have been a number of Samurai movies made since 1954, also Kurosawa’s movies would otherwise take up the entire list. So, I decided to focus on movies made in the last ten years, (except for the two at the end).
Blade of the Immortal (2016)
This is a live action version of one of my favorite manga from the late 90s. The plot and characters, like so much Samurai manga, is wild, but I greatly enjoyed the movie, which is pretty faithful to the books. I give a mini-review of this movie a year or so ago. Manji has been cursed by an ancient witch, to immortality, after he caused the deaths of 100 men. In order to lose his immortality, he has made a vow to kill 1,000 evil men, and is aided in this quest by a young woman, named Rin, who is seeking revenge against a cadre of swordsmen, from a rival school, who killed her parents. The fighting is fast and brutal, and very gory with lots of chopping of limbs, and blood spray, so be warned, if you’re squeamish.
Rurouni Kenshin 1-3 (2014-2017)
The live action Rurouni Kenshin movies are definitely some of my favorite current Samurai movies. I’ve watched the trilogy multiple times, although I’ve never read the Manga, or seen the anime, though. I don’t feel like correcting that oversight, although the anime looks intriguing. There were meant to be two new movies last year, that won’t be released until June of this year. Himura Kenshin is a Samurai who makes a vow to never kill anyone again, after he killed so many men in a past war, that he became famous for it, being nicknamed The Manslayer. To live according to his vow, he carries a reverse blade sword, that can only hurt himself, if he uses it incorrectly. Unfortunately, his past deeds, and enemies, keep coming back to haunt him and his found family, which includes his love interest Kaoru, and his best friend, a streetfighter named Sanosuki The Brawler. The swordfights are fast, and stunning, even if the plot is a bit convoluted, between the three films.
Crazy Samurai Musashi– 400 v. 1 (2020)
I really liked this movie, which has almost no plot to speak of. Its just an hour or so of the legendary swordfighter, Musashi Miyamoto fighting wave after wave of enemy Samurai, all of this done in one take. This isn’t a movie for everyone. There’s a kind of sameness to the fighting style, that gets numbing, after a while. I watched this movie, and yeah, it’s exhausting. Musashi was a real person, (he wrote The Book of Five Rings), but this particular battle, against the rival Yoshioka Clan, was more fable than reality.
Twilight Samurai (2011)
This movie is one of my close favorites, and is more bittersweet than action packed. We tend to think of Samurai as fairly wealthy characters, and some of them were, as they did pursue riches, and reputation, but this movie is about a poor, simple, Samurai named Seibei, who just wants to stay home, and take care of his two daughters, after the death of his wife. He is challenged by an old friend to take up arms, and against his will, gains a reputation as a great swordsman, who begins to attract the attention of other swordsmen. All he wants is to marry the sister of his old friend, as he has had a crush on Tomoe since they were children, but he has to first survive his many challengers. This movie isn’t as bombastic as the first two on this list. Its quieter, with a nostalgic, and melancholy feel.
13 Assassins (2010)
At first this movie sounds something like Seven Samurai, but its not a whole lot like that movie, beyond having Samurai in it. 13 Samurai gather to assassinate an evil, but powerful, warlord, who has the Shogun’s favor. To that end, they set a series of traps and ambushes, in a small town that he must travel through, to reach the Shogun’s castle, to claim a reward. This was directed by none other than one of my favorite directors, Takashi Miike, famous for the movies, Hara Kiri, and the iconic, Ichi The Killer. Miike is known for the amount of gore in even his most innocent looking films, so if you’re watching this, be warned for rape, gallons of blood, child killing, exploding bodies, decapitations, and dismemberment. Miike’s movies are not for the delicate, and the last thirty minutes never lets up, and will leave you gasping for air.
Samurai Marathon (2019)
This was a really fun movie, full of lots of action, tension, and drama. When the Daimyo of a minor plot of land, discovers that the Black Ships are coming to Japan, he decides to test his Samurai’s fitness, and readiness, by having them run a marathon. The Shogun, mistaking his intent, thinks he is fomenting an insurrection, and sends assassins to kill the runners. Unknown to the Daimyo, his daughter, Princess Yuki, who is dissatisfied with her life and doesn’t want to be forced in to marriage, has decided to join the marathon, and this puts her life in immediate danger. She has to survive the marathon, without giving away her real identity. The movie is surprisingly funny, with beautiful cinematography, great fight scenes, beautiful settings, and lots of running.
Zatoichi, The Blind Swordsman is an iconic figure in Japanese cinema. There are literally dozens of movies and TV shows about him, so I was really eager to see Zatoichi played by one of my favorite actors, Beat Takeshi. The movie is a little surreal, and doesnt quite hit the story beats the way one expects, which is in keeping with Takeshi’s oddball character, with several musical interludes, some cross dressing, vengeful geisha, a little bit of slapstick, and some clog dancing, at the end, involving the entire cast. Why? Probably because Takeshi likes musicals! This makes for a somber, but surprisingly upbeat movie.
Gohatto is a soft, quiet, and haunting movie. It’s an emotional film, with not a lot of action scenes, and once again, stars Beat Takeshi, as a teacher, at a training school for young men auditioning to become guardsmen for the Shogun, called the Shinsengumi. When a beautiful, and highly skilled young man joins the school, it upsets the delicate balance of relationships among the students and teachers, setting them all against each other. Yes, this is a gay Samurai film! The outcome is somewhat ambivalent, in that the film simply presents ideas, and doesn’t tell the viewer how or what to think. The action and dialogue are written in a way that makes the movie hard to get into, but you still get invested in the character’s relationships.
This is a very faithful remake of the 1992 Clint Eastwood film, only set in Meiji Era Japan, and starring Ken Watanabe, from Inception. Just as in the original, a retired fighter is approached by an old friend, who asks him to accompany him on a mission for hire, to claim the bounty on two outlaws, who harmed a prostitute. But just because you’ve seen the original doesn’t mean that this version isn’t worth watching.
Samurai Fiction (1998)
I saw this movie around the time it was released at some type of Art House showing, and it is quite possibly the funniest Samurai movie I’ve ever seen.This movie is just ridiculous, with a serious plot, aided and abetted by a great deal of silly dialogue, and slapstick. After his Father’s prize sword is stolen, Heishiro vows to get it back. With no faith in his son, the father sends a couple of Ninja along with Heishiro, to make sure he doesn’t muck things up too badly, but he does, and ends up being cared for in the home of a famous swordsman, named Mizoguchi, and falling in love with his daughter Koharu. Eventually, Heishiro confronts the thief, Kazumatsuri, played by Tomoyasu Hotei, (who is the composer of the soundtrack for Kill Bill), retrieves his father’s sword, gets the girl, and everyone’s fortunes are made. I knew I wanted to see this movie the first time I saw the trailer, and I was not disappointed. It was a lot of fun.
When The Last Sword Is Drawn (2002)
This is a movie that would have ended up higher on this list, except that its so melancholy, (you can tell by its title), you really need to be in a certain type of mood to watch it. In it, two old Samurai reminisce about the days when they were young and full of fire. One of them was a heartless killer, and the other was greedy and over-emotional. The story takes place in the form of flashbacks to the Tokugawa Era, as the two of them discuss the regrets, and relationships, of their younger years. This is a beuatiful film that will probably have you in tears by the end.
Sword of the Stranger (2007)
There aren’t too many anime movies on this list. That doesn’t mean that there are no good ones, just that I haven’t watched a lot of them. The fight scenes in this movie are extraordinary, and it was a lot of fun to watch, although not without some huge moments of suspense, and frustration. Nanashi, Kotaru, and his little doggy, form a bond, after Nanashi saves Kotaru from a group of Ming (Chinese) warriors, who are trying to assassinate him. There’s a corrupt Daimyo, and some warrior monks involved, which makes for a convoluted plot, but exciting viewing.
This story takes place in some kind of dystopian future with robots, but the basic story is still the same as the original. As has been done in a number of remakes since the original Seven Samurai, from A Bug’s Life, to The Magnificent Seven, to The Three Amigos ,a small town of helpless peasants hires a group of mercenaries, gunslingers or even robotic and Samurai, to help them fight the giant robot bandits plaguing their town. The series then has the Samurai who survived the village battle, defeat the corrupt Emperor. There’s a lot of great action, the animation is well done, and the Samurai warriors have their own charms, that make the whole thing worth binging. I think this series is available on Hulu, btw.
Here’s a couple of Samurai Anime worth checking out. I haven’t seen all of them, but the ones I have seen aren’t too bad, they just didn’t make my favorites list.
This is another one of those vengeance plots, and the distinction here is that Samuel L Jackson voices the lead character.
House of Five Leaves
If you’re interested in philosophical discussions about the Martial Arts, then this movie is a more somber version of the typical Samurai film, with enough action scenes to make it interesting.
I just watched this one a few days ago, and its a blind swordsman/vengeance/rescue type of story.