The samurai film is a genre that is not as popular as it should be. Most people have not seen a single samurai film and if they have it’s usually either Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai or Yojimbo. While both are great films, the samurai film is a genre that needs to penetrate more deeply into the cultural consciousness. Here are seven great samurai films you need to see, most of which star Tatsuya Nakadai or Toshiro Mifune a.k.a. the baddest badasses to ever live.
Samurai Rebellion (dir. Masaki Kobyashi 1967)
I stumbled across this film while perusing Netflix Instant, and I saw that it starred Toshiro Mifune. I assumed from the title, cover, and the fact that it was not directed by Akira Kurosawa, that it would be a kind of trashy action film starring an aged Mifune. I was wrong. Samurai Rebellion is a slow burn, and the “rebellion” that occurs is not depicted in grand gestures of violence. Instead it is portrayed in a series of contemplative character moments, each one building and building until they explode in an incredibly powerful climax.
Essentially, the Samurai Lord that Mifune’s character follows orders a decree that Mifune sees as absolutely morally wrong. Instead of following this order, Mifune, who has been beaten down by the system into living a meaningless life of duty without passion, decides to make a stand. While the film is light on action, the final duel in the tall grass between Mifune and his character’s best friend played by Tatsuya Nakadai is amazing. Honestly, this may be one of the best movies I’ve ever seen.
Harakiri (dir. Masaki Kobyashi 1962)
This is Kobayashi’s other great samurai film starring Tatsuya Nakadai. In this one Nakadai is a ronin samurai, (a samurai who wanders alone without a master) who goes to a local Lord’s palace so that he may commit hara-kiri, a form of honorable suicide. Harakiri is not a pleasant act; the samurai stabs himself with his sword and disembowel himself, spewing blood and intestines all over the place.
Over the course of the film Nakadai’s suicide keeps getting delayed and delayed for various reasons and through flashbacks we see what led him to this point, and discover how this particular Lord is responsible for the ruining of his life. It turns out that Nakadai’s real purpose is to exact revenge.
Kobayashi’s real aim in his samurai films is to question the concepts of honor and duty which are inherent in Japanese culture. His characters are men who have always done the right thing, have always adhered to the code, and they are left with nothing. Where his characters upheld the honor of the system, they find a new honor by fighting for themselves and for what they believe, not what their culture tells them to.
Throne of Blood (dir. Akira Kurosawa 1957)
Kurosawa’s rendition of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, stars Toshiro Mifune as the Macbeth character. Throne of Blood is an epic samurai film, by which I mean that it features large action scenes where armies clash and the protagonist is a Samurai Lord rather than a Ronin. I typically prefer samurai films involving ronins, but Throne of Blood features some of the most intense action scenes ever committed to film.
During the assault on his imperial palace, Mifune is attacked by archers, and is often narrowly hit by flying arrows. There are no special effects in this scene. Archers are actually shooting arrows aiming for Mifune. The terror in his eyes is palpable, and he jitters as he sidles the wall of the castle as he narrowly avoids death by arrow.
Mifune apparently trusted his director with his life as he would go on to star in seven more of Kurosawa’s films.
Kagemusha (dir. Akira Kurosawa 1980)
Kagemusha is another samurai epic by Kurosawa, this time starring an aging Tatsuya Nakadai. Here Nakadai’s a beggar who is the spitting image of the recently killed emperor. The emperor’s high command decides that rather than appear weak to the enemy by admitting their leader is dead, it makes more sense to hire a beggar to impersonate their leader. While the high command treats the beggar-emperor with disdain, the emperor’s family doesn’t even notice the difference, though they do wonder why the emperor is so much kinder all of a sudden. It doesn’t end well for anybody.
Kagemusha, like Throne of Blood is a non-ronin epic, but Tatsuya Nakadai is so good that it doesn’t even matter. There’s such a loveable aloofness to his character that when tragedy strikes, it strikes hard. This was a return to form for Kurosawa, whose career floundered after he and Mifune had a falling out after the release of their film Red Beard. The director reportedly tried to commit suicide in the intermittent time, and he was fired from a number of high profile films. Kagemusha proved that the master of the samurai film still had what it took.
Sanjuro (dir. Akira Kurosawa 1962)
Kurosawa’s sequel to his film Yojimbo (which was later remade as Fistful of Dollars directed by Sergio Leone, and starring Clint Eastwood), is a bit more playful than its predecessor. Mifune stars as a wandering ronin who happens upon a group of young, dumb samurais trying save their uncle who has been imprisoned by an evil lord.
This is more of a fun movie than a great movie, but it’s very entertaining to watch the gruff and powerful Mifune deal with a bunch of kids who don’t know what they’re doing. Tatsuya Nakadai also appears as the evil lord’s main henchman, and once again it is the interaction between Nakadai and Mifune which makes this movie truly special. The finale showdown between the two men is an incredibly powerful moment.
Kill! (dir. Kihachi Okamoto 1968)
Kill! is actually based on the same source material as Sanjuro and features the same basic plot, where a ronin samurai aids a group of younger samurai who have offended the lord. However, this time Tatsuya Nakadai plays the ronin, and the young samurai are slightly less bumbling. Nakadai’s character is actually an ex-samurai in this version; he abandoned the samurai way of life due to all the hypocrisy involved with being a samurai so he became a yakuza instead.
This version also features a second main character, a farmer who desperately wants to become a samurai and continuously makes an ass out of himself. Kill! manages to be alternately funnier and more violent than Samjuro, and it interestingly incorporates elements of the spaghetti western, a genre is which partly inspired by samurai films.
Redbelt (dir. David Mamet 2008)
The oddball of the group, this film takes place in modern day Los Angeles and stars Chiwetel Ejiofor (a black guy). Ejiofor is an extremely talented jujitsu instructor who is bound by a strict code of honor. While has a great deal of pride surrounding his honor, it’s also keeping him from making any money. So of course through various Mamet twists and turns in the story he finds himself in a predicament that requires that he make a lot of money very quickly. He breaks one of his rules and enters a tournament, but at the end of the day he decides to fight not for the money, but for his honor.
He kicks the shit out of everyone.
Mamet is a master of dialogue and plotting and he manages to successfully translate the tropes of the samurai film into a modern American setting. It totally works as a samurai film and Ejiofor gives a performance that both Mifune and Nakadai could be proud of.
There are plenty of other samurai films out there. What did I miss?