In the interest of not just presenting a list of the best Akira Kurosawa movies, we are cutting Kurosawa off at two. One of the true masters of filming samurai stories will have just two entries for this collection of the best samurai movies ever made. There are samurai movies on par with Kurosawa’s finest, yet there is also the temptation to simply pay tribute to the man over and over again. Many of the top samurai movies in history were directed (and sometimes cowritten) by just one man. His influence deserves its own article.
In discussing something like the greatest samurai movies of all time, it is more reasonable to move through history. Samurai stories predate cinema by a substantial period of time. It was inevitable that such stories would find their way film, even in the early days of Japanese silent cinema. It has been an enduring genre for as long as people have been making movies. There are even samurai stories that are set outside of Japan, as well as stories that put a non-Asian actor in a key role.
Regardless of how you feel about those, you can’t deny that samurai movies are popular in countries beyond Japan. There is a universal appeal to the potential complexities of someone who makes their living in such a strange, sometimes contradictory way. Samurai movies can have profound messages of peace, even when surrounded by incredible, sometimes over-the-top violence.
Samurai have often been depicted as loners, or as individuals trying to rise against mounting waves of corruption. Certainly, they have also been depicted as scoundrels, murderers, rapists, and other lowlifes. There are stories of Ronin samurai, who operated without a lord or master. There are stories of samurai banding together against a common enemy.
Much like the gangster story, which needs certain specifics to qualify as its type, there is far more versatility in this genre than many realize. Rather than focus the celebration on the works of Akira Kurosawa works, many of which featured samurais, it would be more interesting to show just how enduring and far-reaching the essential samurai movies can be.
The 15 Best Samurai Movies Ever
1. Seven Samurai (1954)
While certainly not the first samurai story committed to film, Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai nonetheless set a standard, pretty much from the moment it was released. Kurosawa had famously extended production costs, along with the timeline Toho Studios had wanted him to adhere to. It worked out. The film would go on to be the third highest-grossing release in Japan for that year.
While firmly entrenching Toshiro Mifune as a star in his role as Kikuchiyo, Seven Samurai is also just a spectacular, winning epic across 207 powerful minutes. The story of the downtrodden turning to unlikely heroes is a formula that seems to have universal appeal. Specifically, with Seven Samurai, its grandiose, human approach to the material has inspired dozens of other films, remakes, and more.
You don’t need to think about that to appreciate numerous incredible performances (including the great Takashi Shimura), a riveting story, and the palpable energy the film generates.
Watch if: You want to see what might just be the best samurai movie of all time. Avoid if: You prefer fight scenes that are more stylized.
2. Samurai Trilogy (1954-1956)
Is it cheating to allow for the inclusion of a trilogy on this best samurai movies list? I suppose so, since it is fairly difficult to watch just one of these.
That means setting aside 300+ minutes for director Hiroshi Inagaki’s masterpiece depiction of the legendary samurai Musashi Miyamoto. I will grant you that’s a lot of time. At the same time, from the unforgettable performance by Toshiro Mifune, to the film’s riveting duel scenes, there is so much to this series that is worth your time.
It is indeed three films, but it is meant to be appreciated as one compulsory, almost overwhelming experience. The visual poetry of this film has been another big inspiration for the many things to come out after it.
Watch if: You want to see one of the best in the long career of Toshiro Mifune, one of the finest actors of his time. Avoid if: You really just don’t have 303 minutes to spare. You can watch them one at a time, but I wouldn’t recommend letting too much time pass between parts.
Throne of Blood is quite possibly the finest marriage of Shakespeare with feudal Japan. It is yet another extraordinary collaboration between Toshiro Mifune, playing essentially Macbeth, and Akira Kurosawa, who was no stranger to using outside influences to tell decidedly Japanese stories.
Throne of Blood is perhaps best appreciated in the present for two things. The first would be the performances, particularly Mifune in one of his most complex, compelling roles. The second involves a stunning scene that brings together Mifune with what seems like a few hundred thousand arrows.
Just keep in mind that while that scene is unforgettable, everything else leading up to that moment is why that scene is unforgettable in the first place.
Watch if: You can’t get enough of those samurai Shakespeare dramas. Avoid if: You prefer more straightforward Shakespearean adaptations. God knows why, but you do.
4. Yojimbo (1961)
The truth of the matter is that there isn’t a bad Kurosawa/Mifune collaboration in the bunch. It is even more impressive when you consider the variety in the stories they told together. Yojimbo is considerably more lighthearted than anything else they ever did. It is still packed with suspense, as well as some of the most enjoyable fight scenes in Kurosawa’s filmography.
Between Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune, it can be easy to lose sight of the many other contributions to these examples of cinema at its very best. Masaru Sato’s score for Yojimbo is just as important as Mifune’s iconic, deceptively-laidback walk and attitude.
Don’t forget either that two other writers contributed to this film’s screenplay, or that Tatsuya Nakadai (still alive and working, as of this writing) as Unosuke is a flawless primary antagonist for Mifune’s groundbreaking antihero.
Watch if: You want to see a dark horse hero who is about as cool as it gets at the movies. Avoid if: You’d rather see this as a spaghetti western.
5. Harakiri (1962)
A deeply effecting mediation on hypocrisy, the madness of a code, and similar subjects, Harakiri is one of the most emotionally devastating entries on this list. While this high drama by director Masaki Kobayashi has some memorable fight scenes, particularly close to the end, this is more of a human story than anything else.
That is a consistency among most of the best samurai films. It is fascinating to see the various types of character studies that have emerged through the decades. Supported by one of the best samurai movie casts ever assembled, Harakiri maintains a strong current of something we can’t help but relate to. Tatsuya Nakadai as Tsugumo Hanshirō is a key part of that.
Watch if: You want to see one of the most compelling dramas in samurai film history. Avoid if: Your preference runs to happy endings. In which case, you might be in the wrong genre.