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 10 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.
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.
4. The Tale of Zatoichi (1962)
The first in a long series of successful films from Dalei Studios, The Tale of Zatoichi accomplishes two things. It is a wonderful introduction to Zatoichi, played here (and for the course of this film series) by the immensely talented Shintaro Katsu.
It is easy to fall in love with Zatoichi’s loner ideals, and with the fact that he nonetheless wears his heart on his sleeve, despite claims that he prefers a simple life. Katsu created an appealing hero for a series of films that were consistently filled with adventure, and had the flexibility to occasionally dive into darker realms of storytelling. This first film is wildly entertaining, and some of that comes from the film’s deft blend of low-key humor and the fallacies shared among most human beings.
There is also a very good 2003 version of the Zatoichi character, written, directed by, and starring the iconic Beat Takeshi.
Watch if: You want to see a legendary samurai hero in a movie that’s still fun after 50+ years. Avoid if: You want your samurai movies to be as stern and grim as possible.
Of the many cinematic versions of the famous 47 Ronin story, the Hiroshi Inagaki-directed Chūshingura is perhaps my favorite. Running 207 minutes, this is another entry on the list that will demand a lot of your time. Samurai narratives lend themselves well to epic film storytelling. Chūshingura is a clear example of that. It is also a visionary example of combining brutal, brilliant action pieces with deep depictions of the human spirit in all its complexities.
Chūshingura also boasts one of the best casts ever put together for a Japanese film, period. Among the long list of notable names and memorable performances, pay special attention to Yūzō Kayama and Akira Takarada. This film is an overwhelming experience in the best way possible.
Watch if: You want to see one of the finest film versions of the 47 Ronin tale. Avoid if: Again, this might be a challenging choice, if your movie picks rarely run longer than 100 minutes.
6. Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart at the River Styx (1972)
The best in a series of films about the adventures of a disgraced assassin named Ogami Ittō (Tomisaburo Wakayama) and his young son Ogami Daigoro (Akihiro Tomikawa), Baby Cart at the River Styx is the second in the series. Do you need to see the first one to appreciate this? Not really, no. Nonetheless, I suspect you’ll want to see all of them anyway.
Baby Cart at the River Styx firmly sets Ittō and Daigoro on the path that dictate the rest of the series. Not surprisingly, the story of a struggling father who tries to moonlight as a hired killer, with this film giving him the task of taking out a merchant with secrets to share, is pretty dark at times.
Those moments combine beautifully with lighter moments between father and son. The movie finds time for all of this, with character exploration to spare, while also featuring breathless fight sequences. It is a movie that hits just about every note you probably have. You can say these things about each film in the series.
Watch if: You like a good single dad story, but with swordfights. Avoid if: You can’t stand kids in peril in movies.
Tales of bloody vengeance don’t get much more entertaining than Toshiya Fujita’s Lady Snowbird. Meiko Kaji (who continues to work to this day) gives a performance that is as painful to watch, in terms of her journey, as it is exhilarating, as she strikes back at the men who raped and slaughtered her family.
Lady Snowbird doesn’t make revenge appealing. What it does is present it with such singular style, and with such an intense performance by Meiko Kaji, you can’t help but get in her corner. It shouldn’t surprise you that Quentin Tarantino loves this movie, or that it was a big inspiration for Kill Bill.
Lady Snowbird is perhaps the better of the two. If only because there is an authenticity to this movie that western filmmakers can’t recreate, no matter how hard they try. Lady Snowbird also has an interesting elegance to its violence, which is only partially from casting a woman as the protagonist.
Lady Snowbird may not be a traditional samurai, but her fury and dedication ensure a place on this list.
Watch if: You want to see one of the best revenge stories ever made. Avoid if: If they aren’t actual samurai, then you aren’t interested.
8. Kagemusha (1980)
Kagemusha proved in 1980 that director Akira Kurosawa was far from washed up. Until Ran a few years later, nothing in the Kurosawa canon possessed the scope of Kagemusha.
Featuring the 1575 Battle of Nagashino, the film at its core is about a petty criminal who falls into an opportunity to change the course of history for a number of clans. The film is lush, intoxicating in its surroundings. There are also so many characters and moments to take in throughout, you probably won’t get everything this movie has to offer the first time around. It is a grand story set upon a stage that only Kurosawa could have created.
At the same time, the achievements of Kagemusha also rest on the remarkable actors, writers, technicians, and others Kurosawa surrounded himself with throughout his career. Kagemusha would be an incredible culmination of that brilliance, and of the other facets to one of the most crucial figures of samurai cinema.
At least, until Kurosawa returned in 1985 with Ran.
Watch if: You like epic battles, spectacular performances, and gorgeous visuals. Avoid if: You dislike those things.
The Twilight Samurai may well be the saddest movie on this list. It will probably be among the most depressing movies you’ve seen recently, if you’re new to it.
The story’s samurai protagonist (Hiroyuki Sanada) isn’t even a warrior when we meet him, but an accountant. He is willing to accept a quiet, unremarkable life, caring for his children. That changes for the worse, but occasionally, briefly for the better, when he meets a childhood love, played by Rie Miyazawa.
Samurai films generally have showdowns and fights of different types. The Twilight Samurai is no different. At the same time, it is one of the more character-driven entries on this list. Samurai stories often use the space to talk about subjects like traditional, loyalty, and how human impulses often run against those concepts.
It is a somber story of loss, and the fact that recovering from loss is not promised to us. Sometimes, the universe, or poor decision-making, will conspire to make a bad thing even worse.
Watch if: You want to see an intense human drama. Avoid if: You prefer the redemptive power of love realized.
10. 13 Assassins (2010)
Due to an almost-supernatural versatility as a filmmaker, pretty much any film list that’s Japan-centric is going to mention Takashi Miike. This remake of a 1963 film is one of his best. If you’re just starting to learn about this guy, this story of a group of assassins taking a bold, brutal strike against the vicious leader of the Akashi Clan, is as good a place to start as anywhere.
13 Assassins has just about everything you could want from a great movie. It features a large, vibrant, varied cast. It features the kind of visual ferocity that only Miike can evoke. 13 Assassins is also highlighted with a straightforward story that manages to make time for everyone in the cast to shine. There are some impressive, terrifying characters to meet.
Just don’t get too attached to anyone. That’s rarely a good idea in something like this.
Watch if: You want to see a movie that makes Game of Thrones look like Airwolf. Avoid if: You’re not big on blood.
Obviously, a list of the 10 top samurai movies isn’t going to cover everything. There are quite literally hundreds of movies about or featuring samurais. If you’re a true fan of the genre, then you probably have 20 titles that I missed.
God forgive me, if they aren’t listed here:
– Yojimbo (1961) – Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999) – Le Samourai (1967) – Samurai Rebellion (1967) – Throne of Blood (1957) – The Sword of Doom (1966)