Samurai movies – known in Japan as either jidaigeki (period dramas) or chambara (sword-fighting flicks) – have occupied a unique film niche for much of their existence. Their enduring appeal has led to some rather interesting crossover experiments in the genre in latter years, including the Keanu Reeves blockbuster vehicle 47 Ronin.
Many eyebrows raised when it was revealed that the long-in-development adaptation of perhaps the most famous samurai legend ever told would include fantasy elements such as shapeshifting witches, ogres, and demonic armies. And yet, 47 Ronin is far from the first film to mash feudal Japan up with myths and monsters.
Inspired by 47 Ronin‘s spirited (if not especially successful) attempt to marry the supernatural with a jidaigeki setting, Screen Rant is pleased to present a list of legitimately great samurai movies that also contain ghouls, ghosts, and otherworldly magic.
We may as well kick things off with one of the great masters of samurai cinema, the inimitable Akira Kurosawa. In 1957, Kurosawa tried his hand at a different sort of jidaigeki flick: a Japanese adaptation of William Shakespeare’s MacBeth. Headed by a captivating Toshiro Mifune as MacBeth stand-in Washizu, Throne of Blood is a wonderful example of both a nonstandard adaptation and of a nonstandard samurai film.
Even before the appearance of the witch that kicks off Washizu’s quest for power, Throne of Blood establishes an eerie and phantasmagoric tone. Taking place almost entirely in fog-shrouded woods and half-lit castle corridors, the film immediately establishes an undercurrent of almost overwhelming dread.
The witch herself is a revelation of creepiness. Speaking in a cracked sing-song, the apparition seems to combine and magnify the unpleasantness of all three of the crones from Shakespeare’s original story.
One of the most venerable traditions of Japanese storytelling lies in its ghost stories. Kwaidan is both a straight adaptation and celebration of these kinds of tales.
Structured as a horror anthology, Kwaidan tells four tales of phantoms and spirits as they torment various denizens of feudal Japan: A low-level samurai leaves his loving wife for a richer one, only to return to a ghastly fate. A woodcutter encounters a malevolent spirit of ice and snow. A monk – trained to sing historical tales for nobility – realizes that his audience is not of this world. And finally, a prideful man begins seeing an ominous figure in a cup of tea.
Kwaidan has the implacably measured pacing of any good ghostly yarn. This deliberate approach combines with a vibrantly colored, almost expressionist set design to give Kwaidan the feel of an exquisite nightmare.
Technically, the two main characters in Kaneto Shindô’s Onibaba aren’t samurai. Rather, they’re some of the common folk brushed aside to society’s periphery during the era of bushido. Their desperate efforts to survive eventually bring them into an especially unpleasant encounter with the otherworldly.
In a period of incessant war and famine, a mother-and-daughter team make their living by ambushing wounded soldiers and samurai, murdering them, and then selling their armaments to an unscrupulous local merchant. Their already painful lives are complicated by the arrival of a soldier who claims to be a friend of the family. This swaggering figure almost immediately begins a clandestine affair with the younger woman, igniting a spark of murderous jealousy in her mother.
Onibaba is a grim, nasty, feverish slow burn of a film, building tension until it’s nigh unbearable. It’s only then that a hulking warrior in a demon-faced mask appears on the scene, and the true horror begins.
The same production team who brought the world Onibaba followed up with a movie that moves from swamps and wilderness to the high halls of power. Kuroneko (literally The Black Cat) may take place in the estates and manors of samurai nobility, but it can be just as vicious and boundary-pushing as its predecessor.
When a pair of women are raped and murdered by wartime marauders, the spirit of a black cat resurrects them in its own strange image. Endowed with the cat’s supernatural strength, uncanny powers, and a thirst for blood, the two begin a campaign of brutal revenge on all samurai that cross their path. Their murderous spree eventually brings them into contact with a figure from their past – one that complicates their quest considerably.
Unlike the Onibaba, there’s definite sense of tragedy to the proceedings – a sense that the cycle of violence is both pathetic and inevitable.
In the mid-1960s, the biggest draws of the domestic Japanese box office fell into one of two camps: jidaigeki adventure yarns and special effects extravaganzas featuring giant monsters such as Godzilla, Rodan, and Gamera. What better way to capture the zeitgeist than to mash these to two genres together?
The fusion of kaiju flick and chambara resulted in Daimajin and its concurrently filmed sequels, Return of Daimajin and Daimajin Strikes Again. Rather than focusing immediately on the attack of a giant monster, Daimajin tells the story of a remote mountain province watched over by a sleeping stone god. When the province’s governor is overthrown by his cruel, megalomanical chamberlain, his actions set off both a rebellion and the awakening of the region’s mighty guardian.
Featuring crackerjack swordplay, striking cinematography, and surprisingly decent special effects, the Daimajin trilogy suffers only in that each of its entries is essentially identical to the others in plot.
Already dismissed by critics, the latest box office figures for 47 Ronin indicate that it will likely fall very short of its estimated $175 million budget. As such, it’s doubtful that we’ll see a new surge of interest in fantastical samurai flicks. Fortunately, there are already many examples to choose from in the existing canon of chambara and jidaigeki offerings.
Though the actual quality of Takashi Miike’s surrealist time-travel movie Izo is up for debate, it has a certain outlandish, maniacal energy to it. It even has an appearance by cult martial arts figure Bob Sapp as a warrior monk!
A high-flying tale of swords and sorcery, Onmyoji follows rival users of ancient Japanese magic – one who is attempting to defend the emperor while the other plots to unleash a plague of demons.