Medieval knights might be pragmatic and fierce, but their lifestyle and beliefs fail in comparison to their Japanese equivalent, the Samurai. They have been the subject of fascination for many filmmakers both Eastern and Western. Needless to say, there have been many films about samurai that have set the bar high for filmmaking-- heck one of them is even considered as the most influential action or war movie ever.
So if you're feeling a more honorable and meditatively murderous than usual, here are 10 films which can satiate your craving for the way of the samurai. Note that we've ranked them according to Rotten Tomatoes' rating system and have also taken into account the "Certified Fresh" ratings which take major critics and the number of reviews into account.
10 YOJIMBO (FRESH - 95%)
Ever seen A Fistful of Dollars starring Clint Eastwood in 1964? Yojimbo by Akira Kurosawa was its prime inspiration. In fact, the company that owns Yojimbo (1961) in Japan even sued the makers of A Fistful of Dollars for remaking the exact same movie in a Hollywood flavor. The Japenese won. Anyway, that's how groundbreaking Yojimbo was.
It's about a lone hungry and masterless samurai who happens upon two rival factions and decides to play with both of them to make some money. Without this film, Clint Eastwood's claim to fame probably would not have been as spectacular or artistic nor would Spaghetti Western movies be as popular.
9 THE HIDDEN FORTRESS (FRESH - 97%)
Another hidden gem from Kurosawa that has had substantial effects on Hollywood would be The Hidden Fortress from 1958. George Lucas (creator of Star Wars), stated himself stated that he "copied" some of Kurosawa's movie tropes and even shots in making the original Star Wars sequel trilogy. Case in point is R2-D2 and C-3PO's early segments in Episode IV, a formula borrowed from The Hidden Fortress' two protagonists.
Both of them were two soldiers fleeing from war and an invading army until they stumble upon a hidden gold bar whereupon the atmosphere changes from brutality to humor. The Hidden Fortress is worth watching alone for how it inspired some of the Star Wars original trilogy's scenes.
8 SAMURAI REBELLION (FRESH - 100%)
One of the recurring themes in Japanese samurai films is feudal tyranny and how it affects even the well-off warriors. Such a notion was explored in Samurai Rebellion, released back in 1967. It tackled the oppressiveness of the local feudal lords who pretty much treated even their loyal subjects like animals.
A local lord demanded the return of the protagonist's wife who was previously expelled from the castle. They wanted the family's son as a successor to the throne. The protagonist's samurai family then refused their feudal lord's demand and sparked a rebellion against them, the name literally says it all.
7 SANJURO (FRESH - 100%)
If you liked Yojimbo or anything similar to it, then Sanjuro should be an automatic addition to your watch list. The 1962 Kurosawa film is considered as a companion movie to Yojimbo and also stars the same actor, the legendary Toshiro Mifune who has been the de facto face of samurai in Japanese cinema.
In any case, the premise of Sanjuro is quite simple, an experienced samurai master (Mifune) teaches some young and budding samurai some skills before they embark on a war for their corrupt lords. It's more humorous and comical than most film in this list but still contains enough samurai combat to break the ice. You'll even find the infamous "blood fountain" cinema effect present here, long before Quentin Tarantino started using it.
6 HARAKIRI (FRESH - 100%)
For a samurai movie that delves into the philosophies of the samurai itself, Harakiri from 1962 is a good place to start. It follows the story of many lordless samurai in the 17th century who were forced to fight each other in search of a new master thanks to a Shogun-mandated decentralization.
It shows the Japanese feudal lords at their worst; they were bullying and making many unfortunate samurai fight to the death for entertainment as they know the poor warriors cannot refuse due to their code of honor and loyalty.
5 ZATOICHI (2003) (CERTIFIED FRESH - 87%)
Now, we're moving on to "Certified Fresh." Zatoichi, the remake of a similarly rated 1962 film is every bit as deserving as a successor to the title's legacy. It holds one of the most unique premises for samurai or action films ever; you see, the protagonist of this samurai movie is a blind masseuse who also happens to be a formidable warrior.
No other film could have pulled off such a daring idea... successfully, at least. Meanwhile, you'll find Zatoichi's plot a bit simpler; it's a basic revenge story where the blind samurai reluctantly helps two sisters get revenge against a gang that murdered their parents. You'll find no shortage of gore and violence in this samurai flick.
4 13 ASSASSINS (CERTIFIED FRESH - 95%)
By far the most modern entry in this title, 13 Assassins (2011) successfully recreates the magic of films like Harakiri and Samurai Rebellion. A group of once loyal samurai became too disappointed with their sadistic feudal lord that they staged an assassination attempt against him.
It's a period drama and action film that hits all the checkboxes of Japan's samurai movie genre. Even more impressive is the fact that it's a remake of a 1963 classic from an esteemed director. Before 13 Assassins, many film critics thought that samurai films are no longer fashionable and haven't aged well. The glorious remake proved everyone wrong.
3 RAN (CERTIFIED FRESH - 96%)
Ran is one of Akira Kurosawa's latest works but it is by no means a diluted craft of the master filmmaker. It was released in 1985 and was one of his few colored works and among the final films he released. Nevertheless, Ran went on to put many war and action movies to shame even today. It's pacing, storytelling, and cinematography, as well as the production value, is pure cinema magic.
Ran is basically Kurosawa's take on Shakespeare's King Lear. It involves a dying feudal lord who disastrously managed his kingdom's inheritance. This caused his sons to wage war among one another in a battle for dominance and inheritance as their father watches them helplessly atop his burning castles.
2 THRONE OF BLOOD (CERTIFIED FRESH - 98%)
Again, leave to Akira Kurosawa to make turn a samurai epic into an arthouse Japanese masterpiece. Throne of Blood (1957) was his second-highest-rated film in Rotten Tomatoes. Like Ran, Throne of Blood was Kurosawa's take on another Shakespeare classic-- this time around, Macbeth.
It also features Toshiro Mifune (probably Kurosawa's favorite actor) as the protagonist who's a general. He and his closest friend were confronted by a spirit who predicts that both of them will eventually replace their feudal lord. The two then set out to fulfill the spirit's prophecies only for them to become power-hungry and corrupt with power until they eventually self-destruct. It's a version of Macbeth that likely won't put you to sleep.
1 SEVEN SAMURAI (CERTIFIED FRESH - 100%)
Kurosawa fans most likely expected this film to be at the top. Seven Samurai (1954)was Akira Kurosawa at his finest. It's one of the most unique stories ever in cinema; it also contributed much to action movies and film techniques including the masterful use of rain during an epic battle or action sequence among many others.
Even the film's plot is interesting enough: a group of impoverished farmers overheard some bandits talking about raiding their village sometime in the near future. So they hire some wandering samurai willing to practice some altruism and protect them practically without any reward. What follows is one of the most unforgettable fellowship adventure and war and action films to date. It's the granddaddy of all samurai films, one that you shouldn't miss in your lifetime.