Samurai films (aka jidaigeki or chanbara) are an essential part of any film fan’s international cinema diet. Japan has a long, long history of supplying art both philosophical and visceral by utilizing their nation’s exceptionally turbulent history and the many shades of its warrior caste as a storytelling backdrop. The stories and themes are universal and have supplied Western filmmakers with inspiration and material for longer than most of us have been alive.
Films ranging from Star Wars and A Bug’s Life to any number of westerns owe their existence to classic Japanese period dramas -some of which were inspired by Western writers like Shakespeare- creating a great give-and-take dynamic that has allowed storytelling as a visual art form to thrive worldwide for decades. This week, I’m taking you on a tour of my favorite samurai films and franchises of all-time from the arthouse to the grindhouse to the present day blockbuster.
I’ll be focusing more on iconic action-packed tales for chanbara newcomers rather than deep philosophy, but feel free to sharpen your katanas and chop into the comments section with further viewing recommendations because there’s a nearly bottomless well of quality in this genre. Dozo.
Lone Wolf and Cub
This grindhouse standard consists of six awesome films released over a period of two years (!) following the exploits of assassin-for-hire Ogami Itto and his toddler son, Daigoro. In the opening chapter, Itto is the shogun’s personal executioner who is framed by a corrupt clan and branded a traitor. After killing a crapload of people, he resolves to live the life of a demon, offering his son a choice between a sword and a ball. If he chooses the ball, Daigoro will be sent to heaven to be with his murdered mother, retaining his innocence. If he chooses the sword, he too will travel the corrupt world as an outcast.
Obviously, Daigoro chooses the sword and his father becomes the most feared assassin in Japan in spite of having a child in tow. A typical Lone Wolf and Cub scene involves Ogami pushing a bamboo baby cart containing Daigoro along a road before being assailed by bandits or ninjas who are then dispatched with extreme brutality by Itto’s blade and any number of hidden weapons hidden on the cart.
Itto’s life is one bloody struggle after another, but it’s never even a little boring. The supporting cast from film to film are strong and include such standouts as a squad of kunoichi assassins who prove their worth by quickly chopping a male shinobi up one piece at a time and pinning him to the floor with a sword as the mere stump that’s left rolls for the door and a fellow honorable ronin forced into confronting our hero by tragic fate.
In 1980 the first two films were dubbed and cut together without all the silly character development to make Shogun Assassin, which remains a cult classic and played a role in Kill Bill, but I say there’s no substitute for the original uncut films.
2003 brought us a rare modern samurai classic about a woman raised to be an assassin. This was directed by Ryuhei Kitamura, who is best known for the apocalyptic zombie vs. yakuza action-fest Versus and his excellent adaptation of Clive Barker’s Midnight Meat Train. Think of him as the Japanese Robert Rodriguez. All of his films are cool, but this is by far his greatest work.
To build the perfect assassin squad to change the course of Japanese history and end all wars, a man collects a group of ten orphans and teaches them the deadly arts. For their final test, they are instructed to pair off with their best friend and duel them to the death. And then there were five. The theme of the story is the morality of killing and allowing people to die to further a cause which could potentially save more lives. Can you do right by perpetuating wrong?
The film is gorgeous to look at, features some incredibly creative shots and some of the best action scenes ever. It’s got a little bit of something for everything and one of the most psychotic villains ever to boot to make for one of the most delightfully entertaining Japanese films of the 00’s; an underrated must-see if ever there was one and that’s why I’m putting it here in place of some deserving older classics.
The original blind swordsman is one of the most iconic characters of Japanese cinema and is the subject of 26 feature films spanning over thirty years (not counting the shameful remake) and a hundred episodes of television. The concept of a blind warrior with enhanced senses has since become a classic trope of fiction and inspired characters like Daredevil.
Shintaro Katsu’s traveling masseur is a character comparable to James Bond in the West. An invincible hero with a seemingly endless supply of adventures that any viewer can comfortably jump into and out of at any point. You go into a Zatoichi flick and you pretty much know what to expect. ‘Ichi-san is assailed by a group of bandits looking to rob a blind man, he cuts them down with his cane-sword and then re-sheathes his blade saying something like “you should have guarded your life more carefully” like a total boss, then uses his senses to own the local yakuza at dice games, makes new friends and enemies, gets drawn into some intrigue or another, much bloodshed ensues, and finally ponders the tragic nature of his existence and the grief he brings to everyone who gets near him before moving on. It’s a dependably entertaining template.
Zatoichi is also notable for taking on other classic characters from Asian cinema, dueling Hong Kong’s one-armed swordsman to the death and contending with Toshiro Mifune (who will appear later in the list) in Zatoichi meets Yojimbo. Any way you look at it, his films are essential viewing for martial arts fanatics.
If I had to pick a single favorite iconic visual from samurai cinema, I’d have to pick the opening scene to Lady Snowblood. The procession of rough-looking customers halted by a single mysterious kimono-clad beauty standing in the snow clutching a parasol who proceeds to slaughter them all with a blade concealed in her lovely accessory is a visually beautiful and irresistibly intriguing hook.
This film famously inspired Quentin Tarantino to make Kill Bill and its fingerprints are all over that film from the concept to the soundtrack to the visuals. The tale of a child born in prison to carry out vengeance in place of the mother whose life was destroyed by violence was brought to us by the creator of Lone Wolf and Cub and joins that series on the list of grindhouse chanbara musts.
Lady Snowblood suffers more than other films on this list from some issues like an odd clipped-feeling ending and the fact that star Meiko Kaji clearly didn’t have much in the way of fighting skills, but the unusual structuring and general badassness of the film coupled with some really brilliant shots and creative angles where it appears as though our anti-heroine is attacking too fast for the eye to follow when she’s really not getting anywhere near her opponents more than make up for any technical deficiencies. Sometimes the essence of greatness transcends mere flaws.
The sequel, Love Song of Vengeance, lacks the iconic quality of the original, but adds some interesting political intrigue to the story of an exhausted and aimless assassin pursued by the law with nothing left to fight for a decent follow-up to a cult classic.
Any short list of must-see Japanese films is sure to be followed by a slew of comments naming films from the legendary director Akira Kurosawa and his incomparable leading man, Toshiro Mifune. And they’d all be right to do so. It would be no sweat to make a list of just Kurosawa and/or Mifune films in this genre and leave it at that because those two are the undisputed masters of jidaigeki cinema. The Hidden Fortress was the inspiration for Star Wars, Yojimbo was remade as A Fistful of Dollars, launching the spaghetti western genre and making Clint Eastwood a legend, Rashomon is one of the greatest films ever made of any genre, and Seven Samurai is arguably the best of them all.
Even if you have never seen this perennial greatest film of all time contender, you have almost certainly seen some version of it, be it Pixar’s A Bug’s Life, The Magnificent Seven, the sci-fi anime remake Samurai 7, or even an episode of Star Wars: The Clone Wars. The trope of gathering a ragtag crew to tackle a hopeless task is standard operating procedure across all genres of fiction and this was possibly the first film to do it. And it’s still the best.
The amount of ground covered in the over three hours of Seven Samurai is monumental. It sounds like a long running time, but I swear this film flies by when I watch it. The story of a village beset by bandits hiring seven starving ronin with the promise of free rice and the class warfare, actual warfare, and timeless themes of humanism and bravery in the face of overwhelming odds set in feudal Japan seems like the only film you ever need to watch by the time it’s over. It’s got heart, it’s got humor, it’s got action, it’s got romance, it’s got EVERYTHING; a masterpiece by any standard and the perfect film to anchor this list of swashbuckling and katana-slicing action films. Yosh!