What do Star Wars, John Wick, and Spaghetti Westerns like The Magnificent Seven have in common? If you guessed that they were all influenced by some of the best samurai movies then you would be correct. But in the event you are not all that well versed in the classics from groundbreaking Japanese filmmakers like Akira Kurosawa, Masaki Kobayashi, or Hideo Gosha, worry not, for we have put together a list of the most influential samurai movies and everywhere you can watch them whether it be on a streaming service like HBO Max (which has the best selection outside of The Criterion Channel) or through purchase on Amazon. Take this as a quick yet comprehensive introductory course into the history of one of the most exciting movie genres…
Seven Samurai (1954)
There is no better place to start than with Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 epic Seven Samurai, which follows a group ronin (masterless samurai) as they band together to protect a small Japanese village that is being threatened by a group of bandits. Although the small group of samurai aren’t the most notable or capable of fighters, they band together (and around the village) nonetheless and put everything on the line. As the group of ronin and villagers await the arrival of the diabolical force, they construct a bond that brings the fighters honor and the townsfolk a shot at survival.
Throne Of Blood (1957)
In 1957 Akira Kurosawa gave the world an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth that was unlike anything anyone had seen before. The result was Throne of Blood, which traded in the castles of Medieval Scotland for the fortresses of feudal Japan, creating a visceral and paranoia-filled experience. The story stays fairly close to the source material for the most part in that it centers on an ambitious samurai known as Lord Washizu Taketoki (Toshiro Mifune) and his equally power-hungry wife Washizu Asaji (Isuzu Yamada) as he murders his way into power. All of this leads to one of the most realistic and bloody final showdowns ever witnessed in cinema.
Shogun Assassin (1980)
Robert Houston’s 1980 gory period drama Shogun Assassin is essentially an edited version of the first two films in Kenji Misumi’s Lone Wolf and Cub series, which itself is an adaptation of the long-running manga publication of the same name. One of the more violent samurai movies, Shogun Assassin follows Lone Wolf (Tomisaburo Wakayama) as he and his young son embark upon a journey through the Japanese countryside not for a better life, redemption, or anything like that, but instead to kill those responsible for his wife’s murder, no matter how powerful or well connected they may be. If you are a fan of Wu-Tang Clan and the group’s various solo projects, then you have most likely heard audio samples from Shogun Assassin at one point or another.
The Hidden Fortress (1958)
Akira Kurosawa’s 1958 classic The Hidden Fortress centers on General Rokurota Makabe (Toshiro Mifune) and Princess Yuki (Misa Uehara) as they go undercover as peasants to avoid capture during a brutal tribal war. Together with two greedy peasants who just can’t seem to stay out of trouble (or prevent it from coming their way), the pair push from one outpost to the next, finding themselves in all kinds of misadventures in the process. This idea of nobility hiding in plain sight is something George Lucas would use multiple times throughout the Star Wars franchise.
13 Assassins (2010)
Takashi Miike’s 2010 remake of the 1963 classic 13 Assassins follows a ragtag group of samurai who are hired in secret by the government for one purpose and one purpose only: stop Lord Naritsugu Matsudaira (Goro Inagaki) and his reign of terror before it is too late. With large-scale battles, brutal close-quarter combat, and an engaging story involving a large ensemble of memorable characters, there’s plenty to enjoy here.
Lady Snowblood (1973)
Adapted from a long-running manga series of the same name, Toshiya Fujita’s 1973 samurai epic Lady Snowblood follows Yuki Kashima (Meiko Kaji) as she sets out on a path of vengeance to find and kill the men responsible for the brutal rape of her mother and murder of her father and brother prior to her birth many years ago. Lady Snowblood, as brutal as she is beautiful, will stop at nothing until every single one of bandits who stole peace and decency from her family breathe their last breath.
One of the best movies on Amazon Prime, Akira Kurosawa’s 1985 epic Ran, like Throne of Blood decades earlier, is a reinterpretation of one of William Shakespeare’s most notable works, King Lear. Taking place just as Great Lord Hidetora Ichimonji (Tatsuya Nakadai) decides to step down and divide his kingdom into thirds, one for each son, the movie examines just how easily the mind and soul can be corrupted by power and greed. Ran would be Kurosawa’s final epic drama and one of his last films before his death in September 1998.
Masaki Kobayashi’s 1962 samurai drama Harakiri tells the story of Hanshiro Tsugumo (Tatsuya Nakadai), an elderly ronin exhausted from the a long and difficult life, as he arrives at the estate of a local lord and proclaims his desire to commit seppuku (ritualistic suicide). Before the lord grants his request, Hanshiro tells him of his life story and why this specific location carries so much meaning for him on his personal journey. Soon, the lord and his samurai become fully aware of what is happening in front of their very eyes.
Released in 1961, Akira Kurosawa’s samurai film Yojimbo follows a mysterious ronin who adopts the name of Kuwabatake Sanjuro when he wanders into a small Japanese village and uses two crime lords’ greed and ambition against one another, kicking off all-out war between the rival factions. Over the course of Yojimbo, the ronin sets out to bring peace and sensibility back to the village that has been ravaged by the lingering effects of the bitter rivals and their ruthless gangs of bandits and thugs who have essentially held the townsfolk ransom. Oh, and this classic also features one of the best duels to ever grace the silver screen.
The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi (2003)
The character Zatoichi, a blind swordsman who has trained his other senses to make up for his lack of vision, is one of the most prominent figures in Japanese cinema, television, and literature, having popped up countless times over the years. One of the best depictions of the iconic figure is The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi, a 2003 revival written and directed by Takeshi Kitano. In the film, Zatoichi (Beat Takeshi) stumbles into a small village and quickly becomes a hero for the lowly townsfolk and thorn in the side for the ruthless gangs who have taken over the settlement. While looking out for the best interests of the villagers, the blind swordsman goes to war with the criminal underbelly of the town and works his way all the way to the top to stomp them out once and for all.
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Samurai Rebellion (1967)
Makashi Kobayashi’s 1967 epic Samurai Rebellion centers on Isaburo Sasahara (Toshiro Mifune), a aging warrior and one of the most talented swordsmen in all of Japan, as he fights for not only his honor but that of his son and daughter-in-law when a ruthless local lord calls for the bride to leave her husband and return to his manor. Not willing to back down, give in, or let bygones be bygones, Isaburo prepares for battle against the ruthless ruler, his bodyguards, and anyone else who stands in his way.
Blade Of The Immortal (2017)
Takashi Miike’s 2017 supernatural samurai film Blade of the Immortal follows Manji (Takuya Kimura) a highly skilled warrior who is on the run with a massive bounty on his head when he is given a shot at redemption: help a woman woman named Rin Asano (Hana Sugisaki) who wants to avenge her parents’ vicious murder. Together, the unlikely duo set off to make everyone responsible pay for their sins, no matter what it takes or what the heroes stand to lose.
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These are just a small portion of all the great samurai films that are available to enjoy. If you are looking for even more to check out, some of the best movies on Netflix fall into this category. And since you're here, why not check out all the 2022 movies that will be coming to theaters and streaming services in the very near future.