Audition director Takashi Miike is never one to kick back with a breezy comedy of manners, and his next movie tackles arguably the most famous - and violent - of Japanese genres: the samurai epic. 13 Assassins, Miike’s remake of Eiichi Kudo’s 1961 movie of the same name, wears those Bushido legends on its bloodstained sleeve, as a posse of ronin vow vengeance on an evil nobleman. With Miike’s actioner slamming onto our screens, the bush telegram bringing news of a Weinstein-funded Seven Samurai remake and Keanu Reeves picking up a katana for 47 Ronin, here are ten sword-swinging spectaculars to hunt down.
Director: Masaki Kobayashi
A film that derives its title from a synonym of the word ‘seppuku’, the Japanese ritual of self-disembowelment, this Cannes Jury prize winner was never going to be a laugh-riot, but it’s a samurai doosie nonetheless. Tatsuya Nakadai’s fading swordsman carries the stain of failure with him when he washes up, masterless, at the manor of a callous landowner and announces his intention to commit harakiri. But is he really planning to turn himself into a pitta pocket or is it just a ploy to elicit alms from the villagers? Neither, as it turns out. Samurai don’t do self-pity. Regular Kobayashi collaborator Nakadai’s grizzled ronin is soon avenging the death of a fellow ronin with a panache familiar to anyone who’s seen The Bride in action. Watch it for Kobayashi’s coruscating critique of Japan’s post-war social hierarchy or because it’s got awesome swordfights: either way, it’s a classic of the genre. Look out, too, for Miike’s remake – Hara-Kiri: Death Of A Samurai – debuting at Cannes.
Director: Kihachi Okamoto
The Taxi Driver of samurai movies – and we mean that in a good way – this black-as-pitch chanbara sees Tatsuya Nakadai play a ronin unfettered by kindness or compassion. In fact, you’d have to go far to find a protagonist as unsympathetic as Nakadai’s samurai bastard. After killing a fencing opponent, he’s forced to go on the run, taking his victim’s wife with him. This comes just after the bit where he butchers a priest in cold blood and just before the bit where he tries to kill just about everyone else in Japan (see left). Well, we did say he’s a bastard. It’s all based on a 1913 serialised novel by Kaizan Nakazato. According to its author, it spliced the weighty influences of Dostoevsky, Christianity and socialism. The adaptation is terrific, soul-shaking stuff, but where the religion fits in we’re not quite sure; this samurai thriller inhabits a world where angels would definitely fear to tread. A man who didn't was Sam Peckinpah: Sword Of Doom was a major influence on the American director.
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Of Japan’s historic warrior castes, the samurai have fared substantially better on the big screen than their mercenary counterparts, the ninjas. That no-one in Hollywood ever thought Teenage Mutant Samurai Turtles was a good idea is down to the great master of the genre, Akira Kurosawa. From the ill-fated samurai of Rashomon to his King-Lear-meets-Kendo epic Ran 34 years later, he imbued samurai tales with such gravitas and dignity that Western filmmakers had no choice but follow suit. Seven Samurai passed the Western DNA of John Ford back to Hollywood and John Sturges’s Magnificent Seven, but, as crew movies go, it’s the original and still the best. If you’re ever involved in a Japanese pub quiz, Isao Kimura is the Brad Dexter character.
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Another Kurosawa samurai masterpiece that was reborn in the Old West, this time as Sergio Leone’s A Fistful Of Dollars. In Yojimbo (‘The Bodyguard’) the man with no name is samurai movie legend Toshiro Mifune. It’s a classic example of the ‘jidai-geki’ samurai tale: a myth-rich period tale with a modern eye for concepts of class, violence and self-sacrifice. In this case, it’s the villainous landlord and his henchmen who provide most of the sacrifice. Mifune’s rough-cast ronin basically tears the town a new one, even polishing off a gunman with only his katana and some native cunning. The Mifune-Kurosawa axis had its bumpy moments, not least when the pair fell out over the actor’s late arrival on set (from then on Mifune turned up in full costume at 6am every morning), but this is one of the very finest of their 16 collaborations together. Then again, there’s also The Hidden Fortress, Seven Samurai, Rashomon, Sanjuro and Throne Of Blood to consider. Actually, you know what? Just see them all.
Director: Masaki Kobayashi
Like the majority of samurai movies, the moody and magnificent Samurai Rebellion is set in the Edo period (that’s 1603-1868, history buffs), when men were men but still did pretty much what the ruling Shoguns told them. On-screen, this is an era when you either swotted up on your swordplay fast or went and hid in the nearest cupboard. Falling firmly into the first bracket is Toshiro Mifune, who here plays a man forced to choose between his bushido code and his family. A lot of people die when Toshiro Mifune is forced to make tough choices, so it’s probably unwise of the daimyo lord to demand that Mifune’s ageing samurai, Isaburo, return his son’s wife to court. The daimyo wants her back as his concubine, but she’s now in love with Isaburo’s son and the pair have had a child together. In other words, the daimyo made a big mistake. Isaburo is mad as hell and he’s not going to take it anymore.
Director: Masahiro Shinoda
We’re not saying this one makes the list just because of its amazing title, but it definitely helps. As you can probably guess, Koji Takahashi is a samurai and a spy, a man so stealthy he could cut you into a million piece without you even noticing. New-wave director Shinoda’s film offered Japanese audiences a bridge between samurai movies and the ninja cinema that was exploding in Japan in the early ’60s. Unusually, it’s all set outside the Edo era, playing out at the turn of the 17th century, a time when samurai were still called on as warriors and their status was more than symbolic. Still, Takahashi’s swordsman is weary of war and fatigued by the politicking of two rival clans, real-life rivals the Tokugawa and Toyotomi. Cue intrigue, double-dealing, awesome sword fights and a cameo by a mysterious white-hooded ninja. On second thoughts, maybe they should have called it ‘Samurai Vs Ninja’?
Director: Hiroshi Inagaki
Bit of cheat seeing as it’s actually three films - Miyamoto Musashi (1954), Duel At Ichijoji Temple (1955) and Duel On Ganryu Island (1965) – but Inagaki’s great work can’t be omitted. Samurai I even won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film. It’s a three-part biopic of legendary samurai Miyamoto Musashi, the Citizen Kane of samurai epics. Obviously, only one actor could play the greatest swordsman in history and, sure enough, it’s Toshiro Mifune who dons the kabuto to depict the great man’s journey from young tearaway to veteran samurai and all-round bringer of justice. It’s all set against a backdrop of epic battles and fills the screen with enough fierce two-sword combat to satisfy the greatest samurai fanatic. We’re not sure who holds that title, but it may well be Quentin Tarantino; he homaged and referenced the trilogy in Kill Bill.
Director: Hideo Gosha
Samurai master director Gosha provides some of the genre’s greatest battle sequences in this story of disgrace, revenge and redemption. Yuuki Gennosuke (Mikijiro Hira) is a ronin, hunted by his own kind after he assassinates a clan elder. Of course, all is not what it seems. He’s been tricked and manipulated – yes, samurai can be a little trusting – and played unwitting stooge to a Machiavellian schemer in court. As in many of the samurai greats, plot often takes second place to mood and style. Gennosuke flees to the mountains for a showdown with powerful ronin Yamane, before the realisation dawns that, like him, his fellow ronin has been betrayed by his own.
Director: Yoji Yamada
The gifted and prolific Yoji Yamada had made 76 – count ‘em – movies before he breathed new life into the samurai genre with this moody and magnificent drama. It’s the first and finest in a loose trilogy that also includes The Hidden Blade (2004) and Love And Honour (2006). Set at the fag-end of the Edo period when samurai were ever more marginalised by changes in Japanese society, it’s revolves around Seibei (Hiroyuki Sanada); he’s a good example of a ronin who’s gone from lionised legend to the nearest thing 19th century Japan has to a Mike Leigh character. Seibei is widowed and yearning for the quiet life, with two kids to look after and his symbolic long sword pawned to make ends meet. But then he’s given a do-or-die mission to kill a rogue samurai, and those old samurai genes kick in. Grand stuff, it was rapturously received in Japan and earned an Oscar nod too.
Director: Jim Jarmusch
Sure, it’s not a samurai movie in the strictest sense of the word, but Jim Jarmusch’s slow-mo thriller riffs so reverentially on the genre that it’s a worthy addition to any mononofu marathon. In fact, it’s a swirl of meta-references to samurai movies (Rashomon, in particular) and homages to samurai movies (the sink killing borrows from Seijun Suzuki’s Branded To Kill; Ghost Dog’s love of birds mirrors Jef Costello’s in Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai) and boasts a central character, Forest Whitaker’s titular hitman, who’s more serious about following the bushido code than a fair number of actual samurai. You can tell he’s no casual dabbler by his strict adherence to the Hagakure text, the symbolic hits he executes and the way he, like most worthy samurai, gets sold out by his master. Like Kill Bill, Jarmusch’s thriller is a samurai fan’s samurai movie. Look out, too, for a dedication to Kurosawa in the end credits.