There are a shockingly high number of great samurai movies out there, with the best of the best naturally coming from Japan. What the Western does for cowboys, the samurai film does for the warriors of old who lived in Japan, principally from late in the 12th century until the 1870s. Samurai films don’t just focus on these swordsmen, much like how Westerns don’t solely focus on gunslingers, but they are usually important.
- The 10 Best Directors of Every Decade, According to Reddit
- The 20 Best Animated Movies of All Time, Ranked According to IMDb
- 13 Recent Horror Movies That Prove It’s the Best Genre of Modern Times
- The 15 Best Horror Movie Quotes, Ranked Scary to Scariest
- The 10 Best Pilot Episodes in Crime TV Shows, Ranked According to IMDb
This ensures most samurai films also function as compelling action movies, with some emphasizing fight scenes more than others. Elsewhere, they also function as compelling historical dramas, with some being based on real-life figures from Japanese history. Samurai films show a unique code/way of life, and honor (or the lack thereof) within a once influential nobility, and the genre is represented best by the titles below, starting with the great and ending with the all-time greatest.
15 ‘The Twilight Samurai’ (2002)
Filmmaker Yoji Yamada is best known for being the writer/director behind almost every single movie in the 50-film-long Tora-san series. Yet for as busy as that series would’ve kept him, his filmography is far from just Tora-san, with a trilogy of samurai movies he directed in the 2000s showing how he could excel outside the romance/dramedy genres.
The first and best of these three movies was 2002’s The Twilight Samurai, which was notably nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards. It’s a serious and more drama-focused samurai film than most, being about a lowly samurai who’s torn between his family/love life and the code of honor he’s supposed to uphold as a samurai. It’s a grounded, slow, but always engaging drama, with the infrequent action making the bursts of violence that much more impactful.
14 ’13 Assassins’ (2010)
Takashi Miike is one of the most prolific Japanese filmmakers working today, and his 2010 movie 13 Assassins is one of the best he’s ever made. It’s a brutal and simple movie, being about one truly despicable (yet regrettably powerful) lord who needs to be taken out, and the group of assassins who form to carry out the mission.
It won’t subvert expectations when it comes to the plot or how it unfolds, but the immense detail and work that went into the film – and the brutality of its final act, which is pretty much all action – makes it a spectacle. It’s direct and no-nonsense, but executed in a way that it’s hard to resist and not feel at least somewhat moved and/or shocked by.
13 ‘The Tale of Zatoichi’ (1962)
Even if The Tale of Zatoichi wasn’t one of the best entries in the series, it would still warrant some love thrown its way, given it was the first movie featuring the iconic character. Thankfully, it also just so happens to be one of the best Zatoichi movies, perfectly introducing the character and genuinely just being a great, classic samurai film regardless of the many sequels that followed.
It’s a movie that sees Zatoichi get involved in a conflict within a small town, taking on the yakuza gang that has power there, with tragic results. Though the story here is only directly followed in 1962’s The Tale of Zatoichi Continues, the events do feel like they help form the character who audiences then follow for 20+ sequels, making The Tale of Zatoichi an undeniably important one to start the series with.
12 ‘Samurai Assassin’ (1965)
Samurai Assassin has a complex plot based on a real historical event, and manages to squeeze it all quite effectively into a two-hour-long movie. The other approach would’ve been making it an epic, but not all three-hour-long samurai movies stay entertaining for three hours, so the condensing of the narrative here works.
It follows the warriors of a clan who wait outside a shogunate’s castle, hoping to one day get the opportunity to assassinate him, and get revenge for the fact that he ruined their lives. The warriors also have to contend with the notion that one of their own may have betrayed them, leading to plenty of suspense and intrigue over the first 90% of the movie, which is steadily paced, before things explode into beautifully filmed action – shot while snow falls all around – at the very end.
11 ‘Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart at the River Styx’ (1972)
Of all the Lone Wolf and Cub movies, Baby Cart at the River Styx is commonly held up as one of the best. It was the second of six within the main series, all of which came out between 1972 and 1974, and continues the story of Ogami Itto (with his infant son alongside him) going on a quest for revenge against the clan that betrayed him and murdered his wife.
It all leads to tons of action, and notably, the fights on offer within this series are noticeably bloodier and more intense than most other samurai movies out there. The Lone Wolf and Cub movies are filled with limbs flying off and exaggerated bursts of high-pressure blood, and all the while, the story of a lone warrior out for revenge remains compelling.
10 ‘Samurai Rebellion’ (1967)
Few Japanese filmmakers were quite as accomplished as Masaki Kobayashi, who made great war movies, social dramas, and samurai films throughout his career. One such samurai film of his was Samurai Rebellion, which sees the members of a samurai family grapple with whether to stand up to a lord who kidnaps one of their own.
It’s primarily a family drama with a historical setting, and revolving around several characters who have ties to the samurai way of life. As such, it might not satisfy people who want their samurai movies to be action-focused, but for those in the mood for something a little bit slower and more emotionally hard-hitting than many comparable films released around the same time, Samurai Rebellion is a worthy watch.
9 ‘The Sword of Doom’ (1966)
The Sword of Doom is unapologetically dark, bloody, and oftentimes shocking. It follows an expert swordsman who doesn’t seem to have much sense of morality, taking on various violent tasks, and seeing himself become more and more evil with every violent act he does.
Those who need their protagonists to be likable might want to sit a movie like The Sword of Doom out, because the main character here – played by Tatsuya Nakadai – is irredeemable, and much of the movie is from his point of view. Yet others will find the movie a challenge worth taking, because few samurai movies push quite as many boundaries as this one, making it a grim yet vital entry within the genre.
8 ‘Zatoichi Goes to the Fire Festival’ (1970)
Right before Zatoichi met The One-Armed Man, he also went to the fire festival, in the appropriately titled 21st film in the series, Zatoichi Goes to the Fire Festival. It stands as arguably the best movie the title character ever starred in, thanks to some very memorable fights, great side characters, and a strong central premise.
Zatoichi bonds with another blind man who becomes a mentor of sorts to him, helping him take on a remarkably powerful Yakuza gang and various other antagonists. It’s breathlessly paced and feels particularly non-stop when it comes to action, and the unique settings used for said action scenes ensure this entry in the series sticks in the mind as one of the most memorable.
7 ‘Throne of Blood’ (1957)
There are too many great Shakespeare film adaptations out there to count them all, but Throne of Blood is rightly held up reasonably often as one of the very best. It takes the story of Macbeth to samurai times, being about an ambitious warrior who’s told that great things await him in the future.
He goes about trying to realize this prophecy, helped by his equally ambitious and cunning wife, only for tragedy to befall the pair, seeing as Macbeth doesn’t have a happy ending for the title character, after all. It wasn’t the only time Akira Kurosawa made a film based on (or inspired by) a Shakespeare play, but he did it well enough to ensure Throne of Blood’s considered one of his greatest works.
6 ‘Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in Peril’ (1972)
The fourth Lone Wolf and Cub movie, 1972’s Baby Cart in Peril, represents the series at its absolute peak. Narratively, it’s more or less what you’d expect from these films, with the story here sending Ogami Itto off on various other missions, all the while he continues his series-long goal of revenge.
Yet it’s the extremes Baby Cart in Peril goes to when delivering wild content that makes it a highlight of the entire series, which is saying something, considering how every one of the original six movies is, at very worst, really good. It’s perhaps the most violent of the six, and the one that feels most like an exploitation film at times, but it perfectly captures the entire series’ potential and condenses it down into a single 81-minute movie.
5 ‘Yojimbo’ (1961)
Yojimbo came out one year before its sequel, Sanjuro, and is ultimately the better of the two. It has a classic narrative that’s been recycled and unofficially remade in other films, as it sees a charismatic lone wolf come into a town divided by a fierce gang war, leading him to play both sides against each other to get rid of all the town’s conflict at once.
Its best-known imitator is Sergio Leone’sFistful of Dollars, which has the same premise, except with a Western setting. It’s understandable why Yojimbo’s been influential, because it’s an overall excellent, compact, and tremendously satisfying film, and one of the best Akira Kurosawa ever directed.
4 ‘Lady Snowblood’ (1973)
On the topic of influential samurai movies: Lady Snowblood. This is one of the most iconic of all Japanese samurai movies, and few revenge movies pack quite as powerful a punch as this one does, telling the story of a young girl who’s trained to become a fearsome warrior in adulthood so she can avenge the family she never knew.
It’s fast-paced, emotional, and visually stylish, and is centered by a legendary performance by Meiko Kaji, in what’s perhaps her best-known role. It’s a good entry point into classic samurai movies with one small problem: after watching Lady Snowblood, the majority of other classic samurai movies might not hold up in comparison.
3 ‘Ran’ (1985)
Ran was a war epic that felt like the culmination of Akira Kurosawa’s filmmaking career. The legendary director was in his 70s when he made it, and though it didn’t end up being his last film, it was his last epic/ Thankfully, it lived up to its lofty ambitions, also becoming one of the director’s greatest works, only equaled – or slightly surpassed – by another epic of his made 30 years earlier.
The plot of Ran is partially inspired by that of Shakespeare’s King Lear, where an aging patriarch attempts to divide up what he has between several children, all of whom clash over how big their piece of the pie is. Here, the tragic story is devastatingly told, and the film’s look and scope are also frequently awe-inspiring, with amazing use of color throughout and some truly large-scale sequences on offer.
2 ‘Harakiri’ (1962)
Few samurai movies critique the samurai culture and way of life quite like Harakiri. It’s a slow-burn – and often tragic – drama about one man telling a clan of samurai about how they impacted his life, with it slowly becoming clear as the film, and its various flashbacks, go on that the man could be in the process of seeking revenge.
It’s widely regarded as not just one of the best samurai movies of its decade, but one of the best movies full-stop of the 1960s. It’s a constantly tense and beautifully filmed movie that deals with some difficult themes, showing the darker side of the samurai, and giving the genre one of its boldest, bloodiest, and most memorable entries.
1 ‘Seven Samurai’ (1954)
The best film from a great year for cinema, Seven Samurai is, quite simply, untouchable. It’s about a town that hires a group of warriors to defend the location from raiding bandits, with the team – upon formation – training the villagers in how to survive the inevitable assault, before the final act then shows a large-scale, very long climactic battle.
It’s a perfectly structured movie that tells its story in an unbelievably effective way, moving effortlessly through its 3.5-hour-long runtime, and never feeling boring for a second. It’s the gold standard when it comes to action epics, and given it’s set during samurai times and features plenty of swordplay, it rightly stands as the greatest samurai movie of all time.
NEXT: Every ‘Battles Without Honor and Humanity’ Movie, Ranked From Worst to Best