Cinema has always had a fondness for the tales of samurai. Whether it’s thrilling action films, heartbreaking dramas, or even love stories, filmmakers have followed these mythic characters for almost a century. While the golden era of samurai films was during the 1950s and ’60s, particularly during the time of acclaimed director Akira Kurosawa, the genre still lives on today.
Hollywood has even embraced elements of the predominately Japanese genre, with popular films such as Kill Bill and The Wolverine featuring homages to the way of the samurai. Video games have also focused on the fabled warriors, with Ghost of Tsushima and Trek to Yomi being recent examples. While the output of samurai films may have slowed down in recent decades, quality films are still being released in the genre.
‘The Twilight Samurai’ (2002)
Starring screen favorite Hiriyuki Sanada (seen recently as Scorpion in Mortal Kombat), The Twilight Samurai tells the story of Seibei (Sanada), a low-ranking samurai who lives a poor but peaceful life with his two daughters. Widowed, he soon reconnects with his childhood sweetheart, but his samurai code threatens to keep them apart.
More of a drama and a romance than a straight-up action movie, Sanada is great as the stoic hero as he tries to keep his family together during the turbulent times that surround them. The film was highly praised at release and received a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Picture.
‘Sword of the Stranger’ (2007)
An anime film, Sword of the Stranger, follows a wandering ronin as he crosses paths with a young boy and his dog. Learning that evildoers are pursuing the boy, the ronin agrees to protect his young charge and lead him to a Buddhist temple where safety is promised.
Beautifully animated, Sword of the Stranger takes the familiar trope of the wandering swordsman forced into heroism and transports it to the limitless world of animation. It was Japan’s official submission for Best Animated Feature at the 81st Academy Awards.
Sword of the Stranger is available to stream on Funimation.
‘The Hidden Blade’ (2004)
The follow-up to The Twilight Samurai, The Hidden Blade focuses on different characters but explores the same themes as its predecessor. When lower-class samurai Katagiri (Masatoshi Nagase) is forced away from the woman he loves due to his samurai code, he is tasked with killing his friend Yaichiro, who is planning a rebellion.
Like The Twilight Samurai, The Hidden Blade swaps extended sword fights for emotion and storytelling, exploring the inner workings of its characters more than their proficiency with a sword. For anyone who likes their films deep and introspective, The Hidden Blade is a must-watch.
The Hidden Blade is available to stream on Tubi.
Written and directed by Japanese screen legend Takeshi Kitano (Battle Royale), Zatoichi follows the titular blind swordsman, a famous samurai character from the ’60s through to the ’80s. Kitano himself plays the character, who arrives in a small village overrun by bandits.
Taking on the facade of a humble masseur, Zatoichi teaches the tormented villagers to defend themselves while deploying his masterful sword fighting skills. Zatoichi is a well-made homage to a classic samurai character and accurately captures the magic of the samurai films of yesteryear.
‘When the Last Sword is Drawn’ (2002)
When a man finds that he can no longer provide for his family, he commits himself to a notorious samurai clan. While the pay is good and his family remains fed, the acts the man is forced to inflict go against his values and push him to the edge of his morals.
When the Last Sword is Drawn is an examination of how far the good will go to protect the ones they love. An emotionally resonant film, When the Last Sword is Drawn, is for those who like their samurai films to be tearjerkers.
‘Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai’ (2011)
1962’s Harakiri is considered one of the greatest samurai films of all time and has had a significant influence on the genre as a whole. This remake from gonzo master Takashi Miike updates the classic tale for a modern audience while staying true to what made the original story so timeless.
Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai tells the tale of a samurai who arrives at a lord’s estate and asks if he may commit ritual suicide on the man’s property. From there, the stories of both men are revealed as the audience learns what led this suicidal samurai to wind up at this specific location.
Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai is available to stream on Tubi.
‘Rurouni Kenshin’ (2012)
An adaptation of the Manga of the same name, Rurouni Kenshin follows the wandering swordsman Kenshin (Takeru Satoh), who roams feudal Japan seeking atonement for the murders he committed during the war. Often stopping to help those in need, he amasses a small group of followers as they plot to end the reign of those who prey on the weak.
The film proved to be a major success and found an audience both in Japan and overseas. This resulted in three sequels that follow Kenshin and his friends, while a prequel was also released that explores his backstory in further detail.
Rurouni Kenshin is available to stream on Netflix.
’13 Assassins’ (2010)
Another samurai offering from Takashi Miike, and another remake, this time of 1963’s 13 Assassins. The plot follows 12 samurai and a hunter who come together to plot the assassination of a murderous lord before he ascends to a higher seat of power.
The film has been compared favorably to the works of Akira Kurosawa, and it is easy to draw a line between this film and his classic Seven Samurai. Both films feature a ragtag group of samurai from different walks of life who come together for a singular cause, resulting in breathtaking action scenes.
13 Assassins is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video and Tubi.
‘Love and Honor’ (2006)
The final entry in Yoji Yamada‘s Samurai Trilogy, after The Twilight Samurai and The Hidden Blade. Like the first two films, Love and Honor tells a new story with a different cast. The film follows yet another low-level samurai, this time a food taster for a feudal lord.
When an accident involving wrongly prepared food leaves him blind, it strains the samurai’s relationship with his wife. This relationship forms the basis of the film, and Yamada dives deep into the lives of his two leads, creating a distinctly human story.
‘The Last Samurai’ (2003)
The only non-Japanese production on this list, The Last Samurai, follows American soldier Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise), who the Japanese hire to train their soldiers to fight samurai in an upcoming rebellion. Instead, Algren finds himself siding with the samurai as he is taught the way of their dying culture.
Ken Watanabe is fantastic as Lord Katsumoto, the leader of the rebellion who teaches Algren, while Cruise is also great in a role far away from his usual fighter pilots and international spies.
The Last Samurai is available to stream on Netflix.
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