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 movies 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, even without Kurosawa.
Updated on June 29, 2023, by Ty Weinert:
With legendary director Takeshi Kitano‘s latest offering, Kubi, debuting at Cannes to solid reviews, it looks set to join the ranks of great modern samurai movies once it receives an official release. Its story tells a classic samurai tale without any heroes as its characters vie for supremacy, while the battle scenes are said to evoke the style of Kurosawa, creator of some of the best samurai movies of all time.
18 ‘Zatoichi: The Last’ (2010)
Blind swordsman Zatoichi (Shingo Katori) hopes to settle down and live a peaceful life farming with his friend. Unfortunately, his peace is interrupted by a gang of yakuza who arrive in his town and begin exploiting the people. Thus, it falls to Zatoichi to once again brandish his sword and fight for justice.
While Zatoichi: The Last is far from the best movie based on the famous character, it still offers enough samurai thrills to entertain fans of the genre. If you are a Zatoichi fan you may want to give it a miss as it is a controversial take on the character, but those who care little for lore will not mind.
17 ‘Punk Samurai Slash Down’ (2018)
Kake Junoshin (Go Ayano) is a ronin in search of work. When he happens upon the Kurokaze clan, he lies his way into their ranks, falsely claiming that a religious cult is targeting them. After his lie is revealed, he finds himself given the death sentence and must fight his way out to survive.
As the name implies, Punk Samurai Slash Down melds samurai action with a punk rock personality. Don’t let the synopsis fool you into thinking this is your standard samurai movie, as it fires on all cylinders and incorporates elements of Fantasy into its crazy adventure. A future cult classic.
16 ’47 Ronin’ (2013)
After their master commits seppuku as a result of a false accusation, his loyal samurai set out to avenge their lord by raiding the one responsible. Among them is Kai (Keanu Reeves‘ underrated character), a half-Japanese, half-English outcast who was adopted by the fallen lord and who seeks revenge alongside his newfound brothers.
While it can be debated that 47 Ronin does not deserve a place among good samurai movies, it is still an entertaining enough watch. The focus of a white protagonist in a Japanese story was a misstep, but its incorporation of Fantasy elements, such as witches and giants, helps give it a unique identity compared to more traditional samurai fare.
Watch on Netflix
15 ‘Samurai Marathon’ (2019)
When the American army arrives in Feudal Japan, one lord sends his men on a marathon through the country to see if they are tough enough to combat the new arrivals. When a misunderstanding of the lord’s intentions results in assassins being dispatched, one young warrior realizes the truth and races to prevent a disaster.
Samurai Marathon juggles multiple characters to great effect, creating an epic storyline that contains elements of action, comedy, and tragedy. The cinematography is beautiful, and the film is a great showcase for the visual splendor that exists across the Japanese countryside.
Watch on Tubi
14 ‘Versus’ (2000)
An underrated cult classic from the turn of the century, Versus follows a large group made up of escaped convicts, Yakuza, police, and innocent bystanders as they all find themselves stuck in a forest full of zombies. As well as fighting the undead, the strangers often find themselves battling each other.
Popular due to its highly-entertaining mix of martial arts combat, zombie action, gore, and strange characters, Versus also delights thanks to its oddball sense of humor. Both zombie and action fans owe it to themselves to seek out this movie that also sees its hero unleash his inner samurai in the latter half.
13 ‘Blade of the Immortal’ (2017)
Manji (Takuya Kimura) is a tortured, immortal samurai who wanders Feudal Japan, ageless. When he encounters the young Rin (Hana Sugasaki), he is convinced to become her bodyguard as she seeks revenge against the ones who murdered her parents. Together they set out to spill the blood of the samurai that were responsible.
Directed by gonzo master Takashi Miike, Blade of the Immortal features his trademark flair while offering rich characterization of its two lead characters. Based on the manga of the same name, Blade of the Immortal is a faithful adaptation that is bursting with samurai battles and bloody violence.
Watch on Hulu
12 ‘Sword of Desperation’ (2010)
After assassinating a lord’s wife, the captured samurai Kanemi is expecting to be put to death. Instead, he is condemned to a year of imprisonment before being forced to work as the widowed lord’s bodyguard. Flashbacks reveal that Kanemi is part of a grand conspiracy where he is merely a pawn for those ranked above him.
More of a slow-burn drama than an action movie, Sword of Desperation keeps viewers invested thanks to its exploration of political machinations in Feudal Japan. The film is also a faithful recreation of the samurai way of life as Kanemi’s story is told.
Watch on Tubi
11 ‘The Last Ronin’ (2010)
After their lord is unjustly executed, his loyal army of samurai set out to avenge their fallen master. Rather than focus on their quest for revenge, The Last Ronin picks up 16 years after the samurai achieved their vengeance and committed ritual suicide for their deeds, with the plot following the lone survivor as he travels the country to visit each of the families of his fallen brothers.
47 Ronin is a popular samurai story and The Last Ronin explores the aftermath of that revenge saga, creating a touching character study in the process. Anyone with a fondness for the legendary warriors will find plenty to love in this thoughtful examination of their lifestyle.
10 ‘Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai’ (2011)
1962’s Harakiri is considered one of the greatest samurai movies 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 enact ritual suicide on the man’s property. From there, the stories of both men are revealed as the audience learns what led this samurai to wind up at this specific location.
Watch on Tubi
9 ‘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 a samurai movie tearjerker.
8 ‘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.
Rurouni Kenshin is a great live-action anime film while also being one of the best modern samurai movies, finding 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.
Watch on Netflix
7 ‘Zatoichi’ (2003)
Written and directed by Takeshi Kitano, an essential Japanese filmmaker, 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 top samurai movies of yesteryear.
Watch on Pluto
6 ’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 in of the best modern Japanese movies.
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, which is considered by many to be the best samurai movie ever. 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.
Watch on Prime Video
5 ‘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.
The Hidden Blade swaps extended movie sword fights for emotion and storytelling, exploring the inner workings of its characters more than their proficiency with a sword. For anyone who likes films that are deep and introspective, The Hidden Blade is a must-watch.
Watch on Kanopy
4 ‘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.
3 ‘Sword of the Stranger’ (2007)
An anime film for adults, 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.
Watch on Funimation
2 ‘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.
1 ‘The Twilight Samurai’ (2002)
Starring screen favorite Hiriyuki Sanada, 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 joined the list of Japanese movies to be Oscar-nominated, sealing its place as one of the best samurai movies.
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