10 Forgotten Samurai Movies. The Fading Gleam Of The Sword

Samurai drama is the genre most associated with Japanese cinema.

Mariusz Czernic

23 June 2024


Hana wa sakuragi, hito wa bushi
Among flowers, the cherry blossom; among men, the warrior
(a Japanese proverb about samurais)

Samurai drama is the genre most associated with Japanese cinema. I believe it has more enthusiasts than karate films, yakuza films, kaijū films, or pinku-eiga. The history of the genre is shaped by certain exemplary works, and films with samurai themes have been made by many outstanding directors, which has contributed to the genre’s popularity not only in Japan but also abroad. Most samurai works are historical films or adventure-costume films set in the Edo period (1603-1867), known as jidai geki. The protagonists of these films, besides samurais, often include feudal lords known as daimyō, as well as ronin (masterless samurais) and high-ranking officials (e.g., chamberlains). The plot often serves as a pretext to showcase sword fights (in Japanese chanbara, a word also used for the sub-genre of films).

47 ronin Keanu Reeves
<em>47 ronin<em>

Japanese warrior films have been made since the beginning of cinema, but unfortunately, many old works have been lost. Today, Daisuke Itô (Man-Slashing Horse-Piercing Sword, 1929), Teinosuke Kinugasa (the first sound version of 47 Ronin, 1932), and Sadao Yamanaka (Humanity and Paper Balloons, 1937) are considered pioneers of samurai cinema. The genre has also produced a number of charismatic stars: Chiezô Kataoka, Toshirô Mifune, Kinnosuke Nakamura, and Tatsuya Nakadai – each of whom has played the role of the famous swordsman Musashi Miyamoto, the most frequently portrayed hero in the turbulent history of the Land of the Rising Sun.

Japanese filmmakers often revisited the event from the Genroku era when forty-seven ronin from Akō avenged the official responsible for their lord’s death. Popularized by the play (Chūshingura – The Treasury of Loyal Retainers from 1748), the event became good material for directors. Teinosuke Kinugasa (in 1932), Daisuke Itô (in 1934), Masahiro Makino (in 1938), Kenji Mizoguchi (in 1941), Kunio Watanabe (in 1958), Hiroshi Inagaki (in 1962), and Kinji Fukasaku (in 1978) all utilized this material. Those who know this story only from the fantasy film with Keanu Reeves are missing out. The 1962 and 1978 adaptations are very good, but Inagaki’s three-and-a-half-hour version is a complete masterpiece.

Rashomon Rashômon

The true triumph of Japanese costume dramas occurred in the 1950s. Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950) won the Golden Lion in Venice and an honorary Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. This second award also went to Teinosuke Kinugasa’s Gate of Hell (1953) and Hiroshi Inagaki’s Samurai (Miyamoto Musashi, 1954). Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954) received the Silver Lion in Venice. My aim was to highlight lesser-known productions within the genre, so I omitted Kurosawa’s masterpieces and also excluded Masaki Kobayashi’s outstanding works, Harakiri (1962) and Samurai Rebellion (1967). The result of my research is ten films, arranged chronologically, made by ten different directors. Most of these creators are masters of the genre, but they are not as appreciated as they deserve to be.

The Tale of Osaka Castle / Daredevil in the Castle /Ôsaka-jô monogatari, dir. Hiroshi Inagaki

Osaka jo monogatari The Tale of Osaka Castle
<em>The Tale of Osaka Castle<em>

In the 1950s, Hiroshi Inagaki became known in the West as one of the most outstanding directors of samurai cinema, alongside Akira Kurosawa. His trilogy (1954–1956), in which Toshirô Mifune played the famous swordsman Musashi Miyamoto, gained recognition outside of Japan and won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film (until 1956, awards in this category were given without competition, i.e., without nominations). Inagaki is also the creator of the Japanese adaptation of Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac (Samurai Saga / Life of an Expert Swordsman, 1959). However, the director’s magnum opus is the adaptation of another famous story – 47 Loyal Ronin (1962). Inagaki had been making films since the 1920s, and there are certainly many interesting things to be found in his filmography. Here, I want to draw attention to a production that few people remember, even though it covers an important historical episode. The Tale of Osaka Castle refers to the events that took place in 1614–1615. During the Siege of Osaka, Shogun Tokugawa’s army clashed with the forces of the Toyotomi clan, who ruled over the Brocade Castle.

Osaka jo monogatari The Tale of Osaka Castle

Toshirô Mifune, in his typically expressive style, played a character named Mohei. He is a wanderer with the heart of a samurai. He is a peasant who wants to see the city. He is a small man who gets caught up in the whirlwind of great politics. Mohei is a very dynamic character. He does not need a sword because he is not a brawler. But he can fight; a stick is enough for him to show his character and strength. Inagaki does not spare his hero, testing him many times. It is evident that the director approves of the protagonist’s attitude: availability and readiness for any skirmish, not for glory or material gain, but for a piece of land that symbolizes independence and peace. Along the way, the director condemns firearms, which here are the tools of traitors. The story culminates in an exciting and spectacular finale. Mifune, who did not work with Kurosawa as often as with Inagaki, played energetically, slightly overacting but without falling into grotesque. As always in this director’s films, the visual setting is important – it is more spectacular than in other Japanese filmmakers’ works because, unlike many of his peers, Inagaki preferred colorful ornamentation. Therefore, Osaka Castle appears almost fairy-tale-like – a place worth fighting for, as only there can one find balance and solace.

The music for the film was composed by Akira Ifukube, who is mainly remembered today as the composer for Japanese monster movies (primarily Godzilla). Few people, however, remember his work in the field of samurai film music. This is probably due to the fact that few people also remember Inagaki, with whom Ifukube often collaborated (including on one masterpiece – 47 Loyal Ronin). The discussed work has good music during the opening credits – it is a perfect introduction to the story’s mood. The composer created something like a march that symbolizes readiness for battle, but there is also reflection, melancholy, and monumentality in this piece – they remind us that the price of victory is very high.

Destiny’s Son / Kiru, dir. Kenji Misumi

Destiny's Son Kiru
<em>Destinys Son Kiru<em>

Kenji Misumi became famous for his collaborations with the brothers Shintarô Katsu and Tomisaburô Wakayama. With the first, he produced the series about the adventures of the blind swordsman Zatôichi, as well as other films such as The Devil’s Temple (1969) and Hanzo the Razor (1972). The second brother starred in his series Lone Wolf and Cub (1972–1973). When discussing the film Destiny’s Son, however, I wanted to highlight the lesser-known actor Raizô Ichikawa, who died at the age of 37 but managed to play several memorable characters. Among the most famous are the legendary bandit Ishikawa Goemon and the master swordsman Ryûnosuke Tsukue, the protagonist of Kaizan Nakazato’s novel series, which inspired many films. In Destiny’s Son, Ichikawa played an orphan named Shingo. He grows up with the burden of a cruel secret from the past that has the potential to turn his life into a series of misfortunes.

During his first journey, which lasts three years, Shingo learns the secrets of sword fighting. His technique is exceptionally effective because even the way he holds his weapon scares off opponents. The film chronicles the journey of a warrior – young, but already bearing the immense weight of experience. Misumi’s work lasts only 70 minutes and has no slow moments – situations change rapidly, years pass quickly, and a person gets to know life more deeply and feels the scent of death more intensely. The screenplay was written by Kaneto Shindô, the creator of the poignant drama Onibaba (1964), but this film is particularly a feast for the eyes. There are many interesting shots that – despite being filmed in color – bring out the maximum brutal realism of the samurai era. Naturally, some things had to remain off-screen, as the taboo sphere was still full to the brim in the early 60s. This is especially evident in the scene where a woman runs at a group of men with a knife and, to enable her brother’s escape, removes her clothes. In such a situation, the men truly do not know what to do. But only for a moment…

Warring Clans / Sengoku yarô, dir. Kihachi Okamoto

Sengoku yarô Warring Clans
<em>Sengoku yarô Warring Clans<em>

Kihachi Okamoto is another significant figure in the history of Japanese cinema. He is the creator of thorough historical war dramas such as The Emperor and the General (1967) and Battle of Okinawa (1971), as well as gripping samurai films like Sword of Doom (1966) and Kill! (1968). It’s also worth seeing his first chanbara film, Warring Clans. The story centers on colorful characters, and true to the Japanese title, it is a rogue tale from the Sengoku era, a time of clan wars between Shingen Takeda and Nobunaga Oda. Muskets, a new addition to military arsenals, are fiercely fought over in the film. Pirates, led by a beautiful woman, hunt for this cargo. This role is played by Kumi Mizuno, whose name might be familiar to fans of kaijū-eiga. Yuriko Hoshi, who also starred alongside Japanese monsters, plays Saghiri from the samurai bashaku clan. Bashaku referred to transport companies whose armed employees defended against attacks.

The action is dynamic, and the hundred minutes pass swiftly without a moment’s respite. The director allows some nuances to slip by, so they can be caught on subsequent viewings. Indeed, this is a film one eagerly returns to because the characters (though not all) are endearing. There’s a vivid villain – the scarred ninja warrior Saburoza (Tadao Nakamaru), a treacherous assassin but also a man loyal to his clan. But above all, Yûzô Kayama should be highlighted, typically in the background, but here playing the most crucial role. In Hiroshi Inagaki’s 47 Loyal Ronin (1962), he portrayed a victim of heartless bureaucracy, but here he is thrust into a completely different period. There was greater freedom then, a war was raging around, and the country had not yet become bureaucratized. Kayama’s repertoire includes several notable titles (e.g., Akira Kurosawa’s Red Beard from 1965), but he achieved greater success in the music industry as a guitarist, singer, and composer.

Sengoku yarô Warring Clans
<em>Sengoku yarô Warring Clans<em>

This film is the quintessence of adventure cinema, where the action is packed with numerous ambushes, but it is also a comedy. A madcap farce about the pursuit of happiness and attempts to become a ruler, both literally and metaphorically. The characters played by Yûzô Kayama and Ichirô Nakatani seek only control over their own lives, but Makoto Satō portrays a historical figure who will indeed gain dominance over an entire nation. This character is Tōkichirō Kinoshita, later known as Hideyoshi Toyotomi. Unfortunately, this person in the film is the weakest link – overly exaggerated, even by Japanese standards. Some ideas are too wild for a normal viewer to accept without raising an eyebrow, but they do not significantly detract from the overall experience. The film is intriguing and original, enjoyable without the aid of an alcoholic drink like sake. I got the impression that the director intended to parody the style of some Japanese filmmakers, especially those from the 1950s. It is possible that Okamoto crafted a new formula for swashbuckling cinema, inspiring younger creators like Hideo Gosha.

The sword is the soul of the samurai. If he forgets or loses it, it will not be forgiven.
(fragment from the testament of Shogun Ieyasu Tokugawa)

Bushido: The Cruel Code of the Samurai / Bushidô zankoku monogatari, dir. Tadashi Imai

Bushido: The Cruel Code of the Samurai Bushido zankoku monogatari
<em>Bushido The Cruel Code of the Samurai Bushido zankoku monogatari<em>

Unlike the aforementioned films, Tadashi Imai’s picture is not an action movie but an ambitious look at the samurai era and its impact on the present. The film’s action stretches from the early seventeenth century to contemporary times (post-war Japan). Times change, generations pass, people start families and try to live normal lives. But in a samurai family, control over life is taken by the bushido code. According to it, a samurai’s life does not belong to him but to his lord. Words like loyalty and honor are repeated, but there is no monotony because, despite the common message for the entire saga, each mini-story has its distinct feature. Kinnosuke Nakamura – an undoubtedly outstanding actor – played a series of diverse characters in this one film, finding a distinguishing feature for each, to present a complete picture of Japanese society. For this extraordinary display of his abilities, he received the Blue Ribbon Award, given by Japanese critics and journalists.

Samurai drama has been very cleverly interwoven into the framework of a contemporary story. The message is clear – even though centuries pass, the system does not change, and people unconsciously imitate their ancestors. The bushido code will endure for ages because there will always be masters and their subordinates, and thus there will remain a hierarchy that does not make life easier but rather complicates it further. Unemployed individuals resemble ronin searching for a place, while those who have jobs are like samurai who owe obedience to their employers. The Japanese have indeed risen from their knees, and no one loses their head for a lack of respect, but a part of that world remains, influencing individual fates. The Edo period is often referred to as a time of peaceful rule, but that’s not entirely true, say the filmmakers.

Bushido: The Cruel Code of the Samurai Bushido zankoku monogatari
<em>Bushido The Cruel Code of the Samurai Bushido zankoku monogatari<em>

This film is an intriguing chronicle of Japan, reminding us of events like the bloody executions of peasants resulting from protests against high taxes. Roughly at the center of the story is the 1783 eruption of Mount Asama, which, among these numerous bloody events, seems like the voice of God signaling people to come to their senses. But this voice was not heard… In my opinion, this film definitely deserves to be considered among the top Japanese cinema, alongside the best works of Akira Kurosawa and Masaki Kobayashi. However, in Japan, it did not gain recognition; on the contrary, it was treated very critically. It was appreciated in Europe, winning the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival. Five years earlier, at the same festival, Tadashi Imai, the son of a Buddhist abbot, received the Silver Bear for directing.

Assassination / Ansatsu, dir. Masahiro Shinoda

Ansatsu Assassination
<em>Ansatsu Assassination<em>

Another outstanding work far from simple entertainment. In 1864, during the waning years of the shogunate, an assassination occurred that became chronicled due to its political motivations. Director Masahiro Shinoda, in one of his best films, explains why it had to happen. We meet Hachirō Kiyokawa, a skilled swordsman who organized a group of ronin to defend the shogunate’s interests. He was released from prison, where he was held for murder, making him someone who cannot be fully trusted. His character is revealed through numerous flashbacks, as another skilled swordsman, appointed as an assassin, studies his life to find weaknesses and assess his chances in a duel.

The film is innovative in its technical aspects. The director uses freeze frames to emphasize the significance of scenes and presents the titular assassination through character point-of-view shots with a shaky camera. There are also many flashbacks that explain a lot, but one needs to use their brain because not everything is spoon-fed. In the role of Hachirō Kiyokawa is the excellent Tetsurô Tanba (later cast in the James Bond film You Only Live Twice). He creates a full-blooded, ambiguous character, gradually revealing the nuances of his nature. Shima Iwashita has a smaller role, but her name is worth remembering. She has been married to director Masahiro Shinoda for fifty years and is an excellent actress (notably in Double Suicide).

Ansatsu Assassination
Ansatsu Assassination

Assassination is one of the flagship films of the so-called Japanese New Wave, yet it rarely appears in professional film studies publications. It also did not win prestigious awards, but its artistic value—at least in my opinion—is undeniably high. Shinoda focused on realism but did not create a boring and verbose spectacle. He told this story in his style, using original narrative techniques not to show off his craft but to intrigue and provoke thought. He wanted his film to stand out from the many similar productions flooding Japanese cinemas. He achieved partial success because some will pick it out and appreciate it, but most will probably traditionally overlook it.

Mariusz Czernic

Mariusz Czernic

Tries to popularize old, forgotten cinema. A lover of black crime stories, westerns, historical and samurai dramas, gothic horror movies as well as Italian and French genre cinema.

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