Sword mastery and cinematography are both art forms that, when merged together in a movie, can tell unforgettable stories of Eastern and Western samurai beyond the mere technique of the katana.
These stories work at every longitude and latitude in the world, embracing an array of legendary characters who embody the ancient spirit of strength, discipline, and justice.
Their philosophy of honor and sacrifice derives directly from Bushido, the code of honor guiding the Japanese warrior class and which literally means, indeed, “way of the warrior.”
However, warfare was not the only aspect of their lives because, besides the martial arts, samurai were also famous for composing poetry such as tanka or haiku or being fond of flower arts such as Ikebana.
Just like Bushido, filmmaking is also an art requiring a high level of discipline and dedication and the utmost respect and cooperation among actors, directors, and other cast and crew members.
We can take as an example the great western director Sergio Leone, growing up in cinema through the work of his father, Vincenzo, who was a famous producer.
So he gained experience as an assistant on many Italian sets in the 1940s and 1950s, learning the craft until he saw a famous 1961 Japanese film, Yojimbo, directed by master Akira Kurosawa.
The adventures of the wandering samurai in that story inspired him to make A Fistful of Dollars, arming the protagonist with a revolver instead of a katana.
How many other different and absurd samurai have been in the movies that you may never have known about?
Let’s look together at some of them, both famous and unknown, to get a general idea of how the art of the sword and that of movies might walk at the same step.
Table of contents
Having mentioned Yojimbo, we begin today’s list of recommendations with Sanjuro, the sequel to this masterpiece of the art of the sword, coming exactly one year after the previous movie.
The main character remains the legendary Toshiro Mifune, one of Akira Kurosawa‘s most valuable longtime collaborators.
Once again, the actor steps into the dirty kimono of Sanjuro, an unbeatable katana warrior whose past we know little about, except he was once one of the Takeda family’s best samurai.
Tired of war and the stupidity of court politics, he then abandoned his clan to become a Ronin (i.e., masterless samurai) who roams Japan in search of adventure.
After the conflict that led to the massacre in the previous Yojimbo, Sanjuro, this time, encounters some young samurai trying to protect their lord from corrupt officials plotting to kill him and take control of the territory.
Although they are courageous, these young boys are still too inexperienced and unable to deal with such a situation on their own, so our hero decides to help them.
Just as he expected, he will discover that one of the young samurai is actually a traitor, and the lord they wish to protect is also not the honest person he initially seemed.
Despite the dramatic setting of the era depicted, Kurosawa maintains a constant irony even during the frantic katana fighting scenes.
Ostensibly, Sanjuro is a dirty, disrespectful, abrasive man. Yet, the charm lies in his actions that bring out the hero he once was, a shining example of virtue with a deeply rooted code of honor.
Sanjuro is a must-see for anyone enthralled by Yojimbo‘s immortal masterpiece, representing an adventurous sequel further expanding the fictional universe of this unforgettable character.
Six-String Samurai (1998)
Switching genres entirely, we leave Kurosawa’s style behind and move into one of the craziest and funniest post-apocalyptic adventures I have ever seen.
In this world ravaged by nuclear explosions roams, the movie hero is a strange samurai who combines music with sword art, pairing his faithful katana with an electric guitar.
Like so many other survivors, this road warrior is on his way to Las Vegas, where the one and only King of the United States, Elvis Presley, has died.
Indeed, the throne is empty, and there is total chaos in the kingdom, even more than usual, let’s say, as the craziest and most dangerous figures roam the wastelands every day.
There is no shortage of pretenders to become the new King of Rock & Roll, ranging from friendly desert cannibals to murderous bowlers and cheerleaders, not to mention the remnants of what was once the Red Army and even the mysterious Death Metal, the protagonist’s ruthless nemesis.
However, the King’s crown is only one, so a no-holds-barred showdown begins on the way to the immortal old City of Sin.
Wanting to make a refined allegory, Six-String Samurai could be the illegitimate child of a covert night of love between the music of Elvis and movies like Mad Max and Yojimbo.
Directing this little post-apocalyptic ultra-pop miracle is Lance Mungia, author of little else but video clips and the forgettable fourth chapter of The Crow saga.
Just as for the director, this also remains the role of a lifetime for lead actor Jeffrey Falcon, cool and aloof in playing this strange samurai with the stage presence of a rock star.
Definitely, it is not something for everyone, but it is a movie defying the genre’s conventions with a unique and original experience to be tried and enjoyed.
Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999)
Back in the hands of a director with inimitable poetics, we now come to Jim Jarmusch, an auteur with a minimalist style always bounding with the wackiest and most outsider characters in our society.
Indeed, in the whole Jersey City criminal environment, no one is weirder than Ghost Dog, who works as a hitman exclusively for the small-time mobster Louie.
Having a blood debt to him, this modern samurai pays it not with a katana but his two trusty silenced pistols, taking out targets his master points out to him with pigeon messages.
However, as is always the case when doing business with a mobster, his gang becomes enraged when Ghost Dog takes out another boss sleeping with their chief’s daughter.
At that point, Louie has no choice but to betray his hitman, even though he remains loyal and tries to protect him while facing the rest of the gang.
On the philosophical side, Jarmusch draws inspiration from samurai culture by applying the sacred principles of honesty, friendship, loyalty, respect for elders, and the desire for an honorable death into the everyday life of the hitman.
As always, the director uses his established style of still shots, combining it with a soundtrack featuring jazz, hip-hop, and African music elements.
In the role of Ghost Dog, we have a terrific Forest Whitaker, never so restrained and controlled in the guise of a lonely man searching for a deeper meaning in life.
Pages from the Bushido Code precede each scene, adding an extra layer of wisdom and helping to understand the character’s choices beyond the silences surrounding his performance.
For all those who love Jarmusch’s cinema, this is absolutely a must-see, while others may be approaching a director who is very famous but only sometimes within everyone’s range.
13 Assassins (2010)
The following story takes place in the mid-18th century under the direction of Takashi Miike, an internationally renowned Japanese auteur since the 1990s with over a hundred movies on his resume.
At that time, Japan was under the Shogun‘s immense power, a powerful military ruler who controlled most of the country’s armed forces.
Unfortunately, this meant that Lord Naritsugu Matsudaira, the Shogun’s brother, could unrestrainedly vent his sadistic cruelty against every man and woman he met, whether nobles or ordinary citizens.
Even the Minister of Justice, Sir Doi, is terrified of what might happen when this madman enters the Rōjū, the higher council influencing every political, military, and administrative decision in the country.
Therefore, he organizes a secret plan to kill the Lord, tasking the elderly and wise Shinzaemon Shimada with recruiting 11 samurai and attacking the royal convoy traveling around the nation.
But some of the Shogun’s accomplices discover the plot, setting a trap for Shimada and his warriors, who have since been joined by a mad hunter they met in the forest.
While disgracing their code, these samurai and their new friend will not hesitate to become 13 assassins starting a relentless war against Lord Naritsugu and his numerous bodyguards.
Takashi Miike sculpts the noble philosophy of sword art into the violent horror movie choreography of the samurai and their bleeding katanas.
It may be a mix unsuitable for the weak of stomach, yet whose evocative and ambiguous charm definitely consecrates the talent of this mad Japanese cinematic mastermind.
Personally, I can only remember and recommend it as one of the best costume action-drama movies ever; so fun and spectacular as it is cruel and terrifying at the same time.
Der Samurai (2014)
If the previous movie seemed crazy, wait until you see the mysterious samurai in this small German production.
The story begins with Jakob, a shy young policeman from a small village surrounded by woods in the heart of Germany.
In this remote place, Jakob has few job opportunities except to guard against animal attacks, fine drunks, and some bullying bikers who annoy the locals.
Everything changes one night when a strange blond-haired fellow wearing a long white woman’s dress appears.
This mysterious figure begins walking in the shadows, wielding a samurai katana and spreading terror among the villagers.
No one knows his identity or real intentions, making all attempts to stop him futile.
The situation becomes even more dramatic when Jakob even begins doubting if he is human, going so far as to fear that he is the concrete manifestation of his darkest nightmares.
Despite his young age, Till Kleinert shows a good imagination in directing and writing this bizarre low-budget psychological horror movie.
As for the rest of the cast, however, is employed as part of the scenario to bring out the contrast between these two characters.
Despite some narratively less effective moments and questionable choices, the feeling of danger and the surreal atmosphere make the movie reach surprisingly high levels.
Kleinert masterfully uses the opposites between the modern urban world and the ancient darkness of the woods to recount a dark fable with a perfect conclusion, albeit without any explanation.