#10. Harakiri (1962)
Directed by: Masaki Kobayashi
Written by: Shinobu Hashimoto, Yasuhiko Takiguchi
Starring: Tatsuya Nakadai, Rentaro Mikuni, Shima Iwashita, Akira Ishihama
The Japanese samurai film is one of my all-time favorites because of how varied and diverse the genre is. Masaki Kobayashi’s 1962 film Harakiri is one of the most unique I’ve seen to date, telling an intricate and tragic story, but delivering visceral action scenes and presenting a twist that rivals those found in modern blockbusters. Harakiri follows disgraced ronin Tsugumo Hanshiro (Tatsuya Nakadai) as he arrives at the gates of the Li Clan estate, where he wishes to commit ritual suicide. After being told a tale of a young ronin in a similar situation who was forced into suicide by the Li Clan, Hanshiro is granted his wish. Before he can go through with the ritual, he tells the Li Clan officials that he must first tell them the story of how he came to be in such a disparate situation. From there, the story takes a drastic and surprising turn that must be experienced firsthand – no writeup can possibly do it justice. Kobayashi’s film is one of the most thrilling and unexpectedly great films I’ve ever seen – going into it with absolutely no preconceived notions only added to my overall enjoyment. The tone and mood of the film is solemn and mysterious from the start – only ramping up in its urgency after the story of the first disgraced samurai Chijiiwa Motome is told. Motome’s story is both pathetic and heartbreaking, and it completely works to flip the perceptions of the Li Clan in the eyes of the viewer. Writers Shinobu Hashimoto and Yasuhiko Takiguchi tackle daunting themes about the inherent hypocrisy of the samurai way of life, and criticize the entire idea of seppuku. The dramatic nature of Harakiri’s story and compelling period setting would have been wasted on cheap melodrama in the hands of a lesser director, but Kobayashi elevates the material and turns it into a poignant, exciting, detail-oriented samurai film that also happens to have a great deal of drama at its core. Kobayashi directs the entire cast to stoic, intense performances that work to make samurai films so much fun – Tatsuya Nakadai’s performance being the most notable. Nakadai’s turn begins as an ashamed ronin who has lost his master and sees no way out besides committing suicide, and ends as a vengeful, violent spirit of a man who has nothing to lose. Ultimately, Harakiri is a truly difficult film to write about without giving away the intricate and thrilling details that push the story forward. It’s a meditative, intense, and emotionally moving film about revenge, hypocrisy, and honor, and stands as one of the greatest samurai films ever made.
#24. Seven Samurai (1954)
Directed by: Akira Kurosawa
Written by: Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto, Hideo Oguni
Starring: Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura, Keiko Tsushima, Isao Kimura, Daisuke Kato, Seiji Miyaguchi, Yoshio Inaba, Minoru Chiaki
Akira Kurosawa’s first major outing in the genre that made him famous also just happens to be one of the great films ever made. Seven Samurai is his sprawling epic that clocks in at well over three hours long – but the world class director doesn’t waste a single minute. Seven Samurai sees a small mountain farming village about to be pillaged by a gang of ruthless bandits. The farmers band together and recruit a group of experienced, but hungry, ronin to defend their village. When the bandits finally decide to strike the village, their battle with the titular seven samurai is a violent and unforgettable affair. Akira Kurosawa’s prowess as a director is clear from the moment Seven Samurai begins – he wastes no time in setting the scene and establishing the film’s central conflict. The bandits are a constant looming threat, and the film never lets you forget it. Even though the film’s runtime is so long, the race against the clock for the farmers and samurai is always front and center, making internal conflicts between the group of samurai that much more frustrating. Kurosawa absolutely knew what he was doing when structuring the film – building the tension constantly until the film’s final, action-packed act. Kurosawa paces the film as a classic tale of adventure, which works perfectly for Seven Samurai’s epic story – Kurosawa’s influence on film structure can still be felt today. Anybody who’s seen the animated A Bug’s Life knows the basic story of Seven Samurai, as Pixar opted to remake Kurosawa’s film for a more family-friendly audience. The entire cast of characters are memorable and well-written, and their interactions with one another are some of the best parts of the film. The most memorable character in my opinion is Toshiro Mifune’s inexperienced, but invaluable, Kikuchiyo. Mifune’s presence in his collaborations with Kurosawa is almost always the highlight of these films, and Seven Samurai is absolutely no different – his largely improvised performance is often unpredictable and always wild. Arguably the most impressive aspect of Seven Samurai are the movie’s incredible and exhilarating action scenes, especially the climactic battle in the rain. These scenes are frantically paced thanks to the editing, and Kurosawa’s prowess for camera placement. The action is quick, violent, and hard-hitting, and still feels as visceral and exciting as modern action-adventure filmmaking. Seven Samurai is a film that is far easier to watch than it is to write about – its far-reaching influence and technical innovation speak to this. The adventure is absolutely worth the long run-time, and is a great introduction into the samurai sub-genre.
#65. Kagemusha (1980)
Directed by: Akira Kurosawa
Written by: Akira Kurosawa, Masato Ide
Starring: Tatsuya Nakadai
Kagemusha is Akira Kurosawa’s epic tale of deception within a political dynasty in Sengoku era Japan. The film served as Kurosawa’s return to Japan after a brief excursion to Russia in order to make the equally incredible Dersu Uzala. Kagemusha’s intricate story sees Takeda Shingen (Tatsuya Nakadai), leader of the Takeda clan, save a thief from execution due to his uncanny resemblance to the daimyo. This “Kagemusha” (also played by Tatsuya Nakadai) is taught the ways of the Takeda clan in order to serve as their leader’s double, eventually fooling even those closest to the daimyo. After a series of unfortunate events, the Kagemusha is forced to assume leadership upon Takeda Shingen’s untimely demise, throwing the clan into chaos when their enemies suspect that something is going on. Akira Kurosawa is best known for his intimate and action-packed samurai-era epics, and Kagemusha absolutely delivers on that front. While it may be something of a slow burn in its first act, the story being told by the director is an intimate and delicate character study of an incredibly powerful man and his enemies. Stories of people being thrown into positions far over their own heads are age-old, and yet Kagemusha manages to shed a new light on the classic story structure. The titular Kagemusha is transformed from a barbaric thief to a dead ringer for the daimyo of the Takeda clan, and the transformation is wonderful to behold. While Kagemusha is a more personal tale than some of Kurosawa’s other epics, it also features incredible, sweeping panoramic scenes of action. While never as thrilling as something like Ran, Kurosawa’s film doesn’t seem interested in telling a non-stop thrill ride – instead it’s sure of what it is, which is a tale of deception and intrigue, and it delivers on these fronts. The dual performance of Tatsuya Nakadai is admirable, with the actor eventually able to blend the two dynamic personalities into the transformed Kagemusha. The samurai epic saw modest success, tying with Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, and picking up an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Film. While it may not be the best introduction to those not familiar with the samurai genre, Kagemusha is a captivating, beautiful, and highly rewarding for those brave enough to give it a shot.