If You Enjoyed FX’s Shōgun, Then Check Out These Samurai Titles

Hopefully, FX’s latest hit series will inspire more people to check out samurai cinema. Here are some places to start.
Ran - Akira Kurosawa
Released in 1985, Akira Kurosawa’s Ran is a samurai epic for the ages

Shōgun is shaping up to be one of 2024’s most acclaimed TV series, and for good reason. FX’s adaptation of James Clavell’s novel boasts a stellar cast, immaculate production design, and an intricate and gripping storyline about the political machinations of 17th century Japan (read my review). But if you’ve finished watching Shōgun and are now left wanting to watch even more samurai-themed titles, then this post is for you.

Below is a list of several more excellent titles set in feudal Japan that are filled with honorable (and not so honorable) samurai, codes of honor and loyalty, and epic storylines filled with action and drama.

The Samurai Trilogy by Hiroshi Inagaki (1954 – 1956)

Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto - Hiroshi Inagaki Poster

Along with Tatsuya Nakadai (who appears later in this list), Toshirô Mifune is arguably cinema’s most iconic samurai actor. Although he’s best known for his work with Akira Kurosawa (e.g., Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, Sanjuro), Mifune also starred in a trilogy of films about the most famous samurai of all time.

Based on Eiji Yoshikawa’s novel about the life of Musashi Miyamoto, Hiroshi Inagaki’s Samurai trilogy follows the legendary swordsman from his humble beginnings as a boorish young villager to his growing status as a master warrior and philosopher.

Mifune plays the titular Musashi with all of the swagger and emotion that you’d expect from the actor, especially when portraying the younger, cockier Musashi. But as Musashi begins his strict training and develops his skills as a master of the blade, Mifune also captures the man’s growing sense of honor and destiny, which naturally conflicts with his feelings for the kind-hearted and long-suffering Otsu (Kaoru Yachigusa).

Harakiri by Masaki Kobayashi (1962)

Harakiri - Masaki Kobayashi Poster

In an interview, director Masaki Kobayashi once claimed that all of his films are about “resisting an entrenched power.” That comes through, loud and clear, with Harakiri, which thoroughly deconstructs bushido, the strict code of honor by which all samurai ought to live.

In 17th century Japan, a destitute rōnin, or masterless samurai (Tatsuya Nakadai), arrives at the gates of the Iyi Clan and asks for permission to commit seppuku (ceremonial suicide) in their courtyard. When the clan refuses to grant his request, a bloody and heart-breaking tragedy unfolds, one driven by Nakadai’s powerful performance as the older samurai whose words and actions cut the Iyi Clan to the quick, figuratively and literally (read my review).

Harakiri may be the best known example of the “anti-samurai” film, that is, films that use jidaigeki tropes and clichés to challenge the genre, and to reveal what happens when concepts like duty, honor, and loyalty become more important than human decency and morality.

Budo: The Art of Killing by Masayoshi Nemoto (1979)

Budo: The Art of Killing - Masayoshi Nemoto Poster

Technically speaking, Masayoshi Nemoto’s Budo: The Art of Killing is a documentary about the Japanese martial arts, including aikido, sumo wrestling, karate, kendo, and archery, and various weapons like the katana, nunchaku, and naginata. But the film often feels more like an experimental arthouse piece thanks to Harry J. Quini’s solemn narration and the occasionally abstract filmmaking.

Budo begins with an historically accurate reenactment of a samurai (actor and martial artist Kunishirō Hayashi) committing seppuku followed by a number of impressive demonstrations by actual martial arts masters. (In one of the film’s more striking sequences, a sword master reveals just how quickly and easily a katana can cut, and then we see the painstaking process of forging a samurai’s sword.)

But what really makes Budo interesting, and elevates it above a mere documentary, is its philosophical bent. The narrator, portentous as always, often waxes eloquently about the spiritual aspects of Japan’s martial arts, from the beauty of a katana’s blade to the value of strenuous training to sharpen mind, body, and soul.

Ran by Akira Kurosawa (1985)

Ran - Akira Kurosawa Poster

If I was feeling lazy, this post could be nothing more than a list of Akira Kurosawa films. More than any other filmmaker, Kurosawa has shaped our popular conception of the samurai thanks to films like Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, and Sanjuro, all of which are absolute classics and worth seeking out. But I picked Ran because it hews so closely to Shōgun’s spirit and scope.

Drawing inspiration from William Shakespeare’s King Lear, Ran depicts the breakdown of a kingdom after an elderly warlord (the great Tatsuya Nakadai) divides his lands between his three sons, which immediately sets into motion various machinations, conspiracies, and betrayals.

Ran was Kurosawa’s final epic and he poured everything into it. (He spent ten years just painting storyboards for the entire film.) The result is a stunning work about the vagaries and foibles of human nature, which are driven home by incredible battles and set pieces. The scene of Nakadai’s old warlord slowly losing his sanity as he emerges from a burning castle is one of cinema’s all-time greatest moments.

The Twilight Samurai by Yôji Yamada (2002)

The Twilight Samurai - Yôji Yamada Poster

While I’m certainly glad to see Hiroyuki Sanada receive so many accolades for his performance as Shōgun’s Lord Yoshii Toranaga, the truth is that Sanada has been delivering standout performances for decades now. Back in 2002, for instance, he delivered a wonderful performance in Yôji Yamada’s The Twilight Samurai, a beautifully subdued and melancholy film (read my review) about a beleaguered samurai named Seibei who sets aside all concerns for personal honor in order to care for his family.

At times, The Twilight Samurai can feel more like a documentary given its matter-of-fact approach to the lives of Seibei and his family. But this approach only makes the story’s emotional moments — Seibei’s relationship with his young daughters, his burgeoning feelings for an old friend (the luminous Rie Miyazawa), the occasional action scenes — hit harder and cut more deeply.

The Twilight Samurai was a massive critical success in both Japan and the U.S., winning a dozen awards at the Japanese Academy Awards and becoming the first Japanese film in over two decades to be nominated for a “Best Foreign Language Film” Oscar. Yamada subsequently followed it with two more samurai films, 2004’s The Hidden Blade and 2006’s Love and Honor, both of which are also quite good.

Hana by Hirokazu Kore-eda (2006)

Hana - Hirokazu Kore-eda Poster

One of the more interesting characters in the new Shōgun is Kashigi Yabushige, a sadistic and treacherous bastard who is strangely charismatic in his own way. That’s due entirely to Tadanobu Asano’s performance. After starting out in cult films like Electric Dragon 80.000 V, Ichi the Killer, and Last Life in the Universe, Asano soon established himself as one of Japan’s most versatile actors.

In 2006, he starred in Hana, a delightful samurai tale by Hirokazu Kore-eda, one of the world’s best contemporary filmmakers. In keeping with its subtitle (“The Tale of a Reluctant Samurai”), Hana tells the story of a young samurai (Junichi Okada) who has sworn to track down the man (Asano) who killed his father. But that’s easier said than done given the samurai’s poverty, which forces him to live amongst a colorful lot in the slums of Edo.

Hana can feel a bit slight compared to the other films on this list, as well as the rest of Kore-eda’s filmography. But it’s filled with charm even as it subverts the usual samurai trappings (read my review). As an added tweak to the genre, Kore-eda’s film even pokes some fun at the tale of the 47 Ronin, one of the most famous stories in Japanese history and arguably the samurai tale.

Sword of Desperation by Hideyuki Hirayama (2010)

Sword of Desperation - Hideyuki Hirayama Poster

In Shōgun’s fourth episode, Mariko (Anna Sawai) explains the “eightfold fence,” an exercise in which Japanese people build an impenetrable wall within their minds to protect their true feelings and individuality, which helps them cope with the harshest circumstances. While it’s never named, a similar concept seems to undergird Hideyuki Hirayama’s Sword of Desperation.

After he suddenly murders his lord’s consort, a samurai (Etsushi Toyokawa) expects to be executed. Instead, he’s placed in house arrest for a year and then given a prestigious position in his clan. But as the film unfolds, twists and conspiracies emerge, revealing the truth behind his murderous deed as well as his arrest and treatment. Through it all, though, he shows nary an emotion, not even when challenged by his victim’s former servant, his family elders, or the niece of his deceased wife, who remains his closest companion.

Given its title, you might expect Sword of Desperation to be an intense and driven film. The truth, however, is that it’s very much a slow burn, perhaps too much so for its own good (read my review). Even as it revels in conspiracies and hidden agendas, and highlights the rigid decorum of the feudal Japanese court, Sword of Desperation is most interesting for how its protagonist consistently hides his actual desperation from everyone, even — perhaps — himself.

If this list whets your appetite, then your next move should be making your way through Paste Magazine’s list of the 50 best samurai movies of all time.

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