Akira Kurosawa was known for his brilliant samurai movies, but which was his best among them? One of Japan’s most prominent and acclaimed filmmakers, Kurosawa tackled a number of different genres and subject matter, ranging from nihilistic crime dramas such as 1963’s High and Low to surreal biopics like his final feature, 1993’s Madadayo. In the West, however, Kurosawa is remembered mostly for his iconic samurai movies.
Kurosawa cemented himself as an action movie director early on in his career with Sanshiro Sugata, a martial arts drama about Judo, and Drunken Angel, a yakuza flick about a doctor who treats an alcoholic gangster played by Toshiro Mifune. Kurosawa’s knack for composing intricate action sequences transferred nicely to the samurai movies he became known for later on in his career. The shot composition and visual direction of movies like Seven Samurai and Yojimbo became the most recognizable features of his films.
It’s no surprise that many of Kurosawa’s stylings were mimicked by other filmmakers. Perhaps the most infamous instance of a director being inspired by Kurosawa’s films is George Lucas with Star Wars. However, the influence of Kurosawa’s style is maybe seen most prominently in American Westerns from the 1960s and beyond. For example, Sergio Leone’s A Fistful Of Dollars from 1964 is a near-shot-for-shot remake of Kurosawa’s Yojimbo. With that in mind, here is a list of all of Kurosawa’s samurai movies, ranked.
The Men Who Tread On The Tiger’s Tail is the first of Akira Kurosawa’s samurai movies, and it’s also his weakest. Released in 1945, the period drama is based on the kabuki play Kanjincho. It tells the story of the 12th-century conflict between the Heike family and the Minamoto family. While the film definitely retains some of its theatrical characteristics and feels somewhat minimal and restrained compared to Kurosawa’s subsequent historical films, this also results in a less impactful cinematic experience. Despite this, The Men Who Tread On The Tiger’s Tail still features a number of Kurosawa’s signature features and so is still worth checking out.
Sanjuro, released in 1962, is the sequel to Kurosawa’s own Yojimbo, released a year earlier. The two films follow a nameless ronin, played by Toshiro Mifune, as he becomes entangled in the criminal activities of a town. In the case of Sanjuro, Mifune’s character sets out to help nine young samurai who have been betrayed by a corrupt superintendent. The titular character (whose name simply means “30 years old”) is quiet, smart, and deadly with a katana. While he is often reluctant to get involved in the affairs of strangers, he is driven by a strong sense of justice and an unspoken emotionality. This is what makes this character so memorable, and so often imitated. Whatever strengths Sanjuro may display, it is certainly not as iconic as its predecessor, and nowhere near as exciting or thrilling as many of Kurosawa’s other action flicks.
Yojimbo might be Kurosawa’s most iconic samurai film due to the lasting impact of its style and character archetypes. The Man with No Name from Sergio Leone’s Dollars Trilogy is based entirely on Mifune’s nameless ronin, and the film’s suspenseful confrontations in a small town location would later be echoed in a number of American Westerns. For these reasons, Yojimbo feels like the quintessential samurai movie. That being said, Yojimbo is not as impactful today as it once was, and compared to other films on this list that tackle a number of complex and diverse themes, Yojimbo can feel somewhat lacking. Nonetheless, thanks to Kurosawa’s impeccable sense of staging, the film remains an entertaining and enjoyable action flick.
Kurosawa’s 1958 samurai movie, The Hidden Fortress, was a huge influence on George Lucas’s vision for Star Wars. It follows two peasants — the inspirations for C-3PO and R2D2 — as they wander a war-torn landscape and eventually stumble upon a samurai played by Mifune. What ensues is a successful tonal blend of comedy and war drama. The Hidden Fortress takes the form of an adventure film as the protagonists traverse different lands in their attempt to find refuge. While not as memorable as some of Kurosawa’s other samurai movies, it stands apart from most of its ilk with an original plot and thoroughly entertaining characters.
Kagemusha defies expectations for a Kurosawa samurai movie set in Japan’s historic Warring States period, which was known for its constant civil wars and widespread bloodshed. Rather than an all-out war film replete with intense swordfights and grandiose battle sequences (although the film does feature a few), Kagemusha is actually more of a subtle character study (involving political leader decoys — another Star Wars parallel). The film is composed of intricately constructed interior sequences in which feudal lords discuss ongoing battles and political tensions. The titular Kagemusha, which translates to “shadow warrior,” is a low-born thief who must serve as lord Takeda Shingen’s decoy after his passing. What ensues is a slow-paced drama about the decoy’s gradual immersion into the role of Shingen. Kagemusha‘s most memorable scene is the fake Shingen’s colorful dream sequence, in which he is confronted with the man he is impersonating, and the weight of his newfound responsibilities catches up to him in a nightmarish fashion.
Throughout his career, Kurosawa adapted a handful of Shakespeare’s plays, transposing the original stories into cinematic genres: The Bad Sleep Well, for example, is a noir crime drama loosely inspired by Hamlet. Throne Of Blood, released in 1957, was Kurosawa’s first adaptation of the Bard. The film is a faithful treatment of Shakespeare’s The Tragedie of Macbeth but set in feudal Japan, touching on all the iconic scenes from the original play but seen through the lens of Kurosawa’s signature style. Mifune is impeccable as the titular character, and Isuzu Yamada portrays a particularly terrifying incarnation of Lady Macbeth. Kurosawa was a big fan of Macbeth and was interested in making his own adaptation due to the similarities he perceived between medieval Scotland and feudal Japan. He also sought to translate the play’s theatrical qualities into the language of Noh, a traditional style of Japanese dance theatre. This is what gives the film its distinct style, setting it apart from other popular Shakespeare adaptations.
Kurosawa’s third take on the Bard, Ran is an adaptation of Shakespeare’s King Lear set during Japan’s Sengoku period. With a running time of 160 minutes, Ran is one of Kurosawa’s most epic samurai features, and the film doesn’t shy away from depicting some truly extravagant battle sequences that elevate the theatrical source material to cinematic heights rarely seen before. Ran is another example of Kurosawa’s brilliant use of color, also seen in Kagemusha. Here, the colors are used to paint a particularly vibrant picture of war and the distinctions between each warring faction.
While Kurosawa’s 1950 masterpiece, Rashomon, is not generally thought of as a traditional samurai movie, it does in fact feature samurai and therefore deserves a place on this list. What makes Rashomon such a classic is its innovative approach to depicting the uncertainty of memory and subjective accounts of a situation. The film depicts a crime retold from different perspectives (similar to Ridley Scott’s The Last Duel). In many ways, it perfectly encapsulates Kurosawa’s philosophy — his approach to nihilism and humanism. Rashomon might have been Kurosawa’s first undeniable masterpiece, and it remains one of the most conceptually enthralling films ever made.
Seven Samurai would probably top this list based on its reputation and legacy alone, but it truly is one of the greatest films of all time and, without a doubt, Kurosawa’s best samurai movie. Seven Samurai tells the story of a peasant village, which in order to protect their harvest from thieving bandits decides to hire samurai to defend them. The filmmaker spends a large portion of the movie setting up each samurai, their personality, their strengths and weaknesses, and how they relate to one another. The rest of the film is dedicated to the prolonged battle between the samurai and the bandits. Despite being released over half a century ago, Akira Kurosawa‘s Seven Samurai remains one of the most entertaining action movies ever made, of any kind.