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Friday, July 8, 2011

TOP 10 SAMURAI MOVIES

I've made a LOT of TOP 10 Movie lists on my blog and while most of them have been about horror movies or comic book movies, this time I wanted to focus on a specific genre of movies that may not be so widely known but is very special to me: Samurai films! I have always had a great interest in the Japanese Samurai with their unique culture and philosophy. I think my first introduction to them was through my Dad, who is a big James Bond fan and in the Bond movie You Only Live Twice (1967) where Bond (Sean Connery) travels to Japan for a mission and is indoctrinated into the world of the Samurai and the Ninja. Later, already huge Star Wars fan since I was a kid, a very good friend of mine from high school introduced me to foreign films and of course Japanese Samurai films. I believe one of the first ones was Akira Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress (1958) and as I was watching it, I made a startling revelation, this WAS Star Wars! Admittedly, George Lucas took a lot of inspiration from Samurai films and even the Jedi who are like samurais get their name from the Japanese word Jidaigeki, which means "period drama" which usually takes place during the Samurai era of Japanese history. There are many great stories and characters in Samurai films, the most widely known and popular are from director Akira Kurosawa and  with such actors as Toshirô Mifune and Shintarô Katsu. There are many great Samurai movies but there are only a few which define the genre that have brought the past alive since the 1950's. Here are the TOP 10 SAMURAI MOVIES...Enjoy!

#10 The Last Samurai (2003) Directed by Edward Zwick and starring Tom Cruise and Ken Watanabe - The Last Samurai is a beautifully made American Samurai film, set in the Meiji Era, a turbulent time in Japan's history where the country was gradually losing it's samurai heritage, eager to embrace more modern Western ways. Capt. Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise), a former U.S. soldier, now a drunk has-been, who is hired on by a Japanese ambassador to train the Imperial army to fight against the last remaining band of Samurai warriors led by Katsumoto (Watanabe), a highly revered leader and former teacher of the Emperor. When Algren leads an unsuccessful and unready army against Katsumoto's army he is quickly defeated, wounded and then captured. While in captivity he comes to respect the samurai way, befriends Katsumoto and ends up joining the samurai in a final battle, months later against the same army he trained, only to be defeated again but not before he impresses the young Emperor.  The story is told in a unique American point of view although narrated by a British translator (Timothy Spall).

#9 - Zatôichi: The Blind Swordsman (1989) Directed, Written and Starring Shintarô Katsu - Katsu reprises his role in his last performance as the blind, masseur/yakuza swordsman: Zatoichi, made famous in over 26 films during the 1960's and 70's and in the 1974 TV series. This film is the culmination of a lifetime career as one of the most memorable samurai characters ever. I highly recommend any of the older Zatoichi films as well as this one, however this one had the biggest budget and Katsu's most involved project.

#8 - Ran (1985) Directed and Written by Akira Kurosawa, Starring Tatsuya Nakadai. In this brilliant adaptation of William Shakespeare's King Lear set in 16th century Japan. When an elderly Lord Hidetora Ichimonji (Nakadai) abdicates to his three sons, his two oldest sons, driven by greed and power wage war against each other. Now a broken man, Hidetora descends into madness surrounded by death and destruction.

#7 - Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance (1972) Directed by Kenji Misumi and Starring Tomisaburo Wakayama - Ogami Itto (Wakayama) was once the Shogun's executioner, but when the Shogun becomes paranoid, he sends assassins to kill him, killing his wife instead, Itto escapes with his son Daigoro and becomes a ronin (masterless samurai) for hire. This film, along with Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance, was later combined and re-cut into a dubbed American version known as Shogun's Assassin (1980), directed by Robert Huston. Lone Wolf and Cub was based on the famous Japanese manga/comic book created by writer Kazuo Koike and artist Goseki Kojima. It spawned dozens of films and a TV series in the 1970's and remains one of the most popular Samurai franchises ever!

#6 Throne of Blood (1957) Directed and Written by Akira Kurosawa, Starring Toshirô Mifune - One of Akira Kurosawa's first adaptations of William Shakespeare's work, Throne of Blood is a Japanese retelling of Macbeth. Lord Taketoki Washizu (Mifune) is an ambitious noble who lusts for power, when his wife Lady Asaji Washizu (Isuzu Yamada) plots to fulfill a prophecy to make him Emperor but ultimately leads to their death. The final scenes are intense as hundreds of arrows are shot at Taketoki. The story has many similarities to Macbeth although the Weird Sisters are combined into one old Ghost Woman.

#5 Yojimbo a.k.a "The Bodyguard" (1961) - Directed and Written by Akira Kurosawa, Starring Toshirô Mifune - This is one of the most popular and world renowned Samurai films of all time. Mifune stars as a nameless ronin samurai (later named Sanjuro in the sequel Sanjuro (1962)), who journeys to a town where two rival gangs battle for control. He ultimately plays both sides bringing both gangs to an end. Mifune's Yojimbo has been a source of inspiration and emulation on several movies: the most obvious being The Bodyguard (1992) starring Kevin Costner, which references the film. Also Yojimbo has been remade in several different genres like westerns in A Fistful of Dollars (1964) Starring Clint Eastwood and gangsters with Last Man Standing (1996) starring Bruce Willis.

#4 Rashômon (1950) a.k.a. "In The Woods" - Directed by Akira Kurosawa, Starring Toshirô Mifune - Rashômon is a brilliant crime drama set in Medieval Japan that focuses on four points of view. The story is told by a monk who takes shelter from a storm in a ruined temple along with two other men. Mifune plays Tajômaru, a lowly thief and murderer who is accused of killing a samurai and raping his wife. When Tajômaru is captured and put on trial, the story is revealed by four witne, one being from the spirit of the dead samurai as he possesses his own wife! (Talk about a surprise witness!) Rashômon is an intense and captivating film!

#3 The Samurai Trilogy (1954-1956) Directed by Hiroshi Inagaki, Starring Toshiro Mifune -  - This is THE Ultimate Samurai Saga, based on the life (and novel by Eiji Yoshikawa) of the legendary Samurai swordsman: Musashi Miyamoto (Mifune)! These three acclaimed films, Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto, Samurai II: Duel At Ichijoji Temple, Samurai III: Duel At Ganryu Island, are Samurai film classics. The first film won the 1955 Academy Award for Best Foreign Film.

#2 The Hidden Fortress a.k.a. Kakushi-toride no san-akunin (1958) - Directed and Written by Akira Kurosawa, Starring Toshirô Mifune - Set in Medaival Japan, two peasants are forced to escort a man and woman across enemy lines while smuggling royal treasure when they finally reach their destination they discover the man is a General and the woman is actually a princess! Mifune plays General Rokurota Makabe. After seeing this film the similarities to Star Wars are blatantly obvious: Mifune's character is Obi-Wan Kenobi, Princess Yuki (Misa Uehara) is of course Princess Leia, and the two bumbling peasants Tahei and Matashichi are C-3PO and R2-D2. Even the villain, the Old General (Takashi Shimura) is like Darth Vader. George Lucas has even admittedly said in interviews of how Kurosawa's films had inspired him to make Star Wars. The Hidden Fortress is an epic classic for any fan of film or samurai films!

#1 Seven Samurai a.k.a. Shichinin no samurai (1955) - Directed and Written by Akira Kurosawa - When a poor farming village is raided annually by a group of bandits, they finally decide to travel to the city to find samurai to hire to defend them. They ultimately find seven ronin and prepare to defend their homes with the help of the brave warriors. Seven Samurai is an epic story that has transcended time and multiple genres. Not just a samurai film, it is an epic story of heroism, human resilience and friendship. Among the ensemble cast of samurai is Toshirô Mifune as Kikuchiyo,  bold, but inexperienced ronin and Takashi Shimura as Kambei, their leader. Seven Samurai has inspired films and stories for years and has been remade as American westerns such as The Magnificent Seven (1960) starring Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen; in animation as in Disney/Pixar's A Bug's Life (1998), in the anime Samurai 7 (2004) from Funimation, and in Cartoon Network's animated show Star Wars: The Clone Wars (2010), Season 2 Episode, "Bounty Hunters".