Several months back, I did a Directors Cuts column listing my seven favorite films by Akira Kurosawa that don’t have to do with samurai and (with one exception) don’t take place in the Edo Period. Enough time now has gone by that I think we can now talk about the films for which Kurosawa is most widely know, because he took that genre and made it something far more than merely action or historical epics. Each one is a masterclass of some kind of filmmaking.
So below, friends, is my list of Top 7 Samurai films by Akira Kurosawa. As always, your mileage may vary.
7) The Hidden Fortress (1958)
This is one of the few films Kurosawa made during his heyday that was specifically meant to be a big all-ages action-adventure film, without his usual pathos. In truth, The Hidden Fortress does feel like a bit of populist outing, but there’s nothing wrong with doing a simple adventure movie incredibly well. It features Kurosawa staple Toshiro Mifune as a noble samurai who is tasked with protecting and escorting a princess to the titular hidden fortress, navigating across enemy lines. Along the way, two lowly peasants serve as comic relief as they too get involved in the action. Sound familiar? It should; this was one of George Lucas’ big influences when writing the first Star Wars movie, with Obi-Wan Kenobi being Mifune’s character and R2-D2 and C-3PO standing in for the peasants. (Kurosawa was such a star director, the trailer featured shots of him directing as well as scenes from the film.)
6) Kagemusha (1980)
Despite being incredibly prolific and famous during the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s, Kurosawa found it difficult to get funding for films afterward. He only made two films in the 1970s and neither set the world alight. This was considered a major shame by uber-successful Hollywood directors George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola who were beyond influenced by Kurosawa, and so they themselves helped get funding from 20th Century Fox for this film when Toho’s budget ran out. The result, Kagemusha, is a massive samurai epic starring Kurosawa’s second muse, Tatsuya Nakadai, as both a dying warlord and the man who looks enough like him to fool people into thinking the warlord is still alive. It becomes extra heartbreaking when the “Shadow Warrior” has to convince the warlord’s grandson that he is his grandfather. It ends in a recreation of one of the bloodiest battles in Japanese history, the 1575 Battle of Nagashino. Shot in glorious color, this movie showed Kurosawa hadn’t lost a step at all.
5) Yojimbo (1961)
One of Kurosawa’s most influential films, Yojimbo (or “The Bodyguard”) inspired the Sergio Leone film A Fistful of Dollars and the Walter Hill film Last Man Standing. It tells the story of a drifter named Sanjuro (Mifune again), a masterless samurai wandering from place to place. He gets embroiled in a town basically under siege by two criminal organizations, each with the backing of a powerful town leader, one a Sake brewer, the other a silk merchant. Drifters and gamblers come in to join the various gangs and the good townsfolk stay hidden for most of their lives while the two gangs run roughshod. Sanjuro decides to clean up the town and sets out to sell his services to both gangs at various points, asking for more and more exorbitant sums of money, given his sword prowess. The film becomes a kind of comedy of violence and ends in a very apocalyptic manner. Nakadai makes his proper Kurosawa debut as the film’s main villain, a gun-toting psycho. A sequel, Sanjuro, was made the following year, which ended up being Kurosawa’s last samurai picture until Kagemusha.
4) Throne of Blood (1957)
Kurosawa was a huge fan of Shakespeare and so made loose adaptations of some of the Bard’s finest plays. This was the first of those, a samurai version of Macbeth with Mifune giving one of his wildest performances as the samurai general with the goal of becoming a warlord himself, with his crafty wife pulling the strings. This is one of the most gorgeous black and white movies I think I’ve ever seen (Kurosawa was the king of that) and it has all the great stuff from the play, including the supernatural stuff. The finale, with Mifune’s character utterly defeated, running through his palace avoiding enemy arrows, is one of the great scenes in film.
3) Ran (1985)
The last of Kurosawa’s samurai films, and the last of his Shakespeare adaptations, Ran is an elegiac ode to growing older based on King Lear. It stars Tatsuya Nakadai as an aging Shengoku-era warlord who has decided to abdicate the thrown in favor of his three sons. However, they don’t seem particularly suited to rule, and the warlord has to decide who is the one before the walls literally fall in around them. This film is b-e-a-utiful, and very lush. Though he didn’t use color until very late in his career, Kurosawa knew how to make his films look like a painting by putting splashes of bright color where he could. There are epic battles, huge emotional moments, lots of scenes done entirely on Nakadai’s face, and it never feels as long as its 2 hour 40 minute running time. It’s just an absolute masterpiece, and though Kurosawa made a couple more movies after this, Ran remains his finest later work.
2) Rashomon (1950)
I had a hard time deciding between the top two, but I think I ultimately put Kurosawa’s seminal 1950 film Rashomon at number 2 because it’s a movie that never fully satisfies, even if it’s undeniably glorious. This is on purpose, mind you; the story is about a trial for the murder of a nobleman, seemingly by a peasant, and the many different accounts of that same event. We get to hear and see several different, and totally opposite in some cases, points of view regarding the crime, from the drifter himself (Toshiro Mifune), from the nobleman’s wife who may have been raped, and even from the dead man, through a really creepy scene with a medium. Kurosawa also did some innovative camera things in this movie, like filming with natural light outside in a forest, and even pointing the camera at the sun through the trees. It’s a truly great film, and one to ponder time and time again.
1) Seven Samurai (1954)
Let it never be said that I’m not incredibly predictable. Why do I think Seven Samurai is Akira Kurosawa’s best film? Because it’s Akira Kurosawa’s best film. Simple as that. Another hugely influential epic (later remade as The Magnificent Seven, Battle Beyond the Stars and A Bug’s Life), there is so much absolute genius on every frame of this movie that it sometimes makes you mad. Like “Gah, why was he so good?!” Takashi Shimura plays an aging samurai who is hired by a town to protect it from the band of marauders who regularly ransack it. To help, he needs to hire at least six other samurai, all ronin, each with their own particular skill set. This is a movie that takes its time, resulting in a whopping 3 hour 27 minute running length, but each minute is worth it. The film ends with one of the greatest battle scenes ever committed to film, a massive, half-hour-long siege of a village in the rain which sees the titular seven fighting off dozens and dozens of bandits on horseback while trying to protect the town in the process. This is a one of the greatest films ever made, hands down. Go watch it. Now.
And there we have my list of the 7 best samurai films by Akira Kurosawa. Do you agree with my list? Did I leave any good ones off? Let me know in the comments below!
Kyle Anderson is the Weekend Editor and a film and TV critic for Nerdist.com. Follow him on Twitter!