10 Japanese Historical Movies

Friday, February 11 by Anwar Jefferson-George

Among your list of cinematic experiences, at least one or two items from our list of 10 Japanese historical movies needs to be included. While you may not be too into history itself, it's always interesting to broaden your horizons from a foreign perspective, especially when the country in question has over a century of cinema experience under its belt.

  1. "The Seven Samurai" (1954) - This Akira Kurosawa standard set the bar for every historical Japanese samurai film to date, putting the production company into bankruptcy. A sweeping epic widely heralded as one of the best films ever made.
  2. "Twilight Samurai" (2002) - A sharp contrast to Japan's normal samurai slasher genre, this displays samurai during their social decline, following a low ranking warrior forced to work as a bureaucrat. His skill with the sword only brings him unwanted attention that detracts from his ability to care for his ailing family.
  3. "Ran" (1985) – One of Kurosawa's most famous works, this story was based on feudal Japanese figures as well as Shakespeare's King Lear, so you know it's going to be pretty messed up. When a clan patriarch decides to split his kingdom between his three sons, the rifts and misunderstandings that result can only really end in nihilistic warfare.
  4. "Samurai Rebellion" (1967)The greatest swordsman in the land is rivaled only by his close friend and confidant. When his clan and lord meddle in the love lives of his close family members, he turns on his former allies with tragic results.
  5. "47 Ronin" (1941) - Based on historical events, this film tracks 47 masterless samurai who must avenge their master Asano Naganori. The story has been treated countless times through plays, ballet, historical Japanese TV dramas and films.
  6. "Sanshiro Sugata" (1943) – Kurosawa's directorial debut follows a stubborn young country boy who travels to the city to learn Jujitsu. When he arrives, he discovers Judo instead, keeping in line with the story of the legendary Japanese historical Judo master Shiro Saigo. This film was good enough to be remade at least five times, as it included innovative new techniques, like weather that reflect character moods and wipes.
  7. "Onibaba" (1964) – A creepy horror samurai film base on a Buddhist legend, this film explores the karmic fate of a mother and daughter-in-law who decide to make a living through thievery. By killing passing samurai, robbing them and disposing of the corpses in a deep trench, they only make things more complicated when they include a warrior neighbor in their twisted schemes and sexual relationships.
  8. "Lady Snowblood" (1973) - Based on a historical manga, this follows an assassin on her quest for revenge. After bandits rape a woman and murder her baby's father and son, she stabs one of them and is sent to a woman's prison. Her daughter, born in the Japanese jail, is reared by her cellmates and eventually trained in the murderous arts of swordplay so she can enact revenge.
  9. "Kagemusha" (1980) - When a warlord dies, a criminal from the bottom rung of society is taught to impersonate him and takes his place. Grateful to the lord who saved him from being crucified for his crimes, his loyalty knows no bounds and he goes on to make major changes in the clan's fate.
  10. "Gate of Hell" (1953) - The first Japanese color film released outside of the country, this follows a samurai who wants to marry a woman he's rescued. Unfortunately, he soon finds out that she was already married. His refusal to give up on his doomed love won't end well.
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