10 Best Japanese Martial Arts Movies

Sunday, January 23 by William Gish

The 10 best Japanese martial arts movies are filled with stark violence and nihilism. Mostly samurai movies, they tell tales of lost souls, desperate times, profiteering murderers, fierce honor, and unquenchabl thirst for power.

  1. “Seven Samurai” – Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai,” is one of the best films of all time, let alone one of the best Japanese samurai movies. At nearly five hours hours long, it is also one of the most robust and artistic visions of cruelty, goodness, power, violence, and revenge. The final battle alone—one of the best ever put on film—is nearly an hour long.
  2. “Sword of Doom” – “Sword of Doom” takes the classically held samurai belief that the sword is an extension of the soul and asks what happens to the soul of a swordsman who does too much killing? The film is incredibly dark and violent, and is one of the ten best Japanese martial arts movies.
  3. “Samurai Assassin” – “Samurai Assassin” is a tense and foreboding tale of intrigued centered on a handful of plotting lords and the group of samurai they’ve hired to help them execute an assassination. It takes place in the winter and features a handful of brutal battles in bitter conditions. It is dark, violent, and one of the best Japanese martial arts movies.
  4. “Harakiri” – “Harakiri” takes its name from the word for ritualistic suicide. Thematically dark as night, several characters invoke hell as the only appropriate comparison for life in feudal Japan. “Harakiri” is slow and stark, with freighting and surprising bursts of extreme violence.
  5. “Samurai Trilogy” – Released over a three-year period in the mid-50’s, the “Samurai Trilogy” has a vast arch and a nea limitless supply of martial arts. Lead actor Toshiro Mifune, who stars in almost half the films on this list, does a phenomenal job in the central role of all three movies.
  6. “Yojimbo” – Another Kurosawa film, “Yojimbo” is leaner, and much, much meaner than “Seven Samurai.” The films centers on the titular mercenary, who ambles into a town embroiled in conflict and violence and makes a tidy profit. “Yojimbo,” one of the ten best Japanese martial arts films, is very violent but also, and somewhat surprisingly, very funny in a twisted way.
  7. “Ghost in the Shell” – “Ghost in the Shell” had a profound influence on “Matrix” both in terms of plot and style. Though it is an animation, the film packs a serious punch when it comes to martial arts. The fight scenes are filled with invisible cyborgs, flying bullets, brutal hand-to-hand combat, and exploding body parts. Its creepy ambient score adds significant menace to the melee. 
  8. “Zatoichi” – Zatoichi is a blind samurai who has been the subject of 29 films and a television series. A handful of these films are among the best Japanese martial arts movies. The first film in the series, “The Tale of Zatoichi,” released in 1962, is a straight up classic. In 2003, Takeshi Kitano directed and starred in a very blood and very modern remake that delivered the goods.
  9. “13 Assassins” – Splatter king Takashi Miike tries his hand at historical epics in “13 Assassins,” a remake of the 1963 film of the same name. One of the best Japanese martial arts movies, Miike’s vision has plenty of sword fights, blood letting and battling. It tells the true story of a group of samurai who convened to kill an evil shogun in order to prevent civilian deaths.
  10. “Shinobi: Heart Under Blade” – “Shinobi” is the Japanese response to China’s “Hero.” People fly around, slice one another to pieces, fall in and out of love, murder nemeses, plot revenge, and break one another’s hearts. The film is somewhat ludicrous, but filled with enough explosions and over-the-top martial arts to keep audiences satisfied.  
Do you like this story?