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Martial arts films: our top 5 favourite sword movies from Japan!

Japanese samurai martial arts films - our top 5 reviewed

At Epic Japan Art, we’ve got a long standing love of martial arts films, and naturally that includes Japanese martial arts. After all, Samurai warriors play a big part in our poster, canvas, and printed product selections (you may have noticed!). So, for some Friday Fun, we’re going to run down our big five historical Japanese martial arts films that we love to watch again and again.

The criteria for our list is “best warriors in a historical setting” (note: they can be fictional characters, but the setting should be mostly accurate). If you’re a connossieur of fine swordplay, huge historical backdrops, and protagonists with steely determination, this is the list for you!

1. Zatoichi (2003)

The Kitano “Beat” Takeshi film version of this long-running film franchise is incredibly watchable and filled with humour and humanity. The title character is a travelling masseur, who also happens to be a brilliant swordsman. He travels from village to village in rural, feudal Japan and protects the weak and innocent from those who would bully them. He is also an inveterate and skilled gambler. But he does all this while being blind. Kitano plays the lead, and directs.

The yakuza’s hitman, a ronin who must take care of his seriously ill wife, must face down Zatoichi. The shades of grey portrayed in this character, (played by Asano Tadanobu who went on to many famous roles, including Thor’s companion Hogun) makes him more than just a two dimensional cartoon figure. He needs money to treat his wife. The only way to get it is by doing unsavoury things. What would we do in his 19th century wooden geta (sandals)?

The original series, where Zatoichi is played by Katsu Shintaro, was a well-loved series of films that probably had the equivalent popularity that James Bond does to the British. This leads us neatly on to the next in our top 5.

2. Shogun Assassin (1980)

So bad it’s good? This film has some of the bloodiest fights seen at the time of its release, which led to it nearly being banned. Its dubbing and 80s synth stylings are not for those who prefer the serious side, but great for watching with friends, and, just underneath, there are some great martial arts moves. Win an Oscar? Unlikely. But this is Friday Fun for sure!

This film is actually a mashup of some of the Lone Wolf and Cub series of films. These original films were produced by Katsu Shintaro, (remember him from above?) and directed by a variety of directors and star Wakayama Tomisaburo in the role of Ogami Itto, the ronin former executioner of the Shogun who is forced to bring his infant son with him whilst being attacked by the Shogun’s men. The mashup project called Shogun Assassin was helmed by Robert Houston, and credit where it is due for bringing such a gem to light.

3. The Hidden Blade (2004)

On a more serious note, this film is a slice of life in 19th Century Japan, showing the realities of being a lower-ranked Samurai, the changing times that included introduction of western guns (and even the method of walking being different), and the politics of class when love is involved. There is still swordplay and action, but it is a thoughtful film that evokes a sense of time and place and questions power and the morality of revenge. Cannot recommend this film enough!

(Honourable mention should go to After the Rain, a similarly thoughtful film that still has plenty of katana action.)

4. Lady Snowblood

One of the many films to inspire Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill series, this is a tale of a female assassin out for revenge. Her family were killed by criminals, and she is raised as a killer. After a punishing regime, killing becomes as easy as breathing for Lady Snowblood.

Filmed on a shoestring budget, Kaji Meiko stars as the eponymous character, and is directed by Fujita Toshiya. Despite its budget, the film aims to be an artwork, with strong palettes and an inventive narrative timeline.

5. Seven Samurai (1954)

No list of this type could be complete without Kurosawa Akira’s seminal masterpiece. It really needs no introduction to most martial arts fans. For those of you who haven’t come across it before (really, where have you been?) the ensemble movie has been the inspiration to a lot of other films, the most blatant of which is the Wild West themed Magnificent Seven that is a direct homage.

In Kurosawa’s 16th century epic, Samurai warriors are hired by impoverished villagers to protect them from the bandits that plague their region. The scene above is a memorable one, taken from the “recruiting” part of the movie, the concept which Kurosawa is supposed to have invented. We could have chosen many other Kurosawa films to be fair. What a legend!

Have you got a favourite film that you think belongs on this list? Comment below!

If you love a good Japanese warrior film, why not complement them with our Samurai and Ninja themed art print products?

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