NOTE: If you purchase DVDs rather than downloads I recommend purchasing from The Criterion Collection. Their packaging includes an insert (or full booklet) with informative text, often including photos or art. Digital re-mastering is excellent and there are many extras on the disks well worth watching.
Directed by Akira Kurosawa, this 1954 film regularly appears on best of the best lists. If you see only one film listed here, make it this one. The story is set during Japan’s “warring states” period, just before establishment of the Tokugawa Shogunate in 1603. A small agricultural village is threatened by a group of bandits who intend to carry off its crops after the harvest comes in. The farmers are at wits end until the village elder suggests finding samurai who will defend the village in exchange for food, and on principle. Villagers set off on that quest, succeed in finding a willing samurai, and luck out when he manages to recruit five others for the task at hand. A sixth “samurai”—sort of a Falstaff character which Kurosawa must have borrowed from Shakespeare (he was a big fan) rounds out the group of seven. I don’t want to reveal any more of the story, but it’s a great one with plenty of suspense near the end.
What’s compelling about this film, other than plot, acting, and directing (which are reasons enough to see it) are the setting, and interaction among the characters. You’ll be transported in time to a key juncture in Japan’s history, and you’ll see what life was like at the time. Farmers as a class, including these villagers, ranked immediately below samurai warriors in the “status group” pecking order. Farmers fed the country after all, and therefore out-ranked the artisan and merchant classes. But gaps in status and self-esteem between warriors and farmers were cavernous—even here, where the seven samurai are themselves reduced in status because they are “ronin”—roving, masterless samurai.
There’s also a little Buddhist philosophy thrown into this film, and some moral ambiguity which undercuts simplistic conclusions about the farmers as victims. Both add richness to the film and help make it more than a mere action story.
One last thing. If you’re a Hollywood Western fan you’ll be interested in knowing that the 1960 film The Magnificent Seven was based on Seven Samurai—an ironic twist given the fact that Seven Samurai Itself was heavily influenced by American Westerns.
See this masterpiece—if for no other reason than because it will make this important chapter in Japanese history come alive.
The film runs 3 hours 27 minutes.
This 1980 film by director Akira Kurosawa, like Seven Samurai, is set during the later 16th Century civil wars which preceded the unification of Japan under the Tokugawa Shogunate at the beginning of the 17th Century. The film revolves around a “kagemusha,” which is a political double, or decoy. In this case, the kagemusha fills in for a historically accurate daimyo (feudal lord) by the name of Takeda Shingen, who dies in the midst of the wars. In the film, Shingen is killed by a sniper (guns were introduced into Japan by 16th Century European explorers and traders). But that cause of death has never been established with historical certainty. Shingen’s kagemusha, who is a fictional character, buys time for the Takeda clan to get its act together before rival warlords can learn of Shingen’s death, and attack. There are plenty of colorful battle scenes but blood and gore have been kept to a minimum. If you enjoy films based on historical events you’ll probably like this one—though ironically the title character is pure fiction. The film runs 3 hours.
This 1950 Kurosawa crime drama, set in 11th Century Kyoto, is one of many pictures which contribute to Kurosawa’s reputation as one of the great filmmakers of all time. With its groundbreaking use of flashbacks this picture not only influenced future film-making but also contributed to the lexicon of courtroom justice. Eyewitness stories which contradict each other became known as the “Rashomon” effect. In the story four characters are witnesses to, or participants in, a murder or a suicide—and a possible rape. Each character recounts his or her story seemingly in response to questioning, though we never see or hear from an interrogator. It quickly becomes clear that they can’t all be right, and what really happened is anyone’s guess—until the end of the film.
The deluge at Kyoto’s Rashomon Gate which opens the film made a powerful impression on me. Maybe you’ll have the same reaction.
This picture won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, though for some it may become an acquired taste. That said, it’s worth seeing for the fantastic acting and directing alone—also for the memorable woodsy mountain scenery and thickets (a Kurosawa specialty also featured in Seven Samurai) where the characters go astray both literally and figuratively. All part of Kurosawa’s design, as pointed out in one of the essays included with the Criterion Collection edition of this film.
The picture runs an hour and 28 minutes.
This 1967 Masaki Kobayashi film is only tangentially about samurai. In notes which accompany the Criterion Collection edition Japanese film expert Donald Richie tells us that the title was designed to attract a Western audience. For domestic consumption a title far more descriptive of the actual story was employed: Rebellion—Receive the Wife, which Mr. Richie concedes is his own loose translation. Samurai action occurs only at the very beginning of the picture and at the end. In between is a story of family, power, love, cowardice, conviction, and rebellion.
Set in the mid-1720s, well into the 250-year Tokugawa shogunate era of peace, the story develops in the domain of an aging daimyo, or warlord. The daimyo takes a beautiful young mistress named Ichi who, upon returning to the castle one day discovers she has a rival. Ichi lets loose on the rival, beating her up—and later expresses her displeasure by repeatedly slapping the daimyo in the face. Rather than have her killed for this affront (the two have had a child together), the daimyo orders that she be married off to the son of one of his vassals, a young samurai named Yogoro. At first, Yogoro’s parents are offended by the daimyo’s abuse of power in making this demand. But the daimyo’s steward makes it clear that the family must obey, which they do.
Happily Yogoro and Ichi fall in love and produce a child, and the father (played by the great Toshiro Mifune) comes to admire and love his new daughter-in-law. But just as Ichi begins to feel herself an integral part of her new family, the daimyo decides he wants her back with him at the castle. Orders come from on high, and Yogoro and his father must decide whether to obey—or stand on principle and love. To find out what happens next, see the film. But here’s a small hint: there’s good reason this film was released in the late 1960s rather than much earlier.
One reason I like these period pieces so much is that they allow us to visualize history. Here you get a few tantalizing glimpses of beautiful Kano School scrolls and screens (see Ink and Gold: Art of the Kano in our book listing). You also see the shoguns’ famous control over travel from one domain to another. A border gate at the boundary of adjacent domains plays an important role in the story’s ending. I highly recommend this picture.
The film runs 2 hours.
This 1953 Yasujiro Ozu classic is set mostly in Tokyo but the setting could have been any community in any country, such is the film’s universality. The plot is minimal—an aging couple journeys from their home near Hiroshima to visit their children in Tokyo, a considerable trek before the advent of Japan’s bullet trains. The couple settles in at the home of their eldest son and are visited there by a married daughter who also lives in Tokyo. It quickly becomes clear to us that children and grandchildren are so wrapped up in their own lives that they want the visit cut short. To get the couple out of their house in a conscience-soothing way, the son and his wife shunt them off to a nearby spa-hotel without bothering to find out that its clientele is a younger crowd which loudly cavorts throughout the night. Deprived of sleep, the couple cuts their spa stay short and returns unexpectedly to their son’s home. But when that proves inconvenient to the son and his wife the couple must admit to themselves that they are no longer welcome in their own son’s house. I won’t go further with the story but will suggest that you not see this film when you are in the mood for uplift—or reassurance about human nature.
On one level, the picture is about multi-generational relationships within a single family. But more broadly it can be construed as a portrayal of what human beings are capable of within the larger human family—particularly since the story takes place only eight years after the most cataclysmic event in human history—World War II. Clearly the filmmaker intended a tie-in because we learn that another of the couple’s sons perished in that disaster.
Despite all this, I am very glad I saw the picture. Like all great art—and it surely is that—the film continues to work on you long after you experience it for the first time. Why? I think it’s because of the brilliance of both cast and director. Lesser actors and a lesser director would not have pulled this off. I couldn’t recommend this picture more highly.
The film runs 2 hours 16 minutes.
A final word: Prof. Ravina discusses this film at length and from a different perspective in his lecture series Understanding Japan: A Cultural History (recommended in “Videos’).
5 Disc Collector’s Edition, directed by Tomu Uchida. Miyamoto Musashi is generally considered one of the greatest swordsmen in Japanese history—and that’s saying something because Japan produced countless sword masters. Born in 1584, Musashi fought in the pivotal Battle of Sekigahara (in the year 1600), which figures in the opening scene. Sekigahara ended centuries of bloody clashes among competing domains, and led to 250+ years of peace under the Tokugawa shogunate. You might think the absence of war defeated the need for swordsmanship in Japan, and that’s true to some extent.
Only samurai were permitted to keep weapons, and wear the famous long and short sword combination in their sashes. (It was Musashi who pioneered simultaneous use of both swords, which let him defeat multiple opponents attacking from all directions.) When did samurai draw their swords in anger? Samurai could cut down a commoner with impunity for the high crime of failing to show respect—and each samurai was judge and jury as to what constituted that respect. But more important, each domain was law unto itself. There was no central system of law such as existed in England at the time. And samurai were their domain lord's enforcers, particularly as regards collecting taxes. The razor sharp samurai sword was persuasive among the populace.
In this epic series of five films, Musashi rises to samurai rank—though the domain lord who elevated Musashi allows him to leave the domain without having rendered it service. Turns out Musashi has an ancestral relationship with the domain castle, a fact which the lord respects deeply. More important, Musashi has just completed three years of intense study using the castle's immense library of Chinese classics. Through this study Musashi changes from impetuous, arrogant youth to the early stages of maturity. Presumably this also has made an impression on the domain lord. Musashi leaves the castle to seek further understanding and personal growth—and to become the best swordsman in Japan.
Earlier I brought up the question of need for swordsmanship in an era of peace. As it happens the samurai sword had a purpose outside either war or keeping commoners in line—and that was competition. Japan boasted martial arts training schools (dojos) with superlatively skilled masters. What better way to earn a reputation as a swordsman than to best sword masters from dojos run by renowned hereditary clans? This is what Musashi had in mind, and the series spends a great deal of time on these duels and how they came about. (There’s also a romantic thread running through the series.)
There are five discs in this partially-fictionalized telling of Musashi’s life, released annually from 1961 to 1965. The entire series is based on a novel by Eiji Yoshikawa which also was released serially—in a newspaper from 1935 to 1939. Yoshikawa’s novel was the basis for another, earlier Musashi film, The Samurai Trilogy, but I suggest purchasing the 5-disc version instead. It’s far superior. The acting is first class. The scenery is spectacular and so is the photography. More than once I found a particular frame suggestive of Dutch Golden Age genre painting. Composition of these frames alone is proof of Uchida's directing brilliance—regardless of whether he intended the Dutch reference. But the Dutch Golden Age does happen to overlap Musashi’s life. It’s also true that the Dutch were the only Europeans permitted to remain in Japan beginning early in the Tokugawa period.
The film makes Musashi out to be not just one of the greatest, but the greatest Japanese swordsman, at least of his time. That view, however, isn’t unanimous. One expert I read claims that Musashi's ability to assess an opponent's skill allowed him to avoid duels he might otherwise lose. If true, maybe the awesome legend of Musashi’s sixty successful lifetime duels is really less awesome than this picture would have us believe. (Definition of a successful duel: the other guy gets killed.)
Regardless, Musashi left behind more than the iconic legend of his life. We have his enduring testament—The Book of Five Rings—along with other writings. These texts will best be enjoyed by martial arts students, as a quick scan through their pages makes evident—though the come-on is that the sword strategizing is transferable to more traditional arts like painting, sculpture and calligraphy - at each of which Musashi is said to have excelled.
The bottom line for me? I love this series and recommend it unconditionally.
The films combined run 9 hours 30 minutes.
(1962, Toho Co., Ltd.), DVD by Image Entertainment, Inc., Directed by Hiroshi Inagaki.
One of many film versions of this famous episode in Japanese history and legend, popularly known as “The Tale of the 47 Ronin.” I couldn't recommend this particular version more highly. Acting, directing, photography—all wonderful.
I won’t summarize the story or its significance here because both are covered in Chushingura: The Treasury of Loyal Retainers – A Puppet Play under “Books – Literature” in these listings. As explained there, the 1748 puppet version had to be set centuries earlier to avoid the shogunal censor's ax. There’s no such problem with a 1962 film, so you get the essential, original 1701-03 story as best it is known to history.
If this will be your first exposure to the 47 Ronin story I recommend doing an online search for “the 47 Ronin,” and reading some detail on the plot and characters. That will make the picture easier to follow and more enjoyable. But do see it.
The film runs 3 hours 27 minutes.