I love samurai movies. Just love them. I can't get enough of them. And what's even more wonderful is that there are so freaking many of them. I can't possibly see them all, and I have huge gaps in my samurai movie catalog that I can't wait to fill. Movies by filmmakers like Kurosawa, Miike - even Beat Takeshi tried his hand at one. I know I'm nowhere near seeing all the ones I need to see, and that's fine. I never hold it against anyone when I find out they haven't seen a particular movie because I'm all too aware of my own personal lapses in that regard.
So what is it about the samurai movie that intrigues movie geeks? For me, it's the sense of honor and heroism that the best samurai represent. Their fierce loyalty has always compelled me, and the best samurai intrinsically know right from wrong and live it every day. There's a reason why Westerns ripped off this genre wholesale. They are the hero archetype through and through - and they are no one to be trifled with. A samurai unleashed will not stop until he or his enemy is dead. There's a sense of nobility and tragedy even with the best samurai movies; a mourning of a time long past, and a way of life that seems right and true and real.
Plus, there's something truly wonderful about a great samurai swordfight. It's not even about the mechanics of battle, or the swordplay. Just two opponents, sizing each other up, looking for any weakness to exploit. A great samurai duel is more of a mind game than any true physical combat. When a samurai strikes, the battle has already been decided - the thrust of the sword is mere punctuation at the end of a declarative statement. And that statement is, "I have truly, righteously, kicked your ass."
I had to set up some strict rules for this one. Couldn't repeat an actor. Otherwise it would be Toshiro Mifune in all the freaking slots. Couldn't repeat a movie. Otherwise they'd all be SEVEN SAMURAI. And as I thought about this one it turned out a bit harder than I expected. But, I'm happy with the result.
That said, I had to put an honorable mention in here, because there was just too much badassery and awesome for five entries. So the Honorable Mention breaks the rules a bit, as you will see. Let's begin:
HONORABLE MENTION: Kyuzo, SEVEN SAMURAI
You can bet there will be another character from this movie on this list. If there weren't, this list wouldn't be worth a damn. But Kyuzo stands out for me. He doesn't brag, isn't full of bluster or ego. He, quite simply, kills his opponent, and walks away. During a pretend duel with another samurai, Kyuzo calmly tells his opponent that if the opponent were in a real fight, he'd be killed. His partner of course doubts this, and challenges Kyuzo to prove it, which in awesome, definitive style he does.
One swing, and the slow motion fall, and one of the greatest, most badass samurai on screen is born. Even in his death, Kyuzo's last act is to point to the direction of his murderer. Kyuzo isn't just badassery either. There's a nobility to him, in helping those less fortunate than him, or even covering for another lovesick samurai. And even Kyuzo becomes weary of war, and chooses his companions well. I could watch a whole movie on Kyuzo alone, and the fact that he's just one great character in a movie filled to the brim of them is what makes SEVEN SAMURAI one of the greatest movies of all time.
5. Kajima, A BOY AND HIS SAMURAI
There's a very good chance you haven't seen this movie, and that's very unfortunate. This movie was my personal favorite film from Fantastic Fest last year, and its charm and warm humor could crack the ice around the most jaded, cynical heart. Kajima, played by Ryô Nishikido, is a samurai lost in time, who suddenly appears in the modern age and has no idea what to make of this time. He finds himself drawn to a young single woman and her son, and becomes the father figure the boy desperately needs. In the vein of movies like THE IRON GIANT, Kajima the samurai teaches the boy about what true honor is, and the boy finds a place in Kajima's heart. But what's so amazing about A BOY AND HIS SAMURAI is that it's something of a foodie movie, as Kajima becomes an expert pastry and dessert chef! I wish I could find a clip of some of the awesomeness on display in this movie. But trust me, if you find it, this one is a movie to cherish, and Kajima joins the ranks of the great samurai of cinema. He lives the life of a samurai even in these crazy trying times, and while there isn't much fighting in A BOY AND HIS SAMURAI, it's his style and his attitude towards life that puts him on this list.
4. Ryunosuke, THE SWORD OF DOOM
Remember what I said about the noble, heroic samurai? You can throw all that out the window. Ryunosuke (Tatsuya Nakadai) is a heartless son-of-a-bitch, who isn't above killing Buddhist pilgrims for the hell of it (to be fair, the pilgrim was praying for death at the time). Dude even gets his opponent's wife to screw him just so he can get one over him in a duel they have later. He even murders his mistress as their child wails away in bed. He is completely amoral and a ruthless killer, and the only time he thinks about his evil actions is when he sees Shimada (Toshiro Mifune) fend off his attackers and realizes how much of a better man Shimada is.
In the end of the film, Ryunosuke, hopelessly insane, fights off wave after wave of assassins in one of the greatest sword fights ever done in cinema, and we realize that while Ryunosuke was an evil, vicious man, he was certainly no one to be messed with. THE SWORD OF DOOM is a tremendously good samurai movie (even if the main character is no hero). Sometimes we learn the true values of a samurai by seeing their polar opposite.
3. Ogami Itto, the LONE WOLF AND CUB movies
Full disclosure - I haven't seen all the Babycart movies. In fact, I haven't seen any of them uncut except in the SHOGUN ASSASSIN versions. But holy shit, this guy. There is nothing more satisfying than arterial spray in a samurai movie, and these movies spray enough to paint houses. When Ogami returns home one day to find his wife murdered, he collects his son and unleashes hell on everyone who had anything to do with her murder. Anyone who even looked sideways at Ogami and his son Daigoro met violent, bloody deaths. And that's pretty much the gist of it. Ogami Itto, played by Tomisaburo Wakayama, was a brutal warrior who fights his way all through the movies and the manga they were based on. Check this shit out:
Dude took on an ARMY. Yeah, he used pistols at the end, so that takes away some points, but how can you question this being on the list? The LONE WOLF AND CUB movies, uncut, come out this month on Blu-Ray. You've already put them in your cart.
2. Sanjuro, YOJIMBO/SANJURO
Tough call, this one, and I can hear the cries already on why Toshiro Mifune isn't number one on this list. My list, my rules. And yet, I cannot deny the greatest character in Mifune's formidable catalog of roles. YOJIMBO is so damn good that filmmakers have ripped it off for years - no less a filmmaker than Sergio Leone, in fact. One of my favorite takes on YOJIMBO is a little movie called FRESH, where a young kid schooled in chess learns how to manipulate the local drug dealers to try to rescue himself and his sister from the streets. But Mifune's character has inspired people like John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, hell, even Bruce Willis in Walter Hill's take on the movie.
He has a quiet dignity about him, but he does not suffer fools gladly, and when it comes to injustice, Sanjuro (which, loosely translated, means 30-year-old mulberry field - see, dude is so badass he names himself after an empty field) knows it when he sees it and puts things to rights, even if he does so in a manner that totally confuses friend and foe alike. "I get paid for killing, and this town is full of people who deserve to die." Spoken like a true ronin.
1. Kambei Shimada, SEVEN SAMURAI
People have asked me who my favorite actor in Akira Kurosawa's movies is, and seem surprised when I say that it's not Toshiro Mifune, but Takeshi Shimura. In comparison to the films that Kurosawa and Mifune made together, Shimura's work with the man seems to go under the radar. But Shimura starred in what I consider the best Kurosawa movie ever made, IKIRU, playing an old man dying of cancer who decides to do one good deed before he dies. You can hardly believe that the actor playing the feeble, stricken Kanji Watanabe is the same one playing the brave, strong, noble Kambei just two years later. And yet, Kambei, the leader of a group of ronin fighting to save a village from raiding bandits, is a true leader in every sense of the word. He brings this ragtag group of men together, men used to losing all their lives, and makes them true heroes. He even brings a non-samurai - and Mifune is truly brilliant as Kikuchiyo, the farmer's son-turned-warrior - into their group, and through his steadfast leadership, turns him onto the path of greatness.
When I think of samurai, I think of Kambei, knowing that no matter who wins the fight for the village, that time has passed them by, and the only noble thing to do is to live the life that has served him all those years. Kambei knows true loss - the loss of battle, the loss of loved ones - but it is not victory that Kambei fights for, but peace of mind. From shaving his topknot (a no-no for samurai) so he can rescue a small child, to working for food to save a village, Kambei does the hero's work. He enjoys the camaraderie of his fellow samurai, and mourns them when they die. And yet, he knows he will never be thanked for his good deeds, and Kambei moves on. "The farmers have won. We have lost." And although he does not say it, Kambei Shimada wouldn't have it any other way. He is, in my opinion, the greatest samurai in cinema history.
Who have I missed? Zatoichi the Blind Swordsman... Toshiro Mifune's Kikuchiyo from SEVEN SAMURAI, or even his amazing performance as famed samurai Musashi Miyamoto in the SAMURAI Trilogy - which came really damn close to making this list, but I went for Sanjuro instead. The many samurai of Takeshi Miike's 13 ASSASSINS, one of the best modern samurai movies and one that Kurosawa himself would have approved. Hell, even Forest Whitaker in GHOST DOG: WAY OF THE SAMURAI. Tatsuya Nakadai in HARAKIRI, as noble as his Ryunosuke in THE SWORD OF DOOM was evil. So many more. So many great movies. I'm dying to see more great samurai cinema, and I'm so happy that I've barely scratched the surface.
Next week - well, I have no idea what I'll be writing about next week, so let me surprise you as well as myself. Thanks for reading.