This weekly blog series, published each Friday evening, features five films from streaming services which you can access for free using your library card.
Japanese directors have, for decades, used samurai culture as a springboard to tell very human stories about honor, duty, selflessness, violence, intrigue and love. Samurai are used as heroes or villains or somewhere in between.
Below are only a few of the films featuring samurai available through the library’s streaming service Kanopy.
The Seven Samurai (1954)
No list of samurai films would be complete without including director Akira Kurosawa’s epic film Seven Samurai. The plot is straightforward. A small farming village is plagued by frequent bandit raids that threaten the livelihood and safety of the peaceful community. Actor Takashi Shimura plays the stoic, selfless Kambei, a master samurai who decides to assist the villagers despite receiving no prestige or reward. He assembles the eponymous seven samurai including Kikuchiyo, a fierce, almost savage, character brought to life by Toshiro Mifune. The entire cast, along with sets, scenes and music, combine to build a vivid, fully-formed tale of dedication, self-sacrifice and bravery. It is divided into two parts with an intermission.
Chūshingura is the Japanese term used for any fictionalized account of the story of forty-seven ronin. The roots of any of these retellings, including this film, lie in an actual historical event. A samurai lord is wrongly accused and then executed; leaving his retainers as ‘ronin’ or master-less samurai. 47 of these ronin plan meticulously for almost two years to avenge their master thus restoring his honor and preserving their own.
The variety of characters, and the legend, give the film depth and dimension. The sets, clothing, exterior shots are beautiful, adding visual appeal. While lengthy, this is required viewing for anyone interested in Japanese history, the visual arts or film.
The first part of a series of high-action samurai films (originally novels) that feature Kyoshiro and his ‘full moon slice’ sword technique. Kyoshiro, a bitter, arrogant ronin and master swordsman, gets involved in a plot that has a smuggling ring, gangs, corruption, underwater lairs, Chinese martial arts, over-the-top characters and tons of sword fights. The pacing is quick, which gives Sleepy Eyes of Death a forward momentum that doesn’t stop until the credits roll. The plot is, for the most part, incidental and acts as a vehicle for giving its audience what it wants: action.
The Hidden Blade is a film about much more than swords, samurai and martial arts. It stars Masatoshi Nagase as Munezo Katagiri, a samurai caught in the grip of a society with a rigid class structure. Katagiri is bound by a sense of duty that supersedes personal connections and even love itself. The film is character-driven and balances romance with more traditional elements found in other samurai movies. The film is aimed at adults and is more drama than action. A different take on a samurai story.
Shinobi No Mono, directed by Kazuo Ikehiro, is really a ninja movie that uses historical samurai warlord Oda Nobunaga as the target of an assassination plot. Nobunaga is depicted as a ruthless bully who has murdered large numbers of clergy and citizens; as well as desecrated a holy Buddhist site. Goemon, the movies main character, is flawed. He has talent but is prone to bragging and ambition. Raizô Ichikawa, of Sleepy Eyes of Death fame, adds depth to his portrayal of Goemon. But, the plot is the real star of the movie.