The 10 Best Samurai Movies of All Time, Ranked

There's something uniquely compelling about Japanese samurai. Here are the best samurai movies worth checking out.
The 10 Best Samurai Movies of All Time, Ranked

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Since the dawn of time, mankind has told stories about heroes and monsters. Those heroes have been everything from knights to cowboys to soldiers—but in Japanese cinema, they were samurai.

Samurai movies are usually set between the 12th and 19th centuries, featuring the classical sword-wielding protagonist who tries to do good. With katana in hand, these warriors do battle against the malevolent forces that plague their towns.

Here are my picks for the best samurai movies of all time. Expect to see a lot of movies by the legendary Akira Kurosawa!

10. Onibaba (1964)

Directed by Kaneto Shindō

Starring Nobuko Otowa, Jitsuko Yoshimura, Kei Satō

Drama, Horror, Thriller (1h 43m)

7.9 on IMDb90% on RT

Jidaigeki movies are a genre of period piece films, most often set during the Edo period (between 1603 and 1867) but not always.

They were very popular back in the days of classical Japanese cinema, and many of them involved plenty of samurai action. Onibaba is one such jidaigeki film, set during the 15th century.

Written and directed by legendary Japanese filmmaker Kaneto Shindo, Onibaba follows the story of a poverty-stricken mother and her daughter-in-law after they've killed a samurai.

While you could argue that every movie on this list is "jidaigeki," Onibaba really highlights the period aspect more than the rest.

9. Sword of the Beast (1965)

Directed by Hideo Gosha

Starring Mikijirō Hira, Gō Katō, Shima Iwashita

Action, Drama (1h 25m)

7.5 on IMDbN/A on RT

Sword of the Beast (also called Samurai Gold Seekers) is set in 1857, back towards the end of the samurai era. In fact, this film has a beautifully symbolic touch with its samurai protagonist hunted by—and on the run from—the law.

Gennosuke (played by Mikijirō Hira) is a fugitive who's killed a counselor in his clan. In an attempt to support himself while on the lam, he becomes embroiled in a plot to steal gold from the shogun's mountain. However, he meets another samurai who has the same plan.

What results is one of the greatest and underappreciated samurai movies of all time that's still a wonderful watch today.

8. Yojimbo (1961)

Directed by Akira Kurosawa

Starring Toshirō Mifune, Eijirō Tōno, Tatsuya Nakadai

Action, Drama, Thriller (1h 50m)

8.2 on IMDb95% on RT

The first of the Akira Kurosawa movies on this list is Yojimbo, a classic film of the samurai genre.

Yojimbo follows a rōnin (i.e. a samurai without a master) who has no name. Although he's nameless, he masquerades as a bodyguard for two competing immoral businessmen.

Under the assumed name of Sanjuro Kuwabatake (played by Toshirō Mifune), he pits the two rivals against each other and slowly causes both of their downfalls.

Yojimbo eventually got a sequel called Sanjuro, which was also co-written, produced, directed, and edited by Akira Kurosawa. You'll find it included further down on this list.

7. Rashōmon (1950)

Directed by Akira Kurosawa

Starring Toshirō Mifune, Machiko Kyō, Masayuki Mori

Crime, Drama, Mystery (1h 28m)

8.2 on IMDb98% on RT

Rashōmon isn't just one of the best movies about samurai—it's one of the greatest Japanese films ever made, and it was so good that it introduced Japanese cinema to much of the world.

The plot of this film centers on four different witnesses to a rape and murder, all of whom have their own perspectives on what they saw.

While Rashōmon doesn't have as much emphasis on the idea of a samurai as Kurosawa's later works, it's an important watch. It looks at the nature of memory and truth, causing us to question how we interpret reality through our subjective senses and fallible perception.

6. Throne of Blood (1957)

Directed by Akira Kurosawa

Starring Toshirō Mifune, Minoru Chiaki, Isuzu Yamada

Drama (1h 50m)

8.1 on IMDb96% on RT

In Throne of Blood, two samurai warriors are on their way back from a battle encounter. Along the way, they meet a witch who gives them a fateful prediction of things to come.

Inspired by the prophesy and encouraged by his wife, Washizu (played by Toshirō Mifune) pursues the idea of becoming Lord of the Northern Garrison—and heads down a path that changes his life forever.

Throne of Blood is a dramatic interpretation of Shakespeare's Macbeth, and it's executed well enough to be one of cinema's greats.

5. The Hidden Fortress (1958)

Directed by Akira Kurosawa

Starring Toshirō Mifune, Misa Uehara, Minoru Chiaki

Action, Adventure, Drama (2h 6m)

8.1 on IMDb96% on RT

The Hidden Fortress is one of Akira Kurosawa's lesser-known movies, but not due to a lack of quality or impact.

The story follows two treacherous, opportunistic peasants who attempt to profit from a local tribal dispute. They promise to take a man and woman to safety away from battle (in exchange for gold, of course).

However, what they don't know is that they're actually escorting the General and Princess to safety...

Fun fact: George Lucas famously cited The Hidden Fortress as a big influence on his Star Wars saga!

4. Ran (1985)

Directed by Akira Kurosawa

Starring Tatsuya Nakadai, Akira Terao, Jinpachi Nezu

Action, Drama, War (2h 42m)

8.2 on IMDb96% on RT

Ran is another film where Akira Kurosawa reinvented Shakespeare. Almost three decades after he reimagined Macbeth with The Hidden Fortress, his interest in the Elizabethan playwright hadn't waned.

However, this time, he took on King Lear and adapted it into Ran, a fantastic piece that looks at the effects of disharmony in the family after a king tries to divide his kingdom between his three sons.

In Ran, you can clearly see that Kurosawa nearly had a career as a painter. This movie might be one of the most exquisitely filmed of all time, let alone one of the best samurai movies ever made.

3. Sanjuro (1962)

Directed by Akira Kurosawa

Starring Toshirō Mifune, Tatsuya Nakadai, Keiju Kobayashi

Action, Drama, Thriller (1h 36m)

8.0 on IMDb100% on RT

Eponymously named after the enigmatic Sanjuro, this sequel to Yojimbo follows the jaded character as he helps a young and naïve band of renegade samurai defeat forces of evil.

Noticing their inexperience, Sanjuro (played by Toshirō Mifune, who reprised his role from Yojimbo) educates them on the worldly politics that govern the clan they're part of.

Sanjuro improves upon its predecessor as it drips with suspense while mixing in darkly comic moments. There's heaps of action as well, with Sanjuro displaying his competence with a sword several times.

Years later, Sergio Leone took notice and based the first two films of his Man With No Name Trilogy on Yojimbo and Sanjuro, resulting in A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and For a Few Dollars More (1965), respectively.

2. Harakiri (1962)

Directed by Masaki Kobayashi

Starring Tatsuya Nakadai, Akira Ishihama, Shima Iwashita

Action, Drama, Mystery (2h 13m)

8.6 on IMDb100% on RT

Tsugumo Hanshiro (played by Tatsuya Nakadai) is an aged samurai who's well past his prime, so he approaches his district's feudal lord and asks for a place where he can commit honorable suicide.

Directed by legendary filmmaker Masaki Kobayashi, Harakiri is one of the most interesting and thought-provoking films ever made. In case you needed more convincing, this film is ranked as the number one best film of all time on Letterboxd's Top 250 narrative movies!

In fact, it would easily be the very best film to top our list of best samurai movies if it weren't for one particularly influential film...

1. Seven Samurai (1954)

Directed by Akira Kurosawa

Starring Toshirō Mifune, Takashi Shimura, Keiko Tsushima

Action, Drama (3h 27m)

8.6 on IMDb100% on RT

There can only be one choice for best samurai movie of all time: Akira Kurosawa's magnum opus Seven Samurai.

When a group of seven warriors find themselves as the only salvation standing between an army of bandits and a small village, they decide they must do what's right to defend the defenseless.

Seven Samurai is a story about all the things that are important in life: passion, honor, courage, and dying for a noble cause.

It went on to spawn countless imitators, most notably John Sturges's Western film The Magnificent Seven (1960). However, without question, the original Seven Samurai will always remain on top—not only among the best movies about samurai, but the best movies of all time.