Each new episode of Shōgun raises the stakes, deepens the political intrigue, and brings us closer to the brink of war. It’s a description that, years ago, would have applied to Game of Thrones, a show to which Shōgun has been compared ad nauseam. It’s not an inappropriate comparison. Both tout sprawling casts, sweeping locations, political intrigue, backstabbing, and characters residing in moral gray areas, ready to surprise and disappoint. Though, it may be more apt to compare the show to Japan’s Chanbara or samurai films.

Given Shōgun’s intensity and cliffhangers, waiting a week between episodes is excruciating. Digging back into Game of Thrones or even House of the Dragon might not scratch that Shōgun itch in the long days between installments. 

Instead, let’s dive into samurai epics in and around the Edo period when Ieyasu Tokugawa unified Japan and built a shogunate that ruled for more than two centuries, the start of which is dramatized in Shōgun. We’ll go with seven picks to take you between episodes in honor of the somewhat obvious but still excellent top pick.

7. Samurai Marathon (2019)

While the Rurouni Kenshin trilogy, which grew to five films, has a longer total runtime, Samurai Marathon carries an epic scope and weaving plots that infuse every moment with tension. The film is based on true events that occurred in the final years of the Edo period, which ended in 1868 with the fall of the Tokugawa shogunate. A daimyo believes his samurai have grown weak living in a peaceful era, an era he fears will end with the arrival of Americans. To test and assess his troops, he arranges a marathon race with a huge prize. The intent of his race is misunderstood by the Shogun, due to an overzealous spy and attention spread too thin, who sends assassins to thwart what he perceives to be a brewing rebellion.

The bulk of the film takes place during the race, where some have designs on the daimyo’s prize, spies and assassins are on independent missions, and one spy sees the misunderstanding and is determined to stop the needless loss of life and alliances. All the while, they’re running and running and running. Its grand finale may leave a bit to be desired, but it’s the journey and not the destination that makes the trip worthwhile.

6. Lady Snowblood (1973)

Often overlooked, Lady Snowblood is an influential film undeniably ahead of its time. (Its influence on the Kill Bill movies will be instantly apparent.) The movie not only plays with genre conventions — focusing on a woman protagonist on a quest for vengeance, even if she is not really a samurai — but it’s so overloaded with style and daring choices that it’s hard to believe it was released in 1973.

Lady Snowblood is a blood-soaked revenge flick about a woman forced to carry her mother’s wrath. While dark, the stylistic choices like chapter titles, a murder montage built mostly from still images, and a dramatic color palette make it hugely rewatchable. It’s set in a more modern era but plays in the same sandbox as other samurai films. A sequel, Lady Snowblood 2: Love Song of Vengeance, which doesn’t rise to the same heights, was released a year later. 

5. 13 Assassins (2010)

Takashi Miike is one of Japan’s great modern filmmakers. He’s prolific in a way that makes the word prolific hyperbolic when applied to other directors. While just a fraction of his more than 100 films are available in the U.S., and not all of those rise to his best films like Audition or Sukiyaki Western Django, 13 Assassins — a remake of Eichi Kudo’s 1963 film of the same name — sits among his best. 

After being told of a woman’s horrific disfigurement at the hands of the sadistic Lord Naritsugu Matsudaira (Gorô Inagaki), the samurai Shinzaemon Shimada (played by an outstanding Koji Yakusho) assembles a group of samurai to take him down. The group clears a village of residents and plots an ambush with Home Alone-esque panache. It’s 13 against hundreds. The battle takes up the majority of the movie, but it’s Miike’s deft filmmaking that makes this a must-see. Its drawn-out shots are beautifully choreographed, yet it refuses to flinch in the face of the story’s grand violence or offer its characters plot armor. The results are riveting and horrifying.

4. Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto (1954), Samurai II: Duel at Ichijoji Temple (1955), and Samurai III: Duel at Ganryu Island (1956)

We’ve spent time with a couple of more recent films. Now, we’re diving back into the golden age of samurai movies with one of Japan’s all-time great actors, Toshiro Mifune. Not only is Mifune a legend, but he also played Lord Toranaga in the original 1980 Shogun miniseries.

Not all three films in the Samurai Trilogy are created equal, but they come together as one of the great samurai series, an epic chronicling the exploits of one of Japan’s most fabled swordsman, Musashi Miyamoto. The ronin was a philosopher and, more importantly for this story, an unparalleled duelist. His life has provided the source material for many films — as far back as the ‘20s and as recently as 2020’s Crazy Samurai Musashi — but none rise to the eloquence of Hiroshi Inagaki’s trilogy. Inagaki is a frequently underappreciated director whose films include worthwhile Chanbara like Chushingura, Incident at Blood Pass, and an adaptation of “Cyrano de Bergerac,” Samurai Saga, all three of which feature Mifune.

3. Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance (1972)

The samurai genre has produced plenty of long-running franchises. While Lone Wolf and Cub, adapted from the manga, doesn’t reach the epic proportions of the lengthy Zatoichi series, it is among the most revered samurai series.  

Its six films, released over just a few years, follow the brooding Itto Ogami (Tomisaburo Wakayama), the shogun’s executioner. He travels the countryside as an assassin with his infant son in tow. He’s not just a wandering ronin; he slowly doles out a furious vengeance in the name of his murdered wife. The entire series keeps the lone wolf’s emotional pain at its core but also features a war-movie-level body count, loads of style, and intensely choreographed action sequences. Other series highlights include Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart at the River Styx and Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in Peril, as well as 1980’s Shogun Assassin, which anthologized the first two movies into a new story.

2. The Twilight Samurai (2002)

The Twilight Samurai is the first in a trilogy of unconnected late-career films from director Yoji Yamada, who stepped away from contemporary stories to delve into samurai lore. The trilogy — including The Hidden Blade and Love and Honor — has been the subject of countless accolades. The Twilight Samurai, starring Shogun’s Hiroyuki Sanada, was the first of the films and won a record-breaking 12 Japanese Academy Awards, including an acting win for Sanada.

Considered by some a response to The Last Samurai — a film in which Sanada also appears — the samurai at the center of the story is a destitute everyman trapped in a caste system incapable of (or disinterested in) rectifying its inhumanity during the Meiji Restoration. Sanada’s Seibei Iguchi is a widower attempting to balance duty with a desire for a better life as he raises two daughters and cares for an elderly mother. At the same time, a lost love from childhood reenters his life. The contemplative character study sheds the romanticism of many samurai films in favor of realism. Seibei wants nothing more than to hang up his sword and find a better way to live. 

1. Seven Samurai (1954)

Where else could this end? Anyone who hasn’t seen Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai has undoubtedly been told it is a must-see. The reason is simple: It’s a must-see. 

This is arguably the pinnacle of Kurosawa’s genre-defining samurai films. It has epic proportions, masterful filmmaking, and near-perfect performances from some of the biggest actors in Japan at that time, led by Mifune and Takashi Shimura, who rivals Mifune for the sheer number of iconic films in which he has appeared. (Ikiru, Godzilla, Kagemusha, Stray Dog, et al.)

A rural village begs a ronin, Kambei Shimada (Shimura), to guard them from bandits who have terrorized the town and stolen their crops, leaving them destitute. Their precarious geographical position demands that the ronin assemble a group of at least seven samurai to protect the town. What ensues over its nearly three-and-a-half-hour runtime is a dramatic, emotional film that is loaded with action and the ability to surprise, even 70 years after it was first released.

Others worth digging up: This is by no means an exhaustive or “best of” list for samurai movies. There are dozens more to dig into, whether we’re talking about Kurosawa’s late-career epics like Kagemusha and Ran, daring action films like Kill! or Sword of Doom, or countless others that would include When the Last Sword is Drawn, Red Beard, Harakiri, The Hidden Fortress,High and Low, The Tale of Zatoichi, Sword of the Beast, Yojimbo, Samurai Rebellion, and many others.

The post The 7 Best Samurai Movies to Watch After Shogun appeared first on Den of Geek.

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