The movies don’t lack for masculine archetypes: the cowboy, the private eye, the gangster, the song-and-dance man, the clown. None of them, perhaps, has quite the mystique of the samurai. Which is one reason the genre of samurai films continues to thrive. The latest, Takashi Miike’s “Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai” — a 3-D remake of Masaki Kobayashi’s 1962 film, “Harakiri” — opens at the Brattle on Friday.
The classic samurai is at once violent, dignified, aloof, devoted, and graceful (he has more in common with a song-and-dance man, at least the dance part, than you might think). It’s a character type that lends itself to countless variations, which is one reason the favorite samurai films listed below can be so different in tone and style, not to mention body count and laugh quotient (yes, the samurai can have a kinship with clowns, too).
Our short list of personal picks is bound to leave out many favorites. You may well ask why Hiroshi Inagaki’s Samurai Trilogy from the 1950s didn’t make the cut, and why there’s no nod to the Shakespearean majesty of Akira Kurosawa’s “Throne of Blood” (1957) and “Ran” (1985). How could we skip “The Sword of Doom” (1966), “The Twilight Samurai” (2002), and “The Hidden Blade” (2004)? The full list of worthwhile samurai films is long. But maybe this modest slice will start you talking, and watching.
THE 47 RONIN, PART 1 (1941)
There have been at least six movies made of “The 47 Ronin.” The story of a group of samurai who seek to avenge their murdered master, it’s as much a classic of Japanese culture as King Arthur or Robin Hood is in the West. The most recent version arrives in February (starring Keanu Reeves!). Kenji Mizoguchi’s “47 Ronin” is in two parts. The first came out in 1941, the second a year later. While Mizoguchi is as great a filmmaker as the medium has known, action is not considered his forte. Yet consider the beginning of part one. After a brief establishing shot (we’re in the courtyard of a palace of some kind), the camera starts moving. It stops when it comes upon two officials conferring. As they walk away, we notice a man kneeling behind them. He leaps up and sets off in a Groucho half-crouch. It would be funny, except that he’s unsheathed his sword; and the camera, which has swung around to follow the samurai’s pursuit of the men, now matches the sword’s pitilessness. The shot, which ends with the assassination of one of the officials, lasts two minutes and 34 seconds. But it could still be going on, such is its grace and efficiency, and a viewer would hardly notice. The rest of the movie’s pretty good, too.
SEVEN SAMURAI (1954)
Sure, it’s an obvious choice — for a reason. With his three-hour-plus epic, Akira Kurosawa broke the samurai movie out of the genre ghetto, merged it with the brawny elegance of Hollywood-style craftsmanship, reinvented the battle scene (not once but three times), and created a sword-fighting movie that has the weight and poignancy of the greatest human drama. A group of wandering warriors are hired by farmers to protect their village from bandits, but who do the farmers fear more? Among many other things, “Seven Samurai” is a lesson in the pleasures of the ensemble film, with the audience introduced to a group of stern men with topknots and coming to know them as individuals. None is more entertaining and heartbreaking than Toshiro Mifune’s Kikuchiyu, a farmer’s son posing as the most reckless samurai of all, torn between two worlds and belonging to neither. If you’ve never seen this film, you really can’t call yourself a fan of the genre — or maybe even movies.
This is the only samurai western that features a bare-breasted Ursula Andress. It’s also the only film where the great Toshiro Mifune has to pretend he can’t dispatch Charles Bronson and Alain Delon in a matter of seconds, so he hangs with them for an entire movie before he gets what he wants: revenge (against Delon’s character), and recovery of a valuable Japanese sword meant for the president of the United States. No one would call this Mifune’s best outing — it’s not even Andress’s best outing — but there’s something about his fish-out-of-water performance, and Bronson’s ridiculous cat-toying-with-fish cockiness, that makes “Red Sun” far more entertaining than it deserves to be. Filmed in Spain and guided by the British director Terence Young (“Dr. No,” “From Russia With Love”), the movie was an enormous hit in Asia, yet never found much of an audience in the US. It’s worth seeking out just for Mifune’s comic tussles with Bronson and clear command of every scene, even when he’s stripped down to just his samurai underwear on a snowy mountain top.
SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE: SAMURAI NIGHT FEVER (1978)
As a professional class, samurai have no rival for solemnity. Even high priests and Navy SEALs crack a smile now and then. Ah, but the dark, easy-to-tickle underbelly of solemnity is silliness. There have been some very funny samurai movies. Kurosawa’s “Yojimbo” is so starkly played it’s easy to overlook how comic it is. It’s like Beckett with swordplay. Kurosawa’s follow-up, “Sanjuro,” is much more overtly humorous. But for samurai hilarity, it’s hard to top John Belushi’s recurring “Saturday Night Live” character. While it’s true that Belushi never played him in a movie, he certainly did in a movie parody. “Samurai Night Fever” aired on “SNL” on Feb. 25, 1978 (O.J. Simpson plays Belushi’s brother!). “Again we have survived,” Takashi Shimura, the leader of the seven samurai, says at the end of that movie. Belushi might have put it this way: “Again we are stayin’ alive.”
It’s not just Richard Chamberlain’s sculpted hair — or Richard Chamberlain for that matter — that makes “Shogun” so 1980. The 12-part historical epic recalls the pre-VCR, pre-TiVo era when prestige miniseries were the real “must see TV” because TV was the only way to see such things. Faithfully adapted from James Clavell’s bestseller, “Shogun” aired on NBC over five nights, won a batch of Emmys and Golden Globes, inspired the ’80s sushi craze, and prepped Chamberlain for another epic, “The Thorn Birds,” three years later. He’s actually pretty good as 17th-century English navigator John Blackthorne, who washes up on the coast of Japan and finds himself in the middle of a power struggle between two warlords. More remarkable is Toshiro Mifune as Lord Toranaga, who comes to respect and befriend Blackthorne, and Yoko Shimada as Lady Mariko, Blackthorne’s doomed lover. Shot entirely on location in Japan, “Shogun” was notable for its extensive Japanese dialogue and for graphic violence that was daring for TV at the time. Stay away from the edited two-hour version released on VHS in the mid-’90s; the complete miniseries is available on DVD with a bonus “making of” documentary.
KILL BILL VOL. 1 (2003)
With Quentin Tarantino’s penchant for dipping into deep genre pools, you knew it was inevitable that he’d get around to riffing on samurai films. “Pulp Fiction” gave us a taste: in a movie packed with cult-fave moments, one of the wittiest is Bruce Willis’s realization that what he needs to spring dungeon-bound Ving Rhames isn’t a baseball bat, or a chainsaw, but (oh, yeah!) samurai steel. But Uma Thurman’s “Kill Bill” battle with Lucy Liu and her personal army, the Crazy 88, is the full, bloody treatment, from unsettled scores to impossible odds, from showdown stares to slicing and dicing, from zinging swords to death gurgles. A key influence on Tarantino: “Lady Snowblood,” a 1973 manga adaptation about a vengeance-bound female samurai, complete with wintry shots echoed in Thurman and Liu’s climactic duel.