Japanese History Through Film

by LaPolymita | created - 24 Aug 2015 | updated - 24 Aug 2015 | Public

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1. Jigokuhen (1969)

91 min | Drama

A rebellious Korean artist tests the limits of his sadistic patron, an omnipotent feudal Japanese lord. Yoshihide demands a commission to paint screens of the Hell which he sees the ... See full summary »

Director: Shirô Toyoda | Stars: Hideyo Amamoto, Yôko Naitô, Tatsuya Nakadai, Kinnosuke Nakamura

Votes: 275

"Portrait of Hell" Circa 900, the Heian Era. Depicts life in early Japanese history with a focus on early Korean immigration Japan and the hardships/racism faced by many Koreans in daily life.

2. Sansho the Bailiff (1954)

Not Rated | 124 min | Drama

In medieval Japan, a compassionate governor is sent into exile. His wife and children try to join him, but are separated, and the children grow up amid suffering and oppression.

Director: Kenji Mizoguchi | Stars: Kinuyo Tanaka, Yoshiaki Hanayagi, Kyôko Kagawa, Eitarô Shindô

Votes: 12,578

Circa 1000, the Heian Era. The Heian Era was considered the peak of Japanese classical civilization and the Japanese Imperial Court. This movie depicts the early development of the land owning class which would become Samurai military class and the Daimyo noble class.

3. Rashomon (1950)

Not Rated | 88 min | Crime, Drama, Mystery

The rape of a bride and the murder of her samurai husband are recalled from the perspectives of a bandit, the bride, the samurai's ghost and a woodcutter.

Director: Akira Kurosawa | Stars: Toshirô Mifune, Machiko Kyô, Masayuki Mori, Takashi Shimura

Votes: 135,707 | Gross: $0.10M

Circa 1180, the Heian Era. Implied to be set during the Genpei war, this movie depicts the destruction and human suffering of the time in a world that seems to be descending into chaos.

4. Onibaba (1964)

Not Rated | 103 min | Drama, Horror

Two women kill samurai and sell their belongings for a living. While one of them is having an affair with their neighbor, the other woman meets a mysterious samurai wearing a bizarre mask.

Director: Kaneto Shindô | Stars: Nobuko Otowa, Jitsuko Yoshimura, Kei Satô, Jûkichi Uno

Votes: 13,667

1336, the Kenmu Restoration. set during a traumatic civil war in 14th century Japan that raged for 50 years, Onibaba depicts the lengths commoners were willing to go to survive in an era of war, famine, disease and greed.

5. Sword of the Stranger (2007)

Not Rated | 103 min | Animation, Action, Adventure

A swordsman from a strange land is caught in a struggle between morality, righteousness, and devotion as he reluctantly agrees to take a raggedy boy and his dog to a remote, Buddhist temple.

Director: Masahiro Andô | Stars: Tomoya Nagase, Yuri Chinen, Kôichi Yamadera, Akio Ôtsuka

Votes: 13,147

Circa 1500 - 1573, the Sengoku Warring States Period. Depicts life during one of the most violent periods of civil war in Japanese history.

6. The Hidden Fortress (1958)

Not Rated | 126 min | Adventure, Drama

Lured by gold, two greedy peasants escort a man and woman across enemy lines. However, they do not realize that their companions are actually a princess and her general.

Director: Akira Kurosawa | Stars: Toshirô Mifune, Misa Uehara, Minoru Chiaki, Kamatari Fujiwara

Votes: 29,805

Circa 1500 - 1573, the Sengoku Warring States Period. The Sengoku warring states period was an era of social upheaval and almost 100 years of constant civil war. It has been a popular historical source for Japanese Samurai film (jidaigeki).The Hidden Fortress is considered to be one of the primary influences for Star Wars.

7. Ran (1985)

R | 162 min | Action, Drama

96 Metascore

In Medieval Japan, an elderly warlord retires, handing over his empire to his three sons. However, he vastly underestimates how the new-found power will corrupt them and cause them to turn on each other...and him.

Director: Akira Kurosawa | Stars: Tatsuya Nakadai, Akira Terao, Jinpachi Nezu, Daisuke Ryû

Votes: 99,646 | Gross: $3.52M

Circa 1500 - 1573, the Sengoku Warring States Period. Ran is considered to be an exemplary film of the depiction of the true nature of the Sengoku period which pitted brother against brother in ruthless civil war and the chaos of the time.

8. Throne of Blood (1957)

Not Rated | 110 min | Drama

A war-hardened general, egged on by his ambitious wife, works to fulfill a prophecy that he would become lord of Spider's Web Castle.

Director: Akira Kurosawa | Stars: Toshirô Mifune, Minoru Chiaki, Isuzu Yamada, Takashi Shimura

Votes: 39,862

Circa 1500 - 1573, the Sengoku Warring States Period. With civil war a constant fact of life, treachery, prevarication, and murder were almost daily occurrences during the Sengoku era all of which are depicted in Throne of Blood.

9. Yojimbo (1961)

Not Rated | 110 min | Action, Drama, Thriller

A crafty ronin comes to a town divided by two criminal gangs and decides to play them against each other to free the town.

Director: Akira Kurosawa | Stars: Toshirô Mifune, Eijirô Tôno, Tatsuya Nakadai, Yôko Tsukasa

Votes: 98,533

Circa 1500 - 1573, the Sengoku Warring States Period. During the Sengoku period, as Daimyo fought each other to the death, numerous ronin, or master-less samurai began to appear across the land. Depicts the life of ronin and bandits in an era of social upheaval.

10. Sanjuro (1962)

Not Rated | 96 min | Action, Crime, Drama

A crafty samurai helps a young man and his fellow clansmen save his uncle, who has been framed and imprisoned by a corrupt superintendent.

Director: Akira Kurosawa | Stars: Toshirô Mifune, Tatsuya Nakadai, Keiju Kobayashi, Yûnosuke Itô

Votes: 27,925

Circa 1500 - 1573, the Sengoku Warring States Period. Sanjuro has many of the same elements featured in "Yojimbo" and there are many symbolic elements of the film related to the Sengoku era such as brutality, violence and death which are all taken for granted during this tumultuous period.

11. Ugetsu (1953)

Not Rated | 96 min | Drama, Fantasy, War

A tale of ambition, family, love, and war set in the midst of the Japanese Civil Wars of the sixteenth century.

Director: Kenji Mizoguchi | Stars: Masayuki Mori, Machiko Kyô, Kinuyo Tanaka, Mitsuko Mito

Votes: 17,962 | Gross: $0.01M

Circa 1568 - 1573, the Azuchi-Momoyama Era. Set at the end of the Sengoku era which saw the transition from almost a 100 years of civil war to a unified country at peace which would come to be known as the Edo period. Ugetsu is set at the pinnacle of the Sengoku civil war and depicts the peasant upheavals of the time as well as the universal greed that was so detrimental as to destroy the human soul.

12. Kagemusha (1980)

PG | 162 min | Drama, History, War

84 Metascore

A petty thief with an utter resemblance to a samurai warlord is hired as the lord's double. When the warlord later dies the thief is forced to take up arms in his place.

Director: Akira Kurosawa | Stars: Tatsuya Nakadai, Tsutomu Yamazaki, Ken'ichi Hagiwara, Jinpachi Nezu

Votes: 28,641

1575, the Azuchi-Momoyama Era. Depicts the battle of Nagashino one of the last great battles of the Sengoku era. Insight into the lives of the ruling class during the warring states period.

13. Seven Samurai (1954)

Not Rated | 207 min | Adventure, Drama

98 Metascore

A poor village under attack by bandits recruits seven unemployed samurai to help them defend themselves.

Director: Akira Kurosawa | Stars: Toshirô Mifune, Takashi Shimura, Keiko Tsushima, Yukiko Shimazaki

Votes: 285,010 | Gross: $0.27M

1587, the Azuchi-Momoyama Era. Seven Samurai depicts the lives of peasants, bandits, and ronin during the end of the warring states period. Depictions of complete chaos and lawlessness effectively represent the impact of the civil war on the countryside. Towards the end, a omen of times changing indicates the eventual decline of the Samurai class as an era of peace and prosperity approaches and the Samurai become obsolete.

14. Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto (1954)

Not Rated | 93 min | Action, Adventure, Biography

Depicts the early life of the legendary warrior Musashi Miyamoto; his years as an aspiring warrior, an outlaw and finally a true samurai.

Director: Hiroshi Inagaki | Stars: Toshirô Mifune, Mariko Okada, Rentarô Mikuni, Kurôemon Onoe

Votes: 6,867

Circa 1600 - 1612, the Edo Period. Depicts the life of real-life samurai legend and strategist Musashi Miyamoto who was prominent during the early Edo period. Depictions of the battle of Sekigahara.

15. Samurai II: Duel at Ichijoji Temple (1955)

Not Rated | 104 min | Action, Adventure, Biography

Musashi Miyamoto returns to Kyoto after years of absence. After a series of fights against the Yoshioka School, he challenges its master to a duel.

Director: Hiroshi Inagaki | Stars: Toshirô Mifune, Mariko Okada, Kôji Tsuruta, Kaoru Yachigusa

Votes: 5,000

Circa 1600 - 1612, the Edo Period. Second film depicting the life of real-life samurai legend and strategist Musashi Miyamoto. Depicts several of Musashi's historic duels. Musashi is said to of fought in 60 duels and was never defeated.

16. Samurai III: Duel at Ganryu Island (1956)

Not Rated | 105 min | Action, Adventure, Drama

Musashi Miyamoto is challenged to a duel by a confident swordsman Sasaki Kojiro. He agrees to fight him in a year's time.

Director: Hiroshi Inagaki | Stars: Toshirô Mifune, Mariko Okada, Kôji Tsuruta, Kaoru Yachigusa

Votes: 4,922

Circa 1600 - 1612, the Edo Period. Final film depicting the life of real-life samurai legend and strategist Musashi Miyamoto. Depicts one of the greatest Musashi duels in which he defeated Sasaki Kojiro.

17. Shogun (1980)

60 min | Adventure, Drama, History

A English navigator becomes both a player and pawn in the complex political games in feudal Japan.

Stars: Richard Chamberlain, Toshirô Mifune, Yôko Shimada, Furankî Sakai

Votes: 10,594

Circa 1600 - 1620, the Edo Period. Miniseries based on the real life historical character William Adams who would become the most influential foreigner in Japan during the Edo era and a key advisor to the shogun after shipwrecking off the shore of Japan.

18. The Lower Depths (1957)

Not Rated | 137 min | Drama

In a Japanese slum, various residents play out their lives, dreaming of better things or settling for their lot. Among them is a man who pines for a young woman but is stymied by her deceptive family.

Director: Akira Kurosawa | Stars: Toshirô Mifune, Isuzu Yamada, Kyôko Kagawa, Ganjirô Nakamura

Votes: 4,295

"The Lower Depths" - Circa 1600's, the Edo Period. Depicts the status and everyday lives of commoners and peasants in the newly unified and peaceful Edo Japan.

19. Samurai Spy (1965)

Not Rated | 99 min | Action, Drama

The legendary samurai Sasuke Sarutobi gets caught in a web of political intrigue, deception and espionage during the early 17th century.

Director: Masahiro Shinoda | Stars: Hiroshi Aoyama, Jun Hamamura, Osamu Hitomi, Minoru Hodaka

Votes: 1,402

Circa 1614, the Edo Period. Set shortly before the Siege of Osaka, Samurai Spy follows the lives of spies operating in Edo Japan given rise to the years of civil war and upheaval.

20. Shinobi: Heart Under Blade (2005)

R | 107 min | Action, Drama, Fantasy

Star-crossed lovers must fight on opposing sides in a battle that will determine the next Shogun.

Director: Ten Shimoyama | Stars: Yukie Nakama, Joe Odagiri, Tomoka Kurotani, Erika Sawajiri

Votes: 11,778

1614, the Edo Period. Insight and depictions into life under the ruler and founder of Edo Japan, Tokugawa Shogunate. Depictions of ninja's operating in 17th century Japan.

21. Yagyu Clan Conspiracy (1978)

130 min | Action, Adventure, Drama

Following the death of the second Tokugawa shogun, it is revealed that he was poisoned by retainers of his son Iemitsu in hopes of gaining him the shogunate despite the stammer and ... See full summary »

Director: Kinji Fukasaku | Stars: Kinnosuke Nakamura, Shin'ichi Chiba, Hiroki Matsukata, Teruhiko Saigô

Votes: 1,361

1624, the Edo Period. Depicts the lives of Samurai during the early Edo era and the coming era of seclusion and isolation.

22. Harakiri (1962)

Not Rated | 133 min | Action, Drama, History

85 Metascore

An elder ronin samurai arrives at a feudal lord's home and requests an honorable place to commit suicide. But when the ronin inquires about a younger samurai who arrived before him things take an unexpected turn.

Director: Masaki Kobayashi | Stars: Tatsuya Nakadai, Akira Ishihama, Shima Iwashita, Tetsurô Tanba

Votes: 24,506

1630, the Edo Period. A critical depiction on the Samurai code and the ritual act of harakiri or ritual suicide. Representations of the emerging Feudal system in Japan in the early 17th century and the hypocrisy of the Daimyo class.

23. The Life of Oharu (1952)

Not Rated | 133 min | Drama

Follows a woman's fight and survival amid the vicissitudes of life and the cruelty of the society.

Director: Kenji Mizoguchi | Stars: Kinuyo Tanaka, Tsukie Matsuura, Ichirô Sugai, Toshirô Mifune

Votes: 5,299

1686, the Edo Period. Based on the novel The Life of an Anomorous Woman, the film explores themes such as gender issues and the role of women in society during the floating world cultural movement. This period in Japanese history saw increased urbanization of the land and a growing cultural movement fueled by Japan's rapidly growing middle class

24. Humanity and Paper Balloons (1937)

86 min | Drama

The lives of two slum neighbors, one of a happy-go-lucky gambler and the other of a poor ronin, converge when the two get involved with the affairs of a powerful samurai official and his gangsters.

Director: Sadao Yamanaka | Stars: Chôjûrô Kawarasaki, Kan'emon Nakamura, Tsuruzô Nakamura, Chôemon Bandô

Votes: 1,576

Circa early 1700's, the Edo Period. Depicts life in the cramped slums of Edo (today Tokyo), which was at the time the largest city in the world with over 1 million people. Presents a harsh critique of the social and political conditions of the time.

25. The 47 Ronin (1941)

241 min | Action, Drama, History

In 1701, Lord Takuminokami Asano has a feud with Lord Kira and he tries to kill Kira in the corridors of the Shogun's palace. The Shogun sentences Lord Asano to commit suppuku and deprives ... See full summary »

Director: Kenji Mizoguchi | Stars: Chôjûrô Kawarasaki, Yoshizaburo Arashi, Utaemon Ichikawa, Kan'emon Nakamura

Votes: 1,719

1701, the Edo Period. Fictional story of a group of 47 ronin who seek vengeance for the death of their lord at the hands of another treacherous lord. Insight into the lives of Samurai and Daimyo lords during the Edo period.

26. Hana (2006)

127 min | Comedy, Drama

A troubled young samurai seeks revenge for the death of his father.

Director: Hirokazu Koreeda | Stars: Jun'ichi Okada, Rie Miyazawa, Arata Furuta, Jun Kunimura

Votes: 1,302

1702, the Edo Period. Depictions of life in the slums of Edo, then the largest city in the world.

27. Samurai Rebellion (1967)

Not Rated | 128 min | Drama

90 Metascore

The mother of a feudal lord's only heir is kidnapped away from her husband by the lord. The husband and his samurai father must decide whether to accept the unjust decision, or risk death to get her back.

Director: Masaki Kobayashi | Stars: Toshirô Mifune, Yôko Tsukasa, Gô Katô, Tatsuyoshi Ehara

Votes: 9,149

1725, the Edo Period. Set during the height of the Edo Period in which the Tokugawa Shogunate has enforced an era of peace through absolute obedience to the shogun. Examines the morality and nobility of the fading Samurai caste in an era of peace.

28. Red Beard (1965)

Not Rated | 185 min | Drama

In 19th century Japan, a rough tempered yet charitable town doctor trains a young intern.

Director: Akira Kurosawa | Stars: Toshirô Mifune, Yûzô Kayama, Tsutomu Yamazaki, Reiko Dan

Votes: 14,321

Circa 1800's, the Edo Period. Examines the problems of social injustice during the late Edo Period. Depicts the lives of medical doctors during the Edo period.

29. The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi (2003)

R | 116 min | Action, Comedy, Crime

75 Metascore

The blind masseur/swordsman comes to a town in control of warring gangs, and while bunking with a farming family, he meets two women with their own agenda.

Director: Takeshi Kitano | Stars: Takeshi Kitano, Tadanobu Asano, Yui Natsukawa, Michiyo Yasuda

Votes: 44,955 | Gross: $0.85M

"The Blind Swordsman" - Circa 1800's, the Edo Period. Depicts the lives of Yakuza gangsters in the 1800's and ordinary people caught up in gang wars. Yakuza emerged during the Edo period and would play a large role in Japan's early history.

30. The Ballad of Narayama (1983)

Not Rated | 130 min | Drama

In a poor 19th century rural Japanese village, everyone who reaches the age of 70 has to climb a nearby mountain to die. An old woman is getting close to the cut-off age, and we follow her last days with her family.

Director: Shôhei Imamura | Stars: Ken Ogata, Sumiko Sakamoto, Tonpei Hidari, Aki Takejô

Votes: 6,330

Circa 1800's, the Edo Period. Depictions of rural peasant life during the Edo period.

31. Goyokin (1969)

PG | 124 min | Action, Adventure, Drama

A guilt-haunted samurai warrior attempts to stop a massacre taking place.

Director: Hideo Gosha | Stars: Tatsuya Nakadai, Tetsurô Tanba, Yôko Tsukasa, Ruriko Asaoka

Votes: 1,836

1831, the Edo Period. Set towards the end of the Tokugawa Shogunate, this film takes place on Sado, and island off the west coast of Japan. Sado was a gold mining boom island during the Edo period and the Shogunate sent numerous exiles and prisoners to the island to toil in the gold mines. the name Goyokin means gold.

32. 13 Assassins (2010)

R | 141 min | Action, Adventure, Drama

84 Metascore

A group of assassins come together for a suicide mission to kill an evil lord.

Director: Takashi Miike | Stars: Kôji Yakusho, Takayuki Yamada, Yûsuke Iseya, Ikki Sawamura

Votes: 58,174 | Gross: $0.80M

Circa 1840's, the Edo Period. 13 Assassins is set towards the end of of the Edo period and depicts the final years of power by the Samurai. The movie loosely depicts the sadistic and evil Japanese Daimyo Matsudaira Naritsugu who ruled during this period.

33. Taboo (1999)

Unrated | 100 min | Drama, History, Thriller

75 Metascore

The new member of a samurai militia unit causes disruption as several of his colleagues fall in love with him, threatening to disturb the rigid code of their squad.

Director: Nagisa Ôshima | Stars: Takeshi Kitano, Ryûhei Matsuda, Shinji Takeda, Tadanobu Asano

Votes: 6,670 | Gross: $0.05M

1853, the Edo Period. Taboo is set at the very end of the Edo period on the same year that admiral Perry's "Black Ships" sailed into Tokyo Bay and Japan opened up to the west. This film explores the common practice of wakashudo in which a Samurai official would often take his young male apprentice as a lover.

34. Love and Honour (2006)

PG-13 | 122 min | Drama, Romance

A look at the relationship between a young blind samurai (Kimura) and his wife, who will make a sacrifice in order to defend her husband's honor.

Director: Yôji Yamada | Stars: Takuya Kimura, Rei Dan, Mitsugorô Bandô, Takashi Sasano

Votes: 2,974 | Gross: $0.02M

Circa 1850's, the Edo Period. Explores the harsh life of a blind samurai and the lengths he must go to retain his honor.

35. Sword of the Beast (1965)

Not Rated | 85 min | Action, Drama

After killing a counselor of his clan, a fugitive samurai befriends a couple poaching the shogun's gold in the mountains.

Director: Hideo Gosha | Stars: Mikijirô Hira, Gô Katô, Shima Iwashita, Toshie Kimura

Votes: 2,198

1857, the Bakumatsu Civil War Era. Sword of the Beast is set at the end of the Tokugawa period during the Bakumatsu civil war period which would lead the the Meiji Restoration. Plot revolves around the new ways and the old ways and the struggle for change in Japan.

36. The Hidden Blade (2004)

R | 132 min | Action, Drama, History

76 Metascore

A 19th Century samurai, held in low esteem due to an action by his late father, must resolve his history with a maid and with his close friend.

Director: Yôji Yamada | Stars: Masatoshi Nagase, Takako Matsu, Hidetaka Yoshioka, Yukiyoshi Ozawa

Votes: 5,530 | Gross: $0.04M

Circa 1860's, the Bakumatsu Civil War Era. An excellent illustration of the 1860's era in Japan and the rapid changes that were sweeping through Japan. Set in far Northwest Japan, this region was one of the last to fall to the rapid westernization of the country it depicts the lives of the Samurai at the end of their days.

37. The Sword of Doom (1966)

Not Rated | 120 min | Action, Drama

Through his unconscionable actions against others, a sociopath samurai builds a trail of vendettas that follow him closely.

Director: Kihachi Okamoto | Stars: Tatsuya Nakadai, Michiyo Aratama, Yûzô Kayama, Yôko Naitô

Votes: 8,385

Circa 1860's, the Bakumatsu Civil War Era. Set during the onset of the Meiji era, this movie depicts the life of the samurai as it operates under close surveillance in a new limited-democracy.

38. The Twilight Samurai (2002)

129 min | Drama, History

82 Metascore

As the feudal Japan era draws to a close, a widower samurai experiences difficulty balancing 2 young daughters, an aged mother, clan loyalties, and the sudden reappearance of his childhood sweetheart.

Director: Yôji Yamada | Stars: Hiroyuki Sanada, Rie Miyazawa, Nenji Kobayashi, Ren Osugi

Votes: 20,565

1868, the Bakumatsu Civil War Era. Set just before the collapse of the Samurai system, this movie depicts the lives of lower class samurai at the end of an era many of whom spent their days as low level bureaucrats, and inglorious position.

39. The Last Samurai (2003)

R | 154 min | Action, Drama, War

55 Metascore

An American military advisor embraces the Samurai culture he was hired to destroy after he is captured in battle.

Director: Edward Zwick | Stars: Tom Cruise, Ken Watanabe, Billy Connolly, William Atherton

Votes: 370,550 | Gross: $111.11M

1876-1877, the Meiji Restoration Era. Though this is an American film, it provides an excellent illustration of the Meiji Restoration and the infamous Samurai Satsuma Rebellion of 1877. Japan was in the midst of rapid change and modernization during the late 19th century and establishing itself as a major Asian power. This film depicts the lives of disgruntled Samurai at the end of their days in a world that no longer has a need for them.

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