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Seven Tales of Samurai

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Seven Tales of Samurai

Get ready for Ghost of Tsushima!

Arjan Terpstra

12 May 2020 ⋅ 6 min read

With Ghost of Tsushima's release getting closer (July 17th), we revisit our favorite Samurai-themed cinema, games and books. After all, our love for katana-wielding warriors was established through a healthy diet of cinema, manga, games, literature and anime. Here's our top seven plus the reasons we love them.

1. Lone Wolf and Cub - manga

When looking into influential samurai stories, why not start with the manga Lone Wolf and Cub - even when protagonist Ogami Ittō technically isn't a samurai but a disgraced royal executioner-turned-assassin? The landmark comic first appeared in Japan in 1970 and would quickly rise to fame, with movie, theatre and television adaptations adding to its appeal. Audiences worldwide appreciated Ittō's timeless struggle to raise and protect his son, the three-year old 'cub' Daigorō, while seeking to avenge himself against villain Yagyū Retsudō. Their final duel is splashed out on an incredible 178 pages of sword fighting mayhem, establishing manga artist Goseki Kojima as one of the true masters of the art.
Lone Wolf and Cub

2. Throne of Blood - movie

Movie writer and cinema director Akira Kurosawa could easily fill this listing by himself. Most of his historical dramas are highly recommended, even if some of them are a little outdated by now. Not so with Throne of Blood. The 'Spider Web Castle' (the literal translation of Kumonsu-jō, the Japanese title) is a cinematic tour de force in which Kurosawa ties Shakespeare's Macbeth to a medieval Japanese setting. The overall effect is mesmerising: it amplifies the power and universality of Shakespeare's play, while adding a visual context of a remote and foggy mountain castle that drives the message (a strong statement about greed and superstition) home.
Throne of Blood
3. Total War: Shogun 2 - game

Samurai historically are part of a larger war class in Japan's feudal era. One of the ways to get a sense of the scope of the Japanese military is through Total War: Shogun 2. The turn-based strategy game is set in 16th Century Japan, with clans competing for territory. Players take up the role of a warlord general, and fight their foes in large battles on land or at sea. Is the game historically accurate? Not completely: Creative Assembly took some artistic liberties with things like clan names, and moved historical characters up and down the timeline a couple of decades for dramatic purposes. But this doesn't take away from the player experience of sending ninja's to assassinate an enemy, or keeping a bunch of samurai back for an ambush. Any experience closer to the real thing will probably end in katana cuts.

Oh and why Shogun 2 and not Onimusha or Nioh as our standout samurai game? These are great games, too, but the supernatural elements put them in a different - more fantasy-oriented - class.
Total War
4. Twilight Samurai - movie

One of the great tropes in storytelling is that of the 'reluctant hero': a person unwilling to fight, but forced to do so by circumstance. Hamlet is the classic example, but The Matrix' Neo and Star Wars' Luke Skywalker pay tribute to the trope, too.
Twilight Samurai, one of director Yoji Yamada's great samurai movies, is a fine Japanese cinema example of the genre. It carefully portrays Seibei Iguchi, a low-profile samurai who lost the will to fight, for fear of not being around when his two daughters grow up. Of course, Seibei is forced to take up the sword again, but after much preparation faces a foe who is as reluctant as he is, and who kindly asks Seibei to renounce the inevitable fight. Classic!
Twilight Samurai
5. Musashi - literature

One of the great writers of samurai tales is Eiji Yoshikawa. His work Musashi (a lengthy biography about the legendary swordsman Miyamoto Musashi) is generally hailed as among the best reads on samurai, even though the book is highly inaccurate, historically speaking. In this sense, Yoshikawa is to samurai tales what Karl May is to westerns: the German writer famously never set foot in the United States, but still brought cowboys and indians to life in a way that enamoured millions. The same is true for Musashi: it tells of a feudal Japan that historians will scoff at, but will greatly please readers anyway, as Yoshikawa's able pen makes for hours of excited reading.
Musashi
6. The Prisoners from Nambu - history

For those of you interested in the historic era that gave birth to the fantastic samurai stories named here, The Prisoners of Nambu by historian Reinier H. Hesselink, is a thrill ride that easily tops most fiction about Japan. It deals with an historical incident in 1643, when Dutch sailors stranded on the shores of Nambu in northern Japan. As they are escorted to the Shogun's court in Edo (modern Tokyo), they have every opportunity to study their captors, including the samurai escorting them. After a year-long diplomatic push-pull between the Shogun and the Dutch East India Company the prisoners - who face every kind of harassment as the Shogun thinks they 'invaded' Japan to christen Japan - are finally released. Their first-hand reports were stored by the East India Company, and discovered by Hesselink in its archives. Highly recommended!

7. Seven Samurai - movie

Our last entry is a Kurosawa movie again. Seven Samurai is truly a classic samurai cinema, one that has done much for the appreciation of Japanese filmmaking in the West. The 1954 feature film tells of an unruly group of samurai who feel duty-bound to protect a village against a band of thieves. Sounds familiar? Well, Kurosawa's original plot has been rehashed over and over again by Hollywood, giving us The Magnificent Seven, Star Wars' Rogue One and even A Bug's Life. And yet Seven Samurai tops them all in the execution of this specific plot structure: it lays the foundations for the climactic end battle by carefully introducing both the village (its layout and inhabitants) and the character and skills of the samurai. The big fight itself is a miracle of movie making. Kurosawa had dozens of actors moving about in rain and mud, yet the viewer always knows who is who, where they are on the battlefield, and what's happening to anyone. A must see for any budding action film director, and certainly for anyone into big fight scenes.
Seven Samurai