10 of the best samurai sword fights ever filmed
Who doesn’t love a good samurai fight?
Duels to the death for honour, vagabond swordsmen, and mystic blades of folded steel — there’s just something about the samurai that sets the imagination ablaze.
Romanticized, stylized, and deified, duels between these iconic warriors are the stuff of legend in Japan, and they make for some damn good viewing.
With that in mind, I’ve put together this list of 10 of the best samurai sword fights, duels, and small-scale battles to ever unfold in front of a camera lens. If you’re looking for serious samurai action — this is a pretty damn good place to start.
If you don’t see your favourite samurai movie below, don’t panic. Remember, we’re listing the best samurai duels on film — not necessarily the best films themselves.
And if you don’t agree with this list, I’ll just have to commit seppuku.
10. John Preston vs Andrew Brandt
Film: Equilibrium (2002)
Christian Bale’s character may not be a samurai in the historical sense, but John Preston as is as close as you’re likely to get in the dystopian future of Equilibrium. A ‘Grammaton Cleric’ serving an oppressive government regime, Preston is part of the elite warrior class that enforces the status quo and keeps the populace in line. Stoic and nearly unflinching, he builds his life around martial excellence and consistency, follows a strict code of obedience, and wields a katana. Starting to sound a little more like a samurai now?
It’s that weapon — the katana — that’s at the center of the film’s most eye-popping fight scenes, including the hyper-violent finale.
Preston is out to kill the all-powerful leader of his Orwellian future society, but first he’s got a few heads to bust. Using a Matrix-style combination of various automatic guns and blades, Preston cuts down legions of guards before facing off against Andrew Brandt — the head Grammaton Cleric.
It’s all a little sterile and unemotional, but technically speaking, the fight is jaw-dropping. Had it not been for all the guns and ammunition magazines lying around, you’dve thought this was fuedal Japan.
Watch the duel on YouTube here.
9. Jubei Yagyu vs Undead Munenori Yagyu
Film: Samurai Reincarnation (1981)
When the evil spirit of a man bent on revenge starts raising Japan’s greatest warriors from the grave as devils on earth, there’s only one man who can stop him — legendary 17th century swordsman Jubei Yagyu.
Let’s get this out the way right now — Samurai Reincarnation is pure b-movie shlock. In a list full of deadly serious samurai films by master directors like Kursawa and Gosha, this one is more unintentional comedy than drama. But every once in a while, diamonds shine through the rough. Sonny Chiba, as a kind of badass, modern take on Jubei is one of them. The film’s final duel is another.
In Samurai Reincarnation’s spectacular closing scene, Jubei comes to face to face with his now resurrected undead father Munenori Yagyu — a master swordsman in his own right.
Picture this: They meet in the heart of the Shogun’s castle in Edo, engulfed in flame and burning to the ground around them. Blazing pillars crash to the ground between the two warriors, roofs collapse, floors give way to ashes as the dead bodies of samurai are consumed by flame.
For a movie that up until now was mostly bad special effects and effeminate men in Dracula capes, sh*t just got very real.
8. Ogami Itto vs. Lord Kurando
Film: Shogun Assassin (1980)
Many of the spectacularly bizarre, blood-soaked fight scenes in Shogun Assassin and its four sequels could find a place on this list, if only it were long enough.
In the first installment of the legendary series, rogue samurai Ogami Itto (Tomisaburo Wakayama) is betrayed and hunted by the mad Shogun he once served. Wife murdered, infant son at his side, he walks the cold road of vengeance.
Against all odds, and with his young child literally on his back, Itto, the “Lone Wolf”, faces off against the Shogun’s son in a duel to the death under the blood-red setting sun. Like so many great cinematic samurai duels, it’s a fight that lasts only a single stroke — a battle not of reactions, but preparation.
In rich, glowing colour, and with the kind of angles usually reserved for comic book panels, Kurando is magnificently decapitated in one of most strikingly shot and bloody scenes on this list.
7. Zatoichi vs ronin
Film: Zatoichi: Darkness is his Ally (1989)
After 27 years and 26 films, Shintaro Katsu reprises his role as the blind swordsman and travelling gambler, Ichi, in the character’s final adventure (until Takeshi Kitano’s 2003 homage).
The gentle but deadly Ichi spends a good deal of this film slaughtering unnamed Yakuza in the most badass fashion, but it’s not until the final moments of the film that a true duel between rivals takes place. It’s when the battle’s won, the damsel’s saved, and the world is back as it should be, that Ichi and the ronin meet for the final time, almost as an after-thought.
Tasked with killing Ichi by a now dead Yakuza boss, the never-named ronin hasn’t been able to bring himself to go through with it. We’re never told exactly why, but the tortured soul of the old samurai seems to find a modicum of peace when he’s with the blind swordsman, and the two become friends before parting. By the time they meet again, you’ve all but forgotten about him.
The hunched, hobbling Ichi and the proudly upright masterless samurai meet on a lonely country road under an overcast sky. In one continuous wide shot, the ronin sidesteps the blind man, and attacks. Ichi, in his crooked underhand style, instantly reacts, counters, and cuts him down. It’s over in just a few seconds.
In the final moments before the credits roll, Ichi offers up a final apology, or perhaps justification, to his friend — ”You drew first.”
Although essentially a brief epilogue to bookend the film, the duel between Ichi and the ronin is the single most epic scene in the whole movie. Go figure.
6. Ryunosuke vs samurai clan
Film: Sword of Doom (1966)
Sword of Doom has the rare distinction of being a film that follows the ‘bad guy’, leaving the typical samurai hero character far in the background. It’s a masterwork of the genre, and includes half a dozen fights, duels and slaughters. But perhaps the most awe-inspiring is the film’s first lethal combat.
Sociopath samurai Ryunosuke Tsukue (Tatsuya Nakadai) is a man without empathy, possessed with deadly skills, and slowly going mad. After murdering a man in what was supposed to be a non-lethal duel, he is ambushed and attacked by a group of the man’s clansmen as he attempts to flee. Ryunosuke’s unflinching, perfect slaughter of the samurai exemplifies Sword of Doom’s muddy spirit : murder and wrongdoing, without justice, or revenge.
The scene is shot in haunting, misty blank and white and the image of Ryunosuke walking through the now quiet forest, a trail of twisted bodies and broken swords in his wake, has become iconic.
5. Magobei Wakizaka vs Rokugo Tatewaki
Film: Goyokin (1969)
When ronin Magobei Wakizaka (Tatsuya Nakadai, again) discovers a plot by his former clan to steal the Shogun’s gold and slaughter a village of innocents to keep it secret, he makes it his mission to stop them, and regain his honour in the process.
After saving the village and the gold, one final task remains: to face his former friend Rokugo Tatewaki, the man behind the clan’s sinister plot.
This duel has two classic samurai archetypes — the wandering ronin and the loyal-to-a-fault samurai clansman — pitted against one another in a snow-covered winter landscape. Knee-deep in tightly packed snow, with hordes of crows circling above, Magobei and Rokugo have to breathe hot air onto their hands just so their fingers don’t freeze on the hilt. So many samurai films take place on the dry, windy plains of central Japan, it’s a breath of icy fresh air to have some winter wars.
The sword play itself is well done, the winter environment gets utilized to the fullest, and you just can’t beat that final overhead shot of Rokugo lying dead, bright red blood staining the snow around him. Classic samurai cinema right there.
4. Isaburo Sasahara vs Tatewaki Asano
Film: Samurai Rebellion (1967)
Samurai Rebllion is about, well… a samurai rebellion. Shot in rather dull black and white, this initially unspectacular looking film sneaks up on you as an epic story of individualism and love resisting the rigid power and family structures of Tokugawa era Japan. After openly resisting the local daimyo (a Japanese feudal lord) Isaburo Sasahara (Toshiro Mifune) is marked for death. There’s just one problem – he’s a master swordsman without peer, and he’s not going down without a fight.
The final 10 minutes of the film see Sasahara, on the run and hunted by the daimyo’s men, carrying his infant grandchild is his arms. In a Shakespearean twist of fate, he is forced to fight his best friend and fellow samurai Tatewaki Asano (Tatsuya Nakadai… again) — the only man who might be capable of defeating him. Whether he likes it or not, Asano is bound by duty to stop his old friend, no matter the cost. The fight itself is dramatic and desperate, with either man fighting for his life and his honour, all the while wishing things could be different.
Though not as stylistically spectacular as some of the duels on this list, Samurai Rebellion‘s final conlfict has a truly unique air of hopelessness and fatalism you won’t find anywhere else. I won’t spoil the ending, but it’s a rare example of a sad, rather than glorified, finale to a samurai film.
Toshiro Mifune and Tatsuya Nakadai are perhaps the two most legendary jidaigeki (period drama) actors of their day, and would meet many times on screen, especially in samurai films. Get used to this pairing.
3. Kuwabatake Sanjuro vs Unosuke and gang
Film: Yojimbo (1961)
Outlaws in a frontier town, a wandering Man with No Name, and gun fights? Is this a samurai film, or a western? Well, both really.
Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo follows an officially unnamed ronin calling himself Kuwabatake Sanjuro (which means “thirty-year-old mulberry field”) , who wanders into a small Japanese town being ripped in half by two warring gangs. Sanjuro plays each against the other, until a man with a gun (you guessed it… Tatsuya Nakadai) upsets the balance of power, and forces a confrontation.
Toshiro Mifune’s character in Yojimbo is the archetype for cool, cocky, and deadly. Think of him like a top-knotted cross between Han Solo and Dirty Harry.
The final showdown between Sanjuro and the remaining gang members is a tense standoff in the middle of the deserted town, dust blowing, windows shuttered — it might as well be high noon. The rank and file thugs are no match for the Yojimbo’s blade, but how can he stand up to the deadly six-shooter? It’s not so much the literal sword to sword duel that’s so worthy of a watch in this case, but the masterful buildup before hand.
The film as whole, duel included, has been hugely influential in both Japanese and western film. Sergio Leone remade Yojimbo three years later in a little film called A Fistful of Dollars, starring a guy named Clint Eastwood. But we’re counting down the greatest samurai duels on film — not the best overall movies of the genre, which means this time, the magnificent Yojimbo stays in the number three slot.
2. Ogami Itto vs. Masters of Death
Film: Shogun Assassin (1980)
In a film full of imaginative and strange samurai fights, the 3 on 1 duel that closes Shogun Assassin tops it all.
The legendary trio of terror known as the Masters of Death each make use of a different, brutal weapon. One a metal-studded club, another a mailed fist, and their leader Wolverine-style steel claws with which he literally rips people’s heads apart. Their fight against the Lone Wolf has all the fantasy, outlandishness, and exaggerated violence of a graphic novel come to life.
It’s bloodthirsty brutality vs steel vengeance when Ogami Itto meets the Masters of Death in the deserts of southern Japan.
When the final Master of Death falls, he delivers one of the most off-the-wall, esoteric monologues in the film. All while staining the sand red with a geyser of his own blood. Does samurai exploitation cinema get any better than this? I think not.
1. Miyamoto Musashi vs Sasaki Kojiro
Film: Samurai III: Duel at Ganryu Island (1956)
Hiroshi Inagaki’s epic three-part series on Japan’s most legendary swordsman, Miyamoto Mushashi, comes to a stunning end with his duel against fellow shugyōsha (travelling swordsman), Sasaki Kojiro.
Musashi was perhaps feudal Japan’s greatest swordsman, and Kojiro his most legendary opponent, so take a seat and learn from the masters.
When the two finally meet blade to blade in the finale of Inagaki’s trilogy, it’s a suspenseful duel not of brute power, but of diamond-sharp skill and cunning. Against the rising sun, the vagabond and the aristocrat warrior clash — steel against wood. Musashi famously used a huge bokken (wooden sword) supposedly carved from a spare ore on the boat ride to Ganryu island, instead of his katana.
Beautifully shot in pale colour, with an organic feel to the camera work, and less glossy editing than many of the more heavily stylized scenes on this list, the duel at Ganryu island is a masterpiece of fight cinematography. It’s success is in its simplicity. With a fairly simple backing soundtrack, the entire scene has an almost unprocessed feel to it. It’s not over dramatized to the extreme or edited too cleverly for its own good — it feels like you’re right there, on the beach, watching two of the world’s most legendary swordsman clash.
It takes three epic films to get you to this moment, and it couldn’t be more worth the wait.
Gif from Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto (http://0wenhart.tumblr.com/)