Japan today has been greatly shaped by its medieval period. Warfare, destruction and the Samurai warriors as rulers of the lands were the notable features of Japan at that time.
Have you ever wondered how people lived? Their clothing? Socialization? You may read all history books and all that, or watch these entertaining and interesting Japanese medieval movies.
This list of 18 top-rated Japanese medieval movies will give you a picture of what it was like during that time.
18. Rikyu – 1989
As there is master Samurai, there is also the 16th century master of the Japanese tea ceremony – the title itself, Rikyu.
Late in the 1500s, Sen no Rikyu served as a tea master to Japan’s most powerful warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Rikyu focused on the study and the teachings of the way of the tea.
Rikyu had access to the feudal lord but avoided involvement in politics. But later, things got complicated as the feudal lord Toyotomi became ambitious to conquer other nations.
Best Actor, Best Musical Score, and Best Director are few of the awards and recognition received by Rikyu. These acknowledgments prove that Rikyu deserves a spot in this list of best Japanese medieval movies.
17. Ugetsu – 1953
With an 8.3/10 IMDb rating, Ugetsu tells a story of ambition, family, love, and war. Ugetsu presents a kind of life during the Japanese Civil Wars of the 16th century.
Genjuro travels to a nearby town to make more money selling his wares. He brings with him Tobei, who dreams of becoming a Samurai. Both men left their wives with a promise that they will soon return.
As planned, Genjuro and Tobei earned more money. As they are about to go home, Tobei decides to leave Genjuro to pursue his dream. Genjuro returns home to find out a bigger problem.
In 1953, Venice Film Festival awarded the Silver Lion Award for Best Direction to Kenji Mizoguchi, the director of Ugetsu.
16. Shogun Assassin – 1980
Bloodshed awaits when a man plans revenge. Shogun Assassin is an action-filled movie in the setting of medieval Japan.
The Samurai Ogami and his toddler son Daigoro take a journey to become assassins for hire. Ogami’s wife was murdered by the order of Ogami’s Shogun. Since then, Ogami promised to take revenge. He and his son train to ultimately fulfill their mission.
Shogun Assassin is said to be a combination of two other Japanese medieval movies Baby-cart at the River Styx and Sword of Vengeance.
15. Humanity and Paper Balloons – 1937
Poverty seems to be a common theme in movies all around the world. With a 7.8/10 IMDb rating, Humanity and Paper Balloons present poverty in medieval Japan.
The masterless Ronin Matajuro Unno and gambler Shinza share the same situation in life. Both of them are in poverty. Matajuro searches for a job every day while Shinza gambles.
Their lives meet in an unexpected circumstance. Shinza kidnaps the daughter of a wealthy merchant. He then hides her in the house of Matajuro. This action resulted in the consequences both of them do not imagine.
14. Rise Against the Sword – 1966
Oppression never leads to control but hate. Rise against the Sword shows that even in the early times, greed for power is a humanity’s downfall.
A village of farmers and peasants is led by Geomon. He is known to raise an army of farmers. Conflicts arise against the Asakura Clan of Samurai.
The villagers are mistreated and obligated to pay heavy taxes. With this abuse in power, all tribes formed an army to fight the Asakura clan lord.
13. Love and Honour – 2006
This last film of the award-winning director Yoji Yamada presents that Love and Honour is worth fighting for.
Living with loving and caring wife Kayo, Shinnojo faces an unexpected situation that will change their lives. Kayo works as a food-taster for a feudal lord. One day, he gets poisoned for tasting his lord’s food.
Unfortunately, the poisoning blinds him. This led his wife Kayo to seek help for their provision, but she is given a condition that will dishonor her. Shinnojo gets mad and sets to take revenge.
12. Sansho the Bailiff – 1954
Inspired by legendary folklore, Sansho the Bailiff tells a story of legacy and redemption.
The story revolves around the exile of a compassionate governor, leaving his wife and two children behind. The governor’s wife is sold to become a prostitute. Their daughter Anju and son Zushio become slaves.
Years have passed and the chance to escape has come. Anju and Zushio left the camp. Anju commits suicide to protect his brother; while Zushio goes to Taro, his former mentor, to help him to free the slaves. He becomes the governor and recalls the word of his father to always choose kindness.
The Silver Lion for Best Direction in the 15th Venice International Film Festival was awarded to Kenji Mizoguchi proving that Sansho the Bailiff is one of the best Japanese medieval movies available.
11. Sword of the Beast – 1965
Some beasts are evil. Some beasts are good. Co-directed by Hideo Gosha, Sword of the Beast unfolds a story of loyalty and betrayal.
Assassinating his clan’s counselor, the Samurai Gennosuke runs for his life. He then learns that he was manipulated to kill the counselor. Later, he meets a farmer who smuggles gold from the Shogun’s mountain.
He then helps the farmer and meets another Samurai, Jurota Yamane who steals gold for his clan.
Soon after, Gennosuke realizes the death that awaits Jurota once he offers the gold to his clan and helps him. Gennosuke then meets the assassins who were hired to kill him and engages in a bloody battle.
10. Kagemusha – 1980
There are truths hidden until forgotten, but there are truths that find their way to be revealed. Directed by the legendary Akira Kurosawa, Kagemusha is sure a masterpiece.
A poor thief’s life changes with the death of the powerful feudal lord Shinjin. This thief, who resembles Shinjin, is taken to pretend that he is the feudal lord after the latter’s death.
He then becomes the Kagemusha of Shinjin. As the battle for power continues, the thief’s true identity is revealed, putting the clan at risk.
Winning multiple awards and recognition from local and international organizations, Kagemusha finds its place in this list of Japanese medieval movies.
9. Samurai Banners – 1969
Based on the novel Furin Kazan by Yasushi Inoue, Samurai Banners tells how a Samurai helps a feudal lord to expand his territory.
Yamamoto Kansuke is the general warlord of Takeda Shingen. He advises Takeda on almost everything that he does in politics and battle. However, everything becomes complicated in a love triangle involving Yamamoto, Takeda, and Princess Yu of the Suwa household.
Samurai Banners was a Toho Co. top-grossing film of the year.
8. Hitokiri – 1969
Inspired by the lives of real people, Hitokiri depicts the historical figures known as the Four Hitokiri of the Bakumatsu.
The poor Izo Okada finds a way out of poverty. He soon becomes a famous killer faithful to Takechi Hanpeita.
However, Sakamoto Ryoma warns him that he is just being a dog of Takechi and that he will end up betrayed.
7. Heaven and Earth – 1990
One’s greed tells what man can do. Heaven and Earth present a story beyond battle but one’s determination in achieving his desire.
The feudal lord Kategora must stand to protect his lands from the power-greedy and ambitious warlord Takeda. One is driven by love while one is driven by greed. A bloody battle follows despite knowing that one must win and one must die.
Heaven and Earth was the number one Japanese film in 1990 With 5.05 billion yen earned. So, this film deserves a spot as well in top-rated Japanese medieval movies.
6. The Great Killing – 1964
Oppressive authority and injustices are what brings a person to his downfall. The Great Killing is a narration of one’s mission to bring justice and fairness to everyone.
Yamaga is known as Japan’s best strategist. He sees the danger ahead in the plans of a Shogunate Elder. The elder plans to make Tsunashige the next Shogun. The success of this plan will just make the Shogunate Elder more powerful.
Yamaga plans to stop the Elder. However, his plot did not succeed as he was betrayed and his men tortured. With all these happening, Yamaga still needs to take action.
5. Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance – 1972
There are many reasons why a man fights – one reason is for his dignity. Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance presents a story of a Samurai whose world was shattered by one’s greed.
The masterless Ronin Ogami Itto wanders the land of Japan, pushing a baby cart with his three-year-old son Daigoro. Ogami used to be the executioner serving the military dictators.
However, he was set up and judged for disloyalty by the Yagyu clan. Now with his son Daigoro, Ogami declares war against the Yagu clan.
With a 7.8/10 IMDb rating, Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance is one of the Japanese medieval movies filled with action and historical representations.
4. Shogun’s Shadow – 1989
Family is supposed to be a safe place. But what if it’s your family who plans your death? Shogun’s Shadow touches a delicate theme of betrayal of family.
The Tokugawa Shogun III Tokugawa Iemitsu hates his eldest son Takechiyo, but favors his younger son Tokumatsu. Iemetsu then sends Takechiyo to Yedo. Hotta Masamori, suspecting betrayal, joins Takechiyo in his journey together with seven skilled Samurai.
One night, an army attacked the group of Takechiyo. Hotta dies, but Takechiyo escapes with the other Samurai. It is then learned that Iemetsu does not want Takechiyo, his eldest son, to be the next Shogun.
3. Samurai Rebellion 1967
Samurai Rebellion is based on Hairyozuma Shimatsu by Yasuhiko Takiguchi. The film shows the great love of a father fighting for his son.
Yogoro, Isaguro’s son, is asked to marry the lord’s wife, Ichi. The Samurai Isaguro disagrees with the lord’s order. However, Yagoro decides to marry Ichi and finds happiness and love with her. Soon after, they had a daughter.
But when the lord’s son dies, Ichi is asked to return to the lord’s household. The Samurai Isaguro now disagrees as Yogoro and Ichi love each other deeply.
An 8.4/10 IMDB rated film, Samurai Rebellion can be classified as a world-class movie as it won an award from the Venice Film Festival.
2. Ran – 1985
With an 8.2/10 IMDb rating and over 2.5 billion yen earnings, Ran makes a powerful statement that is one of the Japanese medieval movies you should not miss.
With time against him, Hidetori Ichimonji decides to retire from his empire. His three sons are to take his position as a ruler. Taro and Jiro – the eldest and the middle sons – support his decision.
But Saburo, the youngest son, disagrees as he sees there will be no unity among them. Hidetori then banishes Saburo.
With time passing, he realizes that Saburo is right. Selfishness and greed motivate his sons in running the empire. Saburo is the only one left to save Hidetori.
Ran was greatly received in Japan and on the international movie screen. It was first shown in 1985 and was released again in the United States of America in 2000.
1. Rashomon – 1950
Rashomon revolves around a priest, woodcutter, and a commoner. Directed by the master director Akira Kurosawa, Rashomon won the Gold Lion Award from Venice Film Festival 1951 and Most Outstanding Foreign Language Film in the 24th Academy Awards 1952.
A priest and a commoner are under the Rashomon gate discussing the murdered Samurai found in the forest. A trial soon is conducted and they are called to testify.
A bandit, the wife, and the Samurai’s spirit are also called to testify in the trial. With many witnesses, the case becomes more unclear.
A psychological movie, Rashomon completes our list of Japanese medieval movies.
There are parts of the past that remain unknown to many of us. These tell stories, cultures, and traditions. And for those we already know, we take a great benefit.
And these Japanese medieval movies, fiction, and nonfiction are sure to give you a picture of great medieval Japan. If you liked these medieval movies than check out the list of Best Samurai Movies to learn more about the Japanese samurai’s.