2020 has certainly been a hell of a year. That is for video games, I mean, with the release of some real showstoppers like Animal Crossing: New Horizons and The Last of Us Part 2. Soon will we be adding another to that list: Sucker Punch Productions’ Ghost of Tsushima. One of the most anticipated games of 2020, Ghost of Tsushima is an open-world action-adventure game set in 13th century Japan during the Mongol invasion on the island of, you guessed it, Tsushima. Playing as Jin Sakai, a samurai who survived the initial enemy raids, it is up to you to use stealth and stand-offs in your attempts to save the island and all its inhabitants. Heavily inspired by classic chanbara (Japanese sword fighting movies), including those of Akira Kurosawa who is awarded his own mode in the game, now is the perfect time to sit down and explore some classics of the genre. You know, for research.
Nameless rōnin (a samurai with no master) stumbles upon a small village, takes the moniker of Sanjuro Kuwabatake, and with his skills of stealth and deception pits two rival crimelords against each other in his attempts to save the town. Kurosawa’s direction is faultless in this classic samurai tale, blending chanbara elements with comedy, Japanese folk tales, and satire in a way that makes it one of his most entertaining pieces of filmmaking. As one of the best examples for Kurosawa’s manipulation of nature in his work with whirling dust clouds and confining rainfall, we can see another way this legendary director has inspired Ghost of Tsushima in the waypoint marker mechanic ‘Guiding Wind’. Like this journeying ronin, Jin too can be led by the winds of change to fortune and adversity ahead.
Lady Snowblood - Shurayuki-hime (1973)
Female samurai have been around since the 2nd century. Known as onna-bugeisha these women fought in wars, protected their families, and their lords. Lady Snowblood is similar, in a way. One of the major influences of Tarantino’s Kill Bill duology, the titular Lady Snowblood, Yuki, is brought up to become a legendary assassin seeking revenge on the men who raped her mother and killed her family before she was even born. Led by Japanese icon Meiko Kaji, the film is beautifully crafted and features some truly fantastic, exaggerated gore - which is exactly what you want from a chanbara. Though Yuki and Ghost of Tsushima’s ally Lady Masako share some similarities (they’re both female samurai, both on a journey for revenge) we’re excited to see how their stories differ.
Three Outlaw Samurai - Sanbiki no Samurai (1964)
Legendary Hideo Gosha’s first feature is an impressive exploration of the samurai honour code, asking where their loyalties ought to lie: with the great feudal landowners and lords who employ them or with the people in need of protection. Gosha does this through his three (outlawed) samurai: wandering rōnin Sakon Shiba joins with two samurai Kyojuro Sakura and Einosuke Kikyo to rescue the daughter of a magistrate kidnapped by a band of peasants. Shiba is a fascinating central figure, moralistic and yet understanding of the fluidity of morality. Unlike Kurosawa, Gosha revels in creating characters as archetypes and pitting them against each other. And as we have seen from the Ghost of Tsushima trailer, we might see more of this with conflicts between companions Jin and Masako, two samurai of different natures. Are these heroes allowed to act selfishly as individuals or must they put that aside to save their home? We guess that’ll depend on how you play.
Though not considered a classic by the masses, Ryuhei Kitamura’s female centric manga adaption offers some of the most exquisite and, frankly, ridiculous choreographed fights in modern samurai films. Director Ryûhei Kitamura finds the perfect level of over-the-top characterisations and action sequences to the point where Azumi plays almost like a superhero-samurai blend. Following the great war, the Tokugawa Shogunate (Japan’s feudal military government) orders the creation of an elite band of assassins, raised from childhood to assassinate hostile warlords and bring peace to the land. Of these assassins is Azumi, the ultimate assassin. Much like Azumi herself, reports state that if you play Jin right he becomes a figure able to strike terror into his enemies without even drawing his katana, like a semi-supernatural warrior. A ghost. Get it, like Ghost of Tsushima? No? Let’s move on...
13 Assassins - Jūsannin no Shikaku (2011)
This remake of Eiichi Kudo’s 1963 film of the same name is, arguably, better than its predecessor. Set near the end of Japan’s feudal era, the film follows 12 samurai and 1 hunter who join forces to assassinate the sadistic Lord Matsudaira Naritsugu, leader of the Akashi Domain. Takashi Miike constructs a film of two halves that seamlessly blend together: after learning of the horrors of Akashi and watching these 13 men assemble and conspire, the final massacre transpires with all the hacking and slashing imaginable. And yet the characters, the plot, the emotion aren’t lost within the chaos. You’ll find a surprisingly moving story beneath the blood and guts. These assassins become so terrifying that several enemies flee in fear of their life, just as they might with Jin as Ghost of Tsushima’s NPC mechanics include running away if they see him ploughing through their comrades in arms in quick succession. And if this film is anything to go by, you really can’t blame them.
The Tale of Zatoichi - Zatōichi monogatari (1962)
Alongside Kuwabatake Sanjuro and Seibei Iguchi as some of the most well-known heroes in chanbara cinema is the one and only Zatoichi. This gambling masseur turned samurai may be blind but don’t underestimate him. Although he has been hired by a crime lord to aid in a new gang war, it is Ichi’s dedication to resolving situations without the need for his sword that makes him one of the most fascinating samurai heroes of the genre; it’s no surprise that the film spawned the most sequels of any samurai film, a TV show, and a remake to boot. Ichi’s surprisingly sensitive nature makes us think about Jin and what we imagine his character to be. Though without playing the game in full it’s hard to say, we like to think that’s a little bit of a softy. Why else would he be running after foxes if not? Of course, players of the game know that following the little creatures will lead to some sort of treasure, Jin doesn’t, so he must be after a cuddle. Not so ruthless after all.
Seven Samurai - Shichinin no Samurai (1954)
If you didn’t see me ending with this film then you clearly haven’t been paying attention. Seven Samurai is an epic of epic proportions. With a runtime of 3 hours and 27 minutes, Kurosawa flexes his creative muscles and fleshes out the world and all seven of his samurai backed against precisely crafted visuals that give the film a tangible sense of time and place. Following seven rōnin hired by a farming village to stop the bandits who have been pillaging their crops, there is something elegiac about this Kurosawa classic. It is driven by characters without sacrificing the violence that is so inherent to chanbara. Its scale is truly as immense as its length, something it shares with Ghosts of Tsushima which reportedly has a playtime of 30+ depending on how many side missions you decide to journey on.