For many gamers, the winds have calmed; the blood has been shed, and the island of Tsushima has returned to a relative peace and quiet. Sucker Punch Entertainment’s blockbuster PS4 exclusive Ghost of Tsushima has been the game on the lips of players since its release, with the beautiful 13th-century samurai odyssey providing an experience both breathtaking in its intensity and soothing in its world-building.
But it’s over! You’ve repelled the Mongol horde, and are now chomping at the bit for more samurai stuff, more chanbara slicin’ and dicin’, perhaps, or maybe just some more context on the culture and events (consider yourselves seen, high school history enthusiasts). Ultimately, you probably just want to watch something good, which is why I’d be overjoyed with bushido-like fervor to recommend the following films for your pre-Edo edification.
The Sword of Doom (1966) Kihachi Okamoto
Coming out absolutely swinging with this first film, The Sword of Doom is one of my all-time favorite, top-ten, bring-it-to-the-grave films. And it’s my second favorite samurai film, garnering such awestruck admiration from me for a lot of reasons, but there’s one that always comes to mind: That hat, man.
Following the blood-soaked wanderings of master swordsman (and major sociopath) Ryonusuke Tsukue (the legendary Tatsuya Nakadai), The Sword of Doom is an absolute icon in the kind of cinematic posturing that Ghost of Tsushima aspires to present. I only half-joke when I say that the wide-brimmed straw fukaamigasa that shields Ryonusuke’s cold, dead eyes is a major reason for my love of Doom. It’s this kind of iconography that has come to define the popular image of samurai across films, comics, video games, and so on. In carving out the look, The Sword of Doom becomes emblematic of an entire genre, in many ways.
Besides costuming, there’s a lot of action in the film, with build-ups and slow-burn tension that erupts constantly as the body count rises. Not quite the blood and guts exploitation seen in the Lone Wolf and Cub films of the early ’70s, but certainly there’s guilty, adrenaline-fueled satisfaction to be found in Doom’s swordplay.
But even better to relate to Ghost of Tsushima, The Sword of Doom is about a samurai gone rogue. Whereas Jin in Tsushima learns to bend the ‘ol rules of bushido for the practical good, becoming something of a Kamakura era guerrilla, Ryonusuke’s path is one fueled by a narcissistic and amoral apathy. He is the fascistic, delusional judge, juror, and executioner, provoking fights and ending them–fatally–just to continually prove his mastery of the blade, purely for his own self-satisfaction. If Jin reluctantly taints his honor for the greater good, Ryonusuke sells any notion of chivalry to proclaim himself the deadliest killer to walk the roads of Japan.
The Inland Sea (1991) Lucille Carra
“Hey waitaminute,” I hear you cry, “there’s not a single stinkin’ samurai to be found in this movie! Where are the duels! Where’s the drama!” True, Lucille Carra’s 1991 documentary is very much not a samurai film. Chronicling the early-’70s Japanese travels of film historian Donald Richie, the film is a lot of things, many of which relate to Ghost of Tsushima that I found incredibly relevant.
For one, it’s even in the title: This is a movie about geography. Whereas so much of Ghost revolves around the exploration of Tsushima Island, its serene forests and craggy coasts, The Inland Sea explores the fundamental concept of the land that is Japan. Rather, the island of Japan. Richie’s writing frames the Japanese people as, first and foremost, islanders. Theirs is a culture of fishing and seafaring, isolation and self-sustenance. I know for me it’s easy to think of Japan and its contemporary metropolises and cutting-edge innovations; a global power and one of the strongest presences in international pop culture. Yet it’s the isolation of the nation that Ghost of Tsushima’s story concerns itself with, saddling our titular ghost Jin with the task of repelling outsider invasion by Mongolian raiders. What The Inland Sea does so well is reacquaint, perhaps, those who’ve come to think of Japan as the land of anime and conveyor-belt sushi with the rural, nomadic heritage that still exists in pockets of the country.
I only watched the film, a scant 56 minutes in run, recently and was really quite impressed. Here’s a culture I think about every day, for its cuisine, its history, the art and entertainment I consume daily that was born of it, and yet Richie’s writing, coupled with the gorgeous photography captured by Carra, turned me on my head. They’re simple observations to some, maybe, but I’d be remiss in not sharing The Inland Sea for what I personally got from it. Plus, I promise, there will be more katana duels.
The Assassin (2013) Hou Hsiao-Hsien & Hero (2002) Zhang Yimou
Full disclosure: These are absolutely not samurai films. They aren’t even Japanese films. Well, to be fair, Ghost of Tsushima isn’t even a Japanese game!
What these films do share with Sony’s latest system-seller, hailing from Taiwan and China, respectively, is an appreciation of beauty.
Both films are spins on the thousand-year-old tradition of Chinese wuxia, the regaling of heroic tales and moral quandaries, often with a fair share of dramatic and theatrical swordplay. Normally can find these elements in classic Kung-Fu movies, but one glance at these images and, hopefully, the Ghost of Tsushima comparison feels apt. With Hero, Zhang Yimou brings a lush, vibrant color palette to the film’s various stories, with the plot something of a Rashomon in its mysterious and unreliably-narrated plot. Yimou’s staging of autumnal leaves swirling in the wind while two martial artists square off, or the windy, cold mountains that hide a small village might instantly recall your trek through the forests and hills of Tsushima Island.
Similarly, The Assassin is a drop-dead gorgeous film, albeit one far more reserved and ponderous in its beauty. A meditative and justly-motivated killer (Shu Qi) navigates 9th century China as she stabs and sneaks her way through various judges and officials of corrupt and ignoble repute. Certainly, there’s action to be found in The Assassin, but it’s the quiet scenes high in the mountains of the Inner Mongolian locations that resonate deepest. Scenes of mists blowing, entirely naturally, across the mountains, the sound of birds flying and leaves blowing. Much of my own time playing Ghost of Tsushima has been the utterly snail-paced wandering of a samurai more concerned with taking in the sounds and beauty of his island, rather than shedding the blood of invaders.
Basically, if I were Jin Sakai, I’d be too busy smelling the roses.
Harakiri (1962) and Samurai Rebellion (1967) Masaki Kobayashi
Plain and simple, Masaki Kobayashi’s Harakiri is one of the greatest films of all time. Told through a literary style of editing, lone samurai Tsugumo Hanshirō (Tatsuya Nakadai) arrives at the gates of a prestigious estate, requesting a place to perform the sacred act of ritual suicide. Harakiri, or seppuku. Granting his request, the estate’s head and his men gather as an audience to witness his courage, only to be taken along for the man’s story, finding themselves to be more than simple witnesses…
Harakiri is brilliant. Kobayashi’s film is a scathing dissection of the notion of honorable bushido glorified in the annals of Japanese cinema, exposing hypocrisy in the order that has become, through fact and the perpetuation of myth, a symbol of superhuman rigor and discipline. While Ghost of Tsushima largely upholds the tenets of the samurai code, Jin’s “sullying” of his honor through his by-any-means approach seen as a sort of noble self-sacrifice, the morphing is what links Kobayashi’s film. Much in the way our murderous lead from The Sword of Doom serves his own interests and exposes the cracks in the samurai way, Hanshiro’s haggard, tragic past fuel a burning rage for hypocrisy. He might even have to cut a few fools to make things right.
Though Harakiri is his masterpiece, Kobayashi would make a slew of terrific films, his 1967 collaboration with Toshiro Mifune Samurai Rebellion among them. As a leading retainer for a powerful daimyo, Isaburo Sasahara (Mifune) is reluctant but ultimately willing in overseeing the marriage of his son (Go Kato) to one of the feudal lord’s former mistresses (Yoko Tsukasa). As the marriage becomes increasingly complicated, Isaburo becomes increasingly frustrated with his puppet-like servitude to his lord, matters of family and love arranged with the flick of a wrist for the convenience of a master. Sometimes, enough is enough, and swords need to be drawn.
Rebellion continued Kobayashi’s anti-establishment streak, utilizing the rigor of the Japanese social castes as impetus for some heartbreaking drama and climactic action. It’s another leering peek behind the veneer of samurai honor, and why the heck wouldn’t you want to see Toshiro Mifune behind a katana?
Onibaba (1964) Kaneto Shindo
Once again I’m lulling you into a trap; a cinematic snare in an attempt to share another of my all-time favorite films, unsung Japanese master Kaneto Shindo’s Onibaba.
Arguably a horror film, Onibaba tells the story of a mother (Nobuko Otowa) and daughter-in-law (Jitsuko Yoshimura) living amongst the reeds and heat of rural Japan during the years leading to the Muromachi period. It’s a time of civil strife, with battles springing up across the island. Blood soaks the land while peasants like the two women are left to pick at battlefield loot and scrape by on a pitiful existence while the samurai fight their wars for control.
It’s amidst this lawless, violent period that the women are confronted by a returning soldier, Hachi (Kei Sato), who brings news of the young woman’s husband/mother’s son who died in combat. And then things get tense.
With isolation, exposure to violence, and maybe a bit of the supernatural at play, Onibaba descends into the realm of ghost story and psychological horror. While Ghost of Tsushima does an admirable job of keeping its story grounded, Onibaba, in turn, paints a grim portrait of a nation at war through its otherworldly embellishments.
For one, the chronological proximity of the game and film is an interesting juxtaposition, with the Mongols repelled near the end of the 13th century, yet the land barons of Japan waging war on themselves for much of the following centuries. Japan’s history is one of seemingly-constant upheaval.
Besides the historical intricacies, the story of these peasants struggling to get by is the sort of aside one might imagine while riding around Tsushima’s small settlements or coming across weary travelers. Jin encounters a peasantry starved and oppressed by the Mongols, but also left to survive life’s everyday ravishments (food, water, shelter) while any semblance of infrastructure turns its gaze to the immediate, tangible threat of foreign invasion. Onibaba is “one for the underdog” in its depiction of a population under siege during war, and the lingering effects of conflict seen in Ghost of Tsushima make Shindo’s grim fable a blisteringly relevant companion piece.
For all of its sword-fighting and honor… honoring, Ghost of Tsushima was and continues to be, for me, more of an act of virtual tourism than an action-romp. The gorgeous landscapes and historical detail–at least, in presentation–offer pure escapism, besides the role-playing as a swordsman to match Leonardo.
Much has been made of the game’s “Kurosawa Mode,” the clear homage to the iconic filmmaker whose work has shaped not only the world’s view of the samurai, but, in many ways, the world’s view of Japan itself. Sucker Punch emulate Kurosawa in their presentation, and do so admirably, though to give credit solely to the master would be to dismiss the countless other works of brilliant chanbara and jidaigeki (period piece) filmmaking and storytelling that have emerged in defining Japan’s history. Samurai cinema and its offshoots are an entire world to explore, much like the dusty roads and vast stretches of the country they hail from. Let these be the tip of the spear in finding your own favorites!