Summertime and swordplay just seem to go together. Here are 5 samurai-themed films that I picked for their slashing swordfight action, not necessarily for particularly complex plotting. These are energetic entertainment from the classic era of the chambara* movie in Japan (the sword-swingin' sixties)! These movies are only offered as the Japanese language with English subtitles unless there are some old VHS dubbed versions floating around that I don't know about, but for samurai flicks that is the way I like it. My choices here reflect my bias for the mid-to-late Tokugawa era jidai geki settings (around 1800-1868 or so). So without more ado, let's get past the staredown and proceed straight to the quick draw!
1. Zatoichi at the Fire Festival (1969): Shintaro Katsu's blind swordsman Ichi is matched here against a yakuza boss who is equally blind and delightfully evil; Katsu was adept at pathos AND bathos, i.e., grotesque comedy, and it shows here in a romp directed by Kenji Misumi, the man behind many of the Lone Wolf and Cub films and several other Zatoichi flicks. His films are colorful and packed with energetic swordfights. This is no exception. Watch for transvestite actor Peter as he tries to seduce Ichi, and some repeated encounters with angry, sword-swinging Tatsuya Nakadai, who wants to kill Ichi but not just yet -- an action-packed romp with some great set pieces. Probably the most fun to watch of all the Zatoichi films in my opinion.
2. Yojimbo (1961): Akira Kurosawa's light-hearted but gritty (in a Western way) tale of a ronin named Sanjuro (Toshiro Mifune) who pits one yakuza gang against another in a rundown late Tokugawa era town (the year is 1860, just before the Meiji Restoration). There's lots of posturing and plotting going on, but all you need to know is that Mifune is playing one side against the other, and most of them are dumb enough to fall for it. The only man in town with a gun (Tatsuya Nakadai) is also the only man in town with brains. He catches on to Sanjuro's scheme and the showdown begins!
3. Nemuri Kyoshiro 4: Sword of Seduction (1964). Nemuri Kyoshiro roughly translates as "Sleepy Eyes of Death," which is its American series release title. There are several Kyoshiros, but the one everyone knows is played by Raizo Ichikawa, once called the "James Dean of Japan." He has a laconic manner and a melodic, deep voice that can menace or seduce. Kyoshiro is a half-breed, born of a Christian father and a Japanese mother. His trademark is his deep red hair and his secret Full Moon cut, which no swordsman has witnessed and survived. As sure as Mifune's Sanjuro inspired the "Man With No Name" of Clint Eastwood's spaghetti westerns, so Ichikawa's Kyoshiro follows in the same mold, except Kyoshiro tends to get laid a whole lot more. He also seems to be an eternal target. So expect lots of seductions and swordfights in this number 4 entry in which he is called upon to protect a Christian nun who has a few secrets of her own. Look for a rousing appearance by "Lone Wolf and Cub" leading man Tomisaburo Wakayama as Chinese boxer Chen Sun. Always a joy to watch!
4. Sword of Doom (Daibosatsu Toge, 1966): OK, this movie does have a complicated historical plot featuring the Shinsengumi and a bizarre karma theme, but you don't HAVE to watch it on that level. You can enjoy it on a simple level of watching Tatsuya Nakadai as Ryunosuke, a badass, amoral swordsman with the baddest of bad attitudes. He enjoys sake and killing, not necessarily in that order. I tried compiling a body count for this movie once and came up with 88. Not a record, but for sheer style and doggedness, no one beats Nakadai! Watch for Nakadai's traditional archnemesis, Toshiro Mifune, in a small but memorable role as a sword instructor who embodies the heroic ideal of "the sword is the soul." Note for those of you in anger management courses: you might be cheesed off at the ending of this one, but as someone who is familiar with the source material, I find the ending of this film quite appropriate.
5. Red Lion (Akage, 1969): It is 1868, and the Tokugawa Shogunate is on its way out, while the new Imperial forces are making their way up the major highways from Kyoto to Edo (old Tokyo) to proclaim their new order and gain support. A bumpkin farmer named Gonzo (Toshiro Mifune) wants nothing more than to bring the message to his home village after his 10-year absence and make a name for himself in the process, while overthrowing the corrupt Tokugawa officials that have, in his view, ruined the town. He finds out that all is not as it seems, and the Imperials are not the godsend he thought they would be. Some people find this film to be socialist or intricate in its plotting, but it has enough broad comedy and action to overcome that, in my opinion. Etsushi Takahashi as the obligatory taciturn samurai bodyguard who is willing to wait til Gonzo gets it together to face him if the Imperials and the Shogun's men don't get there first!
Yojimbo and Sword of Doom are widely available, and both have been given the Criterion Collection treatment.
*Chambara, also spelled "chanbara" is a Japanese term for a swordplay film, a subgroup of jidaigeki, which is a historical film, television show or play (usually Edo period:1603-1868).