These Are the Samurai Films You Should Watch After Finishing Ghost of Tsushima

These Are the Samurai Films You Should Watch After Finishing Ghost of Tsushima

From Sanjuro to Ran, and Lady Snowblood to Samurai Assassin, here are the films to watch after Ghost of Tsushima.

Ghost of Tsushima isn't a historical deep dive. Samurai didn't quite follow the code of honor that underpins the game's themes, nor did they wear that style of armor. They didn't even carry their distinctive katana during the period in which it's supposed to take place. It does retain some historical details, but it's not intended to be a History Channel-style recreation of the first invasion of Tsushima by the Mongol Empire. Sucker Punch has acknowledged as much.

"If you have an idea about what samurai look like or how they act or how they think we're going to give that to you. Most people's idea is really based on an idea of samurai which is really more of a 16th-, 17th-, 18th-century idea of samurai; 13th century, historically, is pretty different. In terms of how they fought, what they wore, it doesn't match your expectations. So we're not sticking exactly to the historical truth of Kamakura-era samurai," Sucker Punch co-founder Chris Zimmerman told GameSpot.

Instead, Ghost of Tsushima is a translation of a translation. It's inspired by the chanbara genre of Japanese films, all of which were focused on the samurai of old. Similar to how the Western romanticized the cowboy in the United States, samurai cinema did the same for those ancient warriors. The genre made samurai into larger than life figures, softening some edges while sharpening others. And Ghost of Tsushima carries forward those ideas, with samurai Jin Sakai slicing through scores of Mongols, bandits, and ronin.

I count myself as a fan of samurai films, so playing through Ghost of Tsushima was an interesting experience. As I played through the game, I caught hints and references to certain films, or at least gleaned some connection. Here are a few of the classic films that I think Sucker Punch was paying homage to.

Harakiri (1962), directed by Masaki Kobayashi

Harakiri is the story of Tsugumo Hanshiro, a samurai whose clan has long since been destroyed and disbanded. The premise involves a practice where ronin, samurai without a lord, comes to the palace of the Ii clan with the intention of committing seppuku, a form of ritual suicide. Stories tell of those in the past being sent away with money rather than spilling their blood on palace grounds. Tsugumo comes to avenge his ward, Motome, who died earlier trying to fake his suicide in front of the Ii clan leaders. The film is an indictment of the Ii samurai, who throw down edicts based on honor and bushido, but are unable to live up to those ideals themselves.

Part of the struggle within Jin is the acknowledgement the rigid samurai code of bushido will only lead the people of Tsushima in death and slavery. In the opening moments of Ghost of Tsushima, noble Harunobu Adachi walks right up to the Mongol army, declaring his family name and intention to duel. He is summarily cut down by Khotun Khan in a sneak attack, showing that the Mongols are here to conquer and win, not to fight honorably.

Kobayashi's work is definitely a visual inspiration for Ghost of Tsushima. In the duel shown above, you can almost feel the game's Divine Wind sweeping over the battlefield. The deliberate pacing of the action preceding the duel is also felt in many of Ghost of Tsushima's boss battles, which are shown as one-on-one fights.

How to Watch: Criterion Collection (DVD, Blu-Ray, Streaming)

Bushido: The Cruel Code of the Samurai (1963), directed by Tadashi Imai

Following the destruction of all of Tsushima's eighty samurai, Jin is pulled between the staid code of bushido he was raised to follow and the more effective guerilla fighting style of the peasants. For Jin, the ends are more important than the means and that drives the emotional conflict of Ghost of Tsushima.

This is one of the darker, more haunting films in this list. Tadashi Imai's Bushido follows the trials of seven generations of one samurai family, with the primary members of each family all portrayed by actor Kinnosuke Nakamura. As you follow the Ikura family through the ages, you see all the wrongs committed in the name of bushido, because of the unwavering sense of loyalty to a noble class. In the desire to conform to the wish of their royal masters, the Ikura falters again and again, suffering death and enslavement for a brutal code that doesn't care about them at all. Ghost of Tsushima never goes this hard, but some of its emotional climaxes tread the same ground.

It's also notable that Imai allows the women in his film to have more agency and power than was normal in many of the movies of this era. Bushido is a better film for it. If you were able to survive Bushido, Imai's Revenge (1964) treads the same ground. Unfortunately, this is a classic that can't be found on modern services, so you'll be forced to pick up the DVD. (Just be prepared: Heavy Content Warning.)

How to Watch: Amazon (DVD)

Ran (1985), directed by Akira Kurosawa

Kurosawa is one of the most well-known Japanese filmmakers, and Sucker Punch Productions actually leveraged his name for the black-and-white visual filter in Ghost of Tsushima. That said, many don't realize that Kurosawa was a master of color as well. Ran is Kurosawa's biggest film, based roughly on the life of feudal lord Mori Motonari and inspired by William Shakespeare's King Lear. Ran is the story of an empire undone by the conflict between three sons of the aging warlord Hidetora Ichimonji.

Ran is an epic in all senses of the word. More importantly, if you look at the use of color, contrast, and imagery in the film you'll see its fingerprints all over Sucker Punch's game. The bright reds, whites, and yellows of the divided Ichimonji forces; the burning of the Third Castle; the assembled armies of horseback warriors marching off to die. Many of the distinct images and moments in Ran are recalled in Ghost of Tsushima. Others might point to more popular films like The Seven Samurai (1954) and Throne of Blood (1957), but Ran is probably the strongest comparison to Tsushima's visual composition.

How to Watch: Criterion Collection (DVD, Blu-Ray, Streaming)

Sanjuro (1962), directed by Akira Kurosawa

This is another choice where I think people are more likely to jump toward the more popular iteration. Sanjuro is the sequel to Yojimbo, widely considered to be one of Akira Kurosawa's best films. I think you should watch both, but I find more of Sanjuro's DNA in Ghost of Tsushima, versus the semi-Western feel of Yojimbo.

Sanjuro is largely a crime drama, with the masterless warrior fighting on one side of the conflict, while not being entirely aligned to that side. In this second film, title character Sanjuro resorts to more trickery to achieve his aims, despite also being deft with his sword. But the key scene here is the final duel, which is similar to Ghost of Tsushima's single slash kills in Standoff. Here, Sanjuro faces off against Hanbei Muroto, a man who he acknowledges is much like himself, but with different allegiances. That final duel is one of the best moments in samurai cinema period, and Kurosawa actually did it in a single take.

How to Watch: Criterion Collection (DVD, Blu-Ray, Streaming)

Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto (1954), directed by Hiroshi Inagaki

All three films in this trilogy informed Ghost of Tsushima, but I wanted to focus on the first film here. Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto details the journey of Takezo to becoming the famous warrior Musashi Miyamoto. After ending on the losing side of a conflict, Takezo becomes a fugitive, trying to protect a friend while also playing a cat-and-mouse game with a local lord.

Takezo's conflicts in this film feel rather similar to Jin, who's hunted throughout Tsushima by the Mongol forces and, eventually, samurai sent by the Shogun. Takezo's fights inside darkened inns and against the amassed forces of samurai are reflected in similar situations as Jin. Also, and one of the duels in the game is a strong reference to the third film, Samurai III: Duel at Ganryu Island.

How to Watch: Criterion Collection (DVD, Blu-Ray, Streaming)

A scene from the final fight of Samurai Assassin. | Toho

Samurai Assassin (1965), directed by Kihachi Okamoto

This film is rooted in the years just prior to the Meiji Restoration, with decisions being made that will ultimately change the samurai and Japan's caste system in general. The main character is Tsuruchiyo Niiro, the illegitimate son of a lord, who becomes an outcast due to the nature of his birth. It's a war between a group Niiro joins and the ruling Ii clan, with Niiro trying to find his honor and recognition in the latter's world, before realizing that it'll never come.

The climax comes on a snowy battlefield, as all die, unable to reach any of their stated aims without losing their lives or themselves. This mirrors Ghost of Tsushima, as Jin's battle against the Mongols begins to cost him everything.

How to Watch: Amazon (DVD)

Sword of Doom (1966), directed by Kihachi Okamoto

Ryunosuke Tsukue is an emotionless samurai and assassin who is drawn deeper into madness as he kills for his various masters. The hunger for revenge is aimed in his direction over the course of the film, as he's confronted with his murderous actions. Ultimately, he has to face the ghosts of his past, falling into a mindless rage and killing dozens in the process.

Okamoto's impact on Ghost of Tsushima is even stronger here. Part of Ghost of Tsushima's main plot and side quests are about Jin's descent into something darker. As he leaves behind the calming facade of the samurai, he "anything goes" style as the Ghost begins to taint some of his relationships.

An ambush targeting Ryunosuke recalls most of Ghost of Tsushima's melee combat, a horde of enemies attacking and being struck down by his powerful slashes. At the same time, the dust is blown in the same direction as Ryunosuke's path, almost driving him forward. The scene ends with the cold, dead-eyed Ryunosuke standing over the bodies lying beside the road, before a brief glimpse at the darkness of his soul.

How to Watch: Criterion Collection (DVD, Blu-Ray, Streaming)

Lady Snowblood (1973), directed by Toshiya Fujita

Two of the strongest characters in Ghost of Tsushima are women: Yuna, the thief who leads Jin down the path of becoming the Ghost, and Lady Masako, a matriarch driven to revenge after her entire family is murdered. Unfortunately, leading ladies in samurai cinema is something of a rarity.

Lady Snowblood is the tale of Yuki, a young woman out for revenge after three men who raped her mother and killed her father and brother. Raised with this revenge in mind, Yuki is single-minded, an assassin focused on killing those who wronged her family. Though Yuki is much younger than Lady Masako, they share a similar determination and similar lists of targets that need killing. The pair also share a fiery passion that's somewhat missing from the male protagonists on this list.

How to Watch: Criterion Collection (DVD, Blu-Ray)

Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance (1972), directed by Kenji Musumi

Based on the manga of the same name by Kazuo Koike, who also created the aforementioned Lady Snowblood, this is the first of six films involving the former executioner Itto Ogami. This is a pretty famous story, with Ogami wandering from place-to-place, helping others and taking care of his son Daigoro. Unlike some films, while Lone Wolf and Cub touches on some serious topics, all six films in the series are far more action films than dramas.

Some of the more fantastic elements of Ghost of Tsushima, special attacks like the Dance of Wrath and the Heavenly Strike, find their genesis here. Ogami's special attack is the Suio-ryu Wave Slicer, a technique that actually uses a body of water to reach its apex. It's full fantastical nonsense, but treated as deadly serious in one of the major duels of the film, as Ogami fights off an army in a river. Using one of Jin's special attacks during a duel absolutely invokes Lone Wolf and Cub.

How to Watch: Criterion Collection (DVD, Blu-Ray, Streaming)

13 Assassins (2010), directed by Takashi Miike

This is the latest film on this list, and a remake of the 1963 film of the same name. In the film, an older samurai gathers together 12 other warriors in order to assassinate a corrupt lord with ties to the Shogun. The group has to contend with assassins, ronin, and the Shogun's troops in order to achieve their goal. It's a story of futile actions, as the 13 samurai are slowly killed by the forces amassed against them.

13 Assassins is another film that is critical of the system of bushido that props up a corrupt nobility. It's a tale where samurai have to abandon their code in order to do what's right, becoming something closer to ninjas. Ghost of Tsushima lives in this same territory, and to be honest, 13 Assassins is one of Miike's best action films, culminating in a 45-minute battle against our heroes and an enemy army.

How to Watch: Amazon (Streaming)

It might be an expensive endeavor, as not all of these films are easy to find, but it's worth your time to see the roots of chanbara. Akira Kurosawa, Hiroshi Inagaki, Kenji Misumi, Kihachi Okamoto, Masaki Kobayashi, and more laid down an aesthetic that's since been copied and translated into other films. Ghost of Tsushima is merely the latest vessel of that style, backed more by a love of these films than any tie to historic accuracy. And while the tale told in Ghost of Tsushima is a straightforward one, many of these films present a different side of Japanese culture. If you love what Sucker Punch's open-world adventure is putting down, I urge you to pick up these films.

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Mike Williams

Reviews Editor

M.H. Williams is new to the journalism game, but he's been a gamer since the NES first graced American shores. Third-person action-adventure games are his personal poison: Uncharted, Infamous, and Assassin's Creed just to name a few. If you see him around a convention, he's not hard to spot: Black guy, glasses, and a tie.

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