NINJA AND SAMURAI FILMS
There are masses of Japanese films about ninja or samurai or both made over the past 80 or 90 years. The ninja films can be divided roughly into two types: those where ninja have supernatural powers and those which attempt to depict them realistically. However only a fraction of these are readily available with English subtitles. Eastern Eye and Madman have released a number in Australia in recent years while others can be got from Amazon or places like Samurai DVD or eBay.
Below I've listed those which can be had without too much trouble and which are most relevant to the world of The Samurai (which means most of Kurosawa's aren't here as being set too early - Rashōmon, Hidden Fortress, Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood - or too late - Yojimbo, Sanjuro, Lower Depths). All of them have English subtitles.
Shinobi no Mono Daiei, 1962-1966 There were seven films in this series, all starring Ichikawa Raizō. They depicted ninja realistically for the first time and were were responsible for the ninja boom in Japan in the 1960s. They were a major influence on The Samurai, changing it from a conventional samurai adventure series to one about ninja. They are in black and white and are set in the late 16th century, during the civil war period. The first four in the series have been released on DVD by AnimEigo (Region 1) and can be bought from Amazon.
The Detective Fencer (aka Onmitsu Kenshi) Toei, 1964. The first of the two theatrical The Samurai films, stars the usual suspects and is loosely based on Black Ninjas and Koga Ninjas. It is in black and white and widescreen. SamuraiDVD released it.
Sleepy Eyes of Death (aka Nemuri Kyōshirō) Daiei, 1963-1969. This series of 12 colour films also stars Ichikawa Raizō who plays an alienated rōnin, the product of a mesalliance between a Japanese noblewoman and a Catholic priest, at a time when Christianity was forbidden as were foreigners (except the Dutch and the Chinese). I've included it not only because it is a cracking set of films and Ichikawa a charismatic actor but because it is set at the same time as The Samurai, the reign of Ienari, the 11th Tokugawa Shogun. The first four films have been released by AnimEigo as a boxed set of DVDs (Region 1) and sold through Amazon.
Lone Wolf and Cub (aka Kozure Ōkami or Baby Cart From Hell) Tōhō, 1972-1974. Series of six colour films about a rōnin, a former shogunal executioner (played by Wakayama Tomisaburō) and his baby son, famous for their swordplay, bloodiness and action. These feature a somewhat nihilistic view of samurai, feudalism and bushido. They also have ninja in some of them and the 3rd entry in the series, Baby Cart to Hades has Amatsu Bin as one of a number of samurai Our (Anti-)Hero has to fight to prove himself worthy of taking on a contract to kill a clan chamberlain. Released in Australia as a boxed set by Eastern Eye.
The 47 Ronin (aka Chūshingura) Tōhō, 1962. This story of the Ako Vendetta of 1701 has been filmed many, many times. This version, directed by Inagaki Hiroshi, is said to be the most comprehensive, finest and longest. It has Mifune in a secondary role. It's here because not only is it spectacular, it's all about bushido and being a samurai. It is available on DVD from Eastern Eye.
Another version directed by Mizoguchi Kenji, entitled Genroku Chūshingura was made in black and white and two parts, released in 1941 and 1942. This is available on DVD under the title The Loyal 47 Ronin from Madman.
Bushido: the Cruel Code of the Samurai (aka Bushidō zankoku monogatari) Tōei, 1963. Directed by Imai Tadashi and starring Nakamura Kinnosuke, this black and white film is the flipside of the above, as the subtitle indicates. Released on DVD by AnimEigo (Region) and available from Amazon.
An Actor's Revenge (aka Yukinojō henge) Kadokawa Pictures, 1963. Directed by Ichikawa Kon and starring Hasegawa Kazuo, this colour film takes us into the world of the kabuki theatre with the story of an actor who specialises in female parts taking vengeance on those who drove his parents to suicide decades ago. A look at the culture of the Tokugawa period. Available on DVD from Madman.
Azumi 2003. Directed by Kitamua Ryūhei and starring Ueto Aya. Colour film featuring a kick-arse heroine, ninja and set in the early Tokugawa period. Based on a manga. Available on DVD from Eastern Eye
Ninja Wars (aka Iga ninpachō) Kadokawa Pictures, 1982. Directed by Saitō Kōsei and starring Sanada Hiroyuki and Sonny Chiba, this a ninja film set in the civil war period and featuring magic. Distributed in Australia by Stomp Visual and available at JB Hi-Fi and similar.
Samurai Spy (aka Ibun Sarutobi Sasuke) Shōchiku, 1965. Directed by Shinoda Masahiro and starring Takahashi Kōji, this black and white ninja film is set in the early Tokugawa period (1614) and features the legendary ninja Sarutobi Sasuke. Available on DVD from AnimEigo (Region 1) through Amazon.
Shinobi Shōchiku, 2005. Directed by Shimoyama Ten and starring Odagiri Jō and Nakama Yukie, this colour (and colourful) ninja film is based on a novel by Yamada Fūtarō. Set in the early Tokugawa period, this charmingly bonkers film features magical ninja, out-there action and star-crossed lovers. Available on DVD from Eastern Eye.
Kagemusha Tōhō, 1980. Directed by Kurosawa Akira and starring Nakadai Tatsuya, this epic concerns the Takeda clan's scheme to keep secret the death of their lord, Takeda Shingen by getting a peasant who resembles him to impersonate him. Needles to say it all ends in tears when Shingen's less talented son takes over. (Battle of Nagashino, anyone?). Stunning visually and here because it is as good as depiction of the civil war period as you'll get, an era whose shadow fell across a number of The Samurai stories (notably Koga Ninjas, Iga Ninjas, Fuma Ninjas and Fuma Ninjas Continued). The Takeda clan were also referenced particularly in Koga Ninjas and there was even a sort of flashback to their battles. Released by 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment in Australia.
Samurai Banners (aka Fūrin Kazan) Tōhō and Mifune Productions, 1969. Directed by Inagaki Hiroshi and starring Mifune Toshirō, this is another glorious colour epic dealing with the Takeda, namely Takeda Shingen himself and his wily general Yamamoto Kansuke. Released on DVD by AnimEigo (Region 1) and available through Amazon.
And finally, a curio, Bushido Blade Trident Films, 1979. Directed by Tom Kotani with Mifune and Sonny Chiba. This was an American-Japanese co-production about Commodore Perry's arrival in Japan in 1854 and a stolen samurai sword. The interest here is that William Ross (who dubbed Shintarō) played one of Perry's men and Amatsu Bin (Kongō of Kōga, et al.) played a swordsman.