Tom Cruise's epic "The Last Samurai"(just out on DVD) is, guess what, not that Last Samurai. You won't find the bloated egos of American idiots anywhere near it. No, this one was directed in 1974 by Kenji Misumi and is widely regarded as his masterpiece -- he died immediately after completing it. Some call it the greatest samurai film of all time. It's the story of Sugi Toranosuko, a gifted if neurotic swordsman in the 1860s, struggling to find a place as Japan enters the modern era. He ends up, after many sword fights, after winning, losing and winning the girl, after seeing his mentor cut down in political fighting and finding vengeance for that slaying, working as a barber! Hmm, would you trust your bare throat to a guy who'd slit hundreds of them? A great, if very Japanese movie.
The Seven Samurai is the second nominee for greatest samurai film ever made. You'd never lose if that was your argument. It's Akira Kurosawa at peak form, with actor Toshiro Mifune at peak form, in 1954. You know the story, even if you've never seen the movie, from its many American reiterations: In a time of chaos, seven unemployed samurai, looking for a fight, sign up for rice and wine to aid a village bedeviled by bandits. Why? Just like the man said, it seemed like a good idea at the time. (That's McQueen from "The Magnificent Seven," the tasty American remake of 1960.) So the film is intense, long, dark, bitter, powerful and stirring as the seven professionals train the villagers, then lead them, then are betrayed by them, then decide nobody can tell them to cut and run. They deal in blades, friend. Back they come, for a final fight, a few against many. The movie seems constructed of earth, wind and fire: It's primal, even primeval, strength on strength, steel on steel and you'll never forget it.
Samurai is still a third entrant in the greatest samurai sweepstakes. It too stars Mifune and it too dates from 1954. But the director is Hiroshi Inagaki, and it's the first of a three-part biography of the legendary samurai Miyamoto Musashi, who won eternal fame by defeating another fighter in the most famous sword fight in Japanese history. But that isn't covered until the third movie in Inagaki's trilogy. This one tells of the early years of Musashi, a kind of wild man who fought in wars, duels, taverns, brothels, temples and any place he could find. He was incorrigibly violent and without judgment. It chronicles the process by which he is tamed by a mentor who understands that his energy and courage need to be leavened by wisdom. It also so happens I saw this film as a child in '54, and remember it indelibly; I had no idea at the age of 8 that there were movies made that didn't star Francis the Talking Mule or the Beast From 20,000 Fathoms. That still amazes me!