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Samurai are fascinating, aren't they? As warriors, they charge head-first into battles, cutting through hordes of enemies with one of the best swords the world has ever seen. At the same time, they're also loyal vassals to their lords, and can even be loners who have their own take on bushido ("way of the warrior"). Their mystique is so strong, they've even inspired non-Japanese to create films like The Last Samurai, Red Sun and Shogun Assassin.
Of course, no one knows the samurai better than the Japanese themselves. Although most of the anime below embellish the samurai's image a bit (but then, what fictional work doesn't?), they're still awesome enough to deserve a place on anyone's "must-watch" list. Without further ado, let's start off with:
10. Hakuouki: Shinsengumi Kitan
- Episodes: 12
- Aired: Apr 2010 – Jun 2010
The Shinsengumi, an elite police force, existed at a time when the Tokugawa shogunate was beginning to lose power, and Japan was beginning to open its doors to foreigners. Historically, their main function was to keep anti-foreigner rebels at bay, though Hakuouki extends this further to include battling against monsters called Rasetsu.
In the midst of it all is Yukimura Chizuru, a young woman who wanders into Kyoto while searching for her doctor father. She gets attacked by criminals, but is thankfully saved by the Shinsengumi (which, according to Hakuouki, is an all-bishounen group). Coincidentally, Chizuru and the group happen to be searching for the same person, and so she ends up staying with them for a while.
Even though this show is pegged as a "reverse harem," it doesn't focus much on the romance. Instead, it has well-done fight scenes, great character development for each of the Shinsengumi members, and a mystery puzzle you can solve one episode at a time. Whether you're a fan of pretty boys or not, this show has something for you.
9. Sengoku Basara
- Episodes: 12
- Aired: Apr 2009 – Jun 2009
On the other hand, Sengoku Basara takes us back to the years before the rise of the Tokugawa shogunate. At the time, warlords from all over Japan fought for ultimate control of the country. None of them, however, came as close to their goal as Oda Nobunaga, who was willing to use any means necessary (read: massacring innocent people) to fulfill his ambition. Naturally, the other warlords decided to band against him…
…and that's about as historically accurate as this show gets. Otherwise, it's one over-the-top scene after the other: Generals that literally wipe out entire armies with a single swing of the sword/axe/spear, horses decked out like Harley Davidson motorcycles (I'm looking at you, Date Masamune), and heaps of insanity all around. (That may be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on your preferences.) At any rate, this is definitely one of the most memorable shows to come out within the last decade — what with Masamune's random Engrish and Sanada Genjirou Yukimura's passionate declarations about his "oyakata-sama" and "burning soul," among other things.
8. Samurai 7
- Episodes: 26
- Aired: Jun 2004 – Dec 2004
Can't have a "top samurai shows" list without a Kurosawa-inspired piece, can we? Like its internationally-acclaimed predecessor, Samurai 7 revolves around a village constantly attacked by bandits. One day, the village elder decides that they've had enough, and tasks a group to recruit seven samurai in exchange for rice (since the village is too poor to offer money). The group had a bit of difficulty at first, until they encounter a shell-shocked veteran named Shimada Kambei, who helps them gather the rest of the warriors.
Make no mistake, though: Samurai 7 isn't a carbon-copy of Kurosawa's film. It puts a steampunk twist to the story, with the bandits becoming mechas called Nobuseri. Additionally, the relationship between Kirara and Okamoto Katsushiro is further explored, and ends differently from that in the film. Lastly, the pacing is just right for each episode, and eventually leads to a bittersweet, but satisfying, conclusion.
7. Saraiya Goyou (House of Five Leaves)
- Episodes: 12
- Aired: Aired: Apr 2010 – Jul 2010
Although Akitsu Masanosuke is a skilled samurai, he never stays employed for long due to his awkward personality. This changes when he meets Yaichi, who offers him a job as a yojimbo (bodyguard) for a group called the "Five Leaves." As Masanosuke soon finds out, the group isn't what it seems, but he's intrigued enough to stay with them all the same.
Unlike the shows we've listed so far, Saraiya Goyou isn't action-oriented. Instead, it slowly rounds out its characters, none of whom can be considered truly "good" or "evil." The art style and music also fit the show's gray themes perfectly, though the art can take time to get used to. Overall, if you want something different from the usual samurai show, Saraiya Goyou might just fit the bill.
6. Hyouge Mono
- Episodes: 39
- Aired: Apr 2011 – Jan 2012
Another slow samurai show is Hyouge Mono, which takes place during Japan's Warring States Period (Sengoku Jidai). Now, you normally wouldn't put "slow" and "Warring States Period" in the same sentence — until you realize that, hey, even samurai need to chill out once in a while.
When samurai aren't slashing at each other, they participate in cultural pursuits like tea ceremonies. Such is the obsession of Furuta Sasuke, a vassal of none other than Oda Nobunaga himself. At the end of episode's run, a question is posed which sums up Sasuke's dilemma: "To be an aesthete or a warrior?" (Note: An aesthete is a person who appreciates art and beauty more than anything else.)
To be fair, Hyouge Mono isn't for everyone. If 39 episodes of old men chattering about tea doesn't interest you, it'd be a total pain to sit through this show. But if you're willing to give it a chance, this show is great at showcasing a different, quieter side of the Sengoku era.
5. Stranger: Mukou Hadan (Sword of the Stranger)
- Episodes: 1
- Aired: Sep 2007
And now, let's get back to the action, shall we? This time around, we have a young boy named Kotaro, who's on the run from a group of elite Ming soldiers. Among these soldiers is Rarou (Luo-Lang in Mandarin Chinese), a blonde-and-blue-eyed Westerner who wants nothing more than to fight a worthy opponent. Fortunately for Rarou, Kotaro hires Nanashi — a mysterious but skilled samurai — as his bodyguard, and so the destinies of the three collide.
First off, this movie's fight scenes are some of the best in anime. You can see every swing of the sword, every dodge of the foot and every cut into skin, but the action doesn't slow down for even a single frame. Also, everyone in this film is a badass (including the dog!), so you'll have a heck of a ride when characters go into Fight Mode. Lastly, the art and animation are fantastic, thanks in part to the efforts of Tsunenori Saito and Nakamura Yutaka — both of whom also worked on Cowboy Bebop, Fullmetal Alchemist and Eureka Seven, among others.
4. Shigurui: Death Frenzy
- Episodes: 12
- Aired: Jul 2007 – Oct 2007
Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that "Sword of the Stranger" is a violent film, but most of the violence happens off-screen, or is blurred. Shigurui, on the other hand… Well, if you liked Ninja Scroll and Basilisk, Shigurui is pretty much on-par with them in terms of the "gore" factor.
This anime follows Fujiki Gennosuke and Irako Seigen, both of whom are potential successors to the school of Iwamoto Kogan, Japan's greatest swordsman. Only one of them can take the post, however, so they battle it out in a bloody tournament that'll test not only their worth as warriors, but also their humanity.
Shigurui may be one of the most disturbing shows — samurai or otherwise — you'll ever watch. There's the man who gutted himself to protest against a fight, and another whose bizarre sex scene will burn into your brain for days after you see it. If you can stomach all that, however, Shigurui offers an interesting — if extremely cynical — perspective about the samurai mythos.
3. Samurai Champloo
- Episodes: 26
- Aired: May 2004 – Mar 2005
On a lighter note, we have Samurai Champloo, which is on so many "Top X Anime" lists, I'm not sure what else I can say about it that hasn't been said before. But I'll recap the basic plot all the same.
At the heart of this show is Fuu, a somewhat air-headed but plucky waitress who wants to find a "samurai who smells like sunflowers." When a violent fight breaks out in her workplace, and the participants were about to be executed, she saves two of them: Mugen, a bad-tempered warrior with a breakdance-like fighting style, and Jin, a straight-laced but strong samurai in his own right. Together, they set out to help Fuu complete her quest, and have zany adventures along the way.
As many have pointed out, this show has awesome music. You'll bob your head in time with Nujabes' songs, and the soundtrack hits all the right notes (pun intended) with scenes like Mugen's flashbacks. Also, the combination of Edo period and modern elements may seem odd, but in true Watanabe Shinichiro fashion, they blend together as well as Samurai Champloo's main trio.
2. Rurouni Kenshin: Meiji Kenkaku Romantan
- Episodes: 94
- Aired: Jan 1996 – Sep 1998
This show is a classic in the samurai genre, and for good reason. It's about Himura Kenshin, who was formerly known as Battousai, a hitokiri ("man-slayer") for the government during the Bakumatsu. For some mysterious reason, he decides to leave that old life, and now that he is in the peaceful Meiji era, he wants nothing more than to be a rurouni ("wanderer") who will never kill again. Unfortunately for him, former enemies keep coming back to haunt him.
Rurouni Kenshin revolves around a simple, but powerful, conflict: Will Kenshin remain true to his "no-kill" vow, or will he become Battousai again to protect his country from powerful, bloodthirsty enemies? Granted, the TV series' quality can be uneven, with fillers taking up most of the latter part, but when this show is good, it's awesome.
- Episodes: 201
- Aired: Apr 2006 – Mar 2010
To be honest, I wasn't sure whether to put this in the top spot or not. After all, Gintama is best known for its toilet humor, and this probably isn't the right list for Sorachi Hideaki's obra maestra to be number one. But, after taking into account everything that happened during the serious arcs, I think I've made the right decision.
See, Gintama presents multiple perspectives on what it means to be a samurai. To the main character, Sakata Gintoki, being a samurai is about protecting what he wants to protect (read: his oddball group of friends). To Katsura "Zura" Kotaro, a joi rebel, it's about freeing the country from the Amanto. To Sakamoto Tatsuma, it's about bringing smiles to others through his business ventures. To Takasugi Shinsuke, it's about reclaiming the honor of the samurai — and avenging Shouyou-sensei — by any means necessary.
And that's just the tip of the iceberg. You also have the Shinsengumi (made up of "country samurai"), the Shimura siblings and many others. Even the Yato — the universe's strongest mercenary race — view the samurai as worthy opponents. What I'm saying is, behind all of its dirty jokes and self-deprecating humor, Gintama is a show that handles its samurai themes unlike any other.
Considering the overall quality of the samurai genre, I'm sure plenty of gems were left out, like Peacemaker Kurogane, Kazemakase Tsukikage Ran, Afro Samurai, Mushibugyou, Mutsu Enmei Ryuu Gaiden and many others. So if you have anything to say about my choices, let's have a friendly(!) discussion in the comments.