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Like the hit Hulu series Shōgun? Then watch these 5 great movies right now

Soldiers ride on horseback over fallen bodies in Ran.

Against all odds, FX’s Shōgun has emerged as the best new TV series of the year so far. Based on James Clavell’s 1975 novel of the same name, the miniseries is a big-budget, sprawling exploration of early 1600s Japan that feels, at times, alternately like a measured political thriller, samurai adventure, and Game of Thrones-esque tale of brutality, honor, and sacrifice. It’s about as visually impressive as a TV series can get, but it backs up its surface-level pleasures with enough narrative and thematic complexity to keep viewers coming back for more.

Even in our current Prestige TV era, shows like Shōgun still seem rare. However, there are a few epic movies that feel like spiritual cousins to the FX drama, including the following five films, all of which are titles that both cinephiles and casual viewers should seek out.

Ran (1985)

Two armies stand in front of a burning building in Ran.

Directed by Akira Kurosawa, Ran is a stunning, 160-minute Shakespeare adaptation that sets the story of King Lear in Medieval Japan. It follows an elderly warlord who, upon retiring, splits his empire between his sons. In doing so, he lays the groundwork for a war that will go on to ravage a once-peaceful, unified land and rob both his children and himself of whatever joy they might have previously known.

It’s a haunting masterpiece and one of the best Japanese movies ever made, that offers even more beautiful images and moments of brutal violence than Shōgun. That said, the film’s scope and its story of bitter, interpersonal, and political rivalries make it a fitting companion piece to the new FX miniseries.

Ran is streaming on Amazon Prime Video via BFI Player Classics.

Silence (2016)

Adam Driver looks at Andrew Garfield in Silence.
Paramount Pictures

Shōgun extensively explores how the growing presence of Portuguese traders and Catholics in 1600s Japan shaped and affected some of the policies and political tensions of the time. That makes director Martin Scorsese‘s Silence a must-watch for anyone who finds themselves intrigued by the FX series’ exploration of the conflicts that grew in Japan between the Portuguese Catholics who were already established there, the European Protestants who wanted to create a foothold in the country, and the Japanese natives who were wary of the longterm effects Christianity could have on their nation’s culture.

Set some years after Shōgun, Silence follows a pair of Portuguese Jesuit priests (Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver) who travel to Japan to try to locate their former mentor (Liam Neeson) in a time when the Christian faith is being suppressed throughout the country. It’s a deeply spiritual film that offers new insight into how some of the religious and political tensions set up in Shōgun ultimately played out.

Silence is streaming on Paramount+.

Harakiri (1962)

Tatsuya Nakadai holds a sheathed short sword in Harakiri.

A lot of characters commit seppuku (i.e., a form of Japanese ritualistic suicide) throughout Shōgun‘s 10 episodes, and no movie explores the socially accepted, self-mutilating nature of that act more incisively or memorably than director Masaki Kobayashi’s 1962 masterpiece, Harakiri.

A film about a ronin (Tatsuya Nakadai) who requests to commit seppuku at a feudal lord’s palace only to challenge the reputations of everyone in attendance, Harakiri depicts where real honor comes from, as well as how the very concept could — and frequently was — weaponized throughout feudal Japanese society. It’s a necessary watch for anyone who finds Shōgun‘s ideas about self-sacrifice, bravery, and ideological commitment at all compelling.

Harakiri can be rented or purchased on Amazon Prime Video.

Kagemusha (1980)

Three Japanese generals sit on their horses in Kagemusha.

Another late-career masterpiece from legendary Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa, Kagemusha tells the story of a thief (Tatsuya Nakadai) with a shocking resemblance to a samurai warlord who is selected to serve as his doppelgänger’s double. When the lord in question later dies, his second is forced to assume his fake role full-time and lead entire armies into battle.

Along the way, Kagemusha emerges as an evocative treatise on not only the responsibility one bears to one’s culture, country, and fellow men but also how damaging the divisions that separate the poor from the rich and the powerful from the powerless can be to a nation’s future. It’s a perfect film to watch alongside Shōgun, a series about a powerful lord (Hiroyuki Sanada) willing to push his subjects as far as possible to ensure their loyalty.

Kagemusha can be rented or purchased on Amazon Prime Video.

The Yakuza (1974)

Robert Mitchum stands behind Ken Takakura in The Yakuza.
Warner Bros.

A 1970s neo-noir directed by Sydney Pollack and written by Paul Schrader and Robert Towne, The Yakuza follows an American P.I. (Robert Mitchum) who returns to Japan to rescue the kidnapped daughter of a friend and call upon the debt of a former yakuza gangster (Ken Takakura) to help him do it. As straightforward as its plot may seem, there’s more going on beneath the surface of The Yakuza than you think.

What starts as a simple crime thriller grows into a moving tale of two men bound to each other by fate and a shared sense of honor. It is, in part, a film about a Westerner with a deep respect for Japanese culture who comes to realize the impact that his mere presence can have on a foreign land, which is why it’s a worthy entry on this list.

Like Shōgun, it’s about how a series of cultural clashes can pave the way for a deeper sense of mutual understanding than anyone might expect.

The Yakuza is streaming on Hulu.

Editors' Recommendations

Alex Welch
Alex Welch is a TV and movies writer based out of Los Angeles. In addition to Digital Trends, his work has been published by…
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