Masterpieces of Akira Kurosawa: The Best Films by the Legendary Filmmaker and Where to Stream Them

Ran Mieko Harada

History is filled with talented directors, many of whom are active today (directors like Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Quentin Tarantino, and many others). Unfortunately, as fantastic as these current filmmakers are, only a handful of directors go on to achieve a lasting legacy on the world stage, with some — like Akira Kurosawa — only coming along once in a generation.

A prolific artist, an inventive visionary, and a staunch perfectionist, Akira Kurosawa is not only responsible for introducing Japanese cinema to an international audience; he also helped reinvent the filmmaking process itself, crafting new narratives and technological innovations used for decades afterward.

From bold and imaginative early action films to Shakespearean epics adapted to historical Japanese settings, here are some of Kurosawa's greatest films, ranked from best to worst.

1. Seven Samurai

Seven Samurai Akira Kurosawa
Image Credit: Toho Co. Ltd.

In the late 1580s, the residents of an isolated village ask seven skilled ronin to protect their town from a band of thieves bent on raiding them.

It's an exaggeration to call Seven Samurai the first action film ever made, but it's not an exaggeration to say it's the most revolutionary action film of all time. Often ranked as one of the best movies of all time, its central premise has formed the basis for numerous far-ranging films, from The Magnificent Seven and The Dirty Dozen to Star Wars and Saving Private Ryan. An action film with a heart, it balances emotion, comedy, and impeccably-shot fight scenes in what is an utterly fantastic film from start to finish.

Currently streaming on HBO Max

2. Rashomon

Rashomon Akira Kurosawa
Image Credit: Daiei Film.

Seeking cover from a brutal rain storm, a group of travelers shares alternative versions of the same story, recounting the murder of a samurai (Masayuki Mori) from the perspective of every party involved.

In the grand scheme of his career, Rashomon may be the most experimental of Kurosawa's many films. Telling the same story repeatedly from shifting points of view raises questions about truth and the individual lens through which we observe life, full of inconsistencies, fabrications, and outright errors.

Currently streaming on HBO Max

3. Ikiru

Ikiru Takashi Shimura, Harue Kuramoto
Image Credit: Toho Co. Ltd.

Diagnosed with terminal stomach cancer, a man who's spent the past 30 years working in a bureaucracy (Takashi Shimura) searches for meaning in his life.

Kurosawa's follow-up to his equally profound The Idiot, this 1950 adaptation of Leo Tolstoy's “The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” is poetry in motion. Handling its main premise with sensitivity and warmth, it's as much a celebration of life and deriving meaning from existence as it is about a man coming to terms with his inevitable death.

Currently streaming on HBO Max

4. Ran

Ran Mieko Harada
Image Credit: Herald Ace, Nippon Herald Films, and Greenwich Film Productions.

In the mid-16th century, an aging lord (Tatsuya Nakadai) divides his kingdom between his three sons. Before long, the former lord watches in horror as his children ruthlessly wage war on each other, destroying everything he's spent his life trying to build.

The film Kurosawa had been pining to make for years, Ran marked the final masterpiece in Kurosawa's long, storied career. A visual marvel throughout, every frame of the film is bursting with vivid luminosity; far from being a mere technical spectacle alone, the film is also a wondrous take on Shakespeare's “King Lear,” preserving much of the Bard's source material and effortlessly adapting it to its period setting.

Not currently streaming, but available to rent on VOD

5. Throne of Blood

Throne of Blood Isuzu Yamada
Image Credit: Toho Co. Ltd.

Convinced by his scheming wife (Isuzu Yamada) and the prophecy of a witch (Chieko Naniwa) to murder his lord (Takamaru Sasaki), an ambitious samurai (Toshiro Mifune) contends with intense guilt over his actions, all the while trying to quell a mounting rebellion from his former lord's allies.

The first Kurosawa film adapted from Shakespeare, Throne of Blood demonstrated Kurosawa's ability to drastically alter text yet still preserve the story's overall tone. Transporting the tale of “Macbeth” to medieval Japan, the film offers a brilliant and stylish character study of Mifune's lead character and Sasaki's surrogate Lady Macbeth, existing as perhaps the greatest cinematic take on Macbeth to date.

Currently streaming on HBO Max

6. Stray Dog

Stray Dog Takashi Shimura
Image Credit: Shintoho Co. Ltd.

Amid a relentless heatwave in post-war Tokyo, a recently-promoted homicide detective (Toshiro Mifune) has his sidearm stolen by a local thief. Working with a veteran detective (Takashi Shimura), the two set out to track the thief down and recover the missing pistol.

One of the earliest and most influential detective movies in Japanese cinema at the time (as well as a precursor to the buddy cop genre), Stray Dog never comes across strictly as a crime film. Instead, it more fully examines the immediate aftermath of World War 2 in Japan and how the desperate attempts for survival on many people's part led to the sudden surge in crime at the time.

Currently streaming on Tubi

7. High and Low

High and Low Toshirô Mifune, Kenjirô Ishiyama
Image Credit: Kurosawa Films and Toho Co. Ltd.

After a young boy is kidnapped and held for ransom, a wealthy executive (Toshiro Mifune) grapples with whether to pay the money or use it to secure a potentially lucrative business deal.

High and Low would be plain silly in any other director's hands (of course, the executive should pay the ransom and save the boy's life). But with Kurosawa behind the camera, the movie becomes an intense study of guilt, greed, ambition, and morality, handling its narrative with utmost complexity.

Currently streaming on HBO Max

8. Drunken Angel

Drunken Angel Toshirô Mifune, Noriko Sengoku
Image Credit: Toho Co. Ltd.

Upon learning that he has tuberculosis, a violent young gangster (Toshiro Mifune) strikes up a friendship with his alcoholic doctor (Takashi Shimura) as he undergoes treatment.

The first breakthrough film in Kurosawa's young career, 1948's Drunken Angel seems like a stylistic forebear to everything you would expect from Kurosawa moving forward. A hard-boiled cross between Ikiru and Red Beard, it examines everything from life in post-war Tokyo to philosophical questions about existence itself — not to mention it marked the first of 14 collaborations between Kurosawa and his favorite actor, Toshiro Mifune.

Currently streaming on Tubi

9. The Bad Sleep Well

The Bad Sleep Well Kyôko Kagawa, Takeshi Katô, Tatsuya Mihashi
Image Credit: Toho Studios and Kurosawa Productions.

Years after his businessman father committed suicide, a vengeful young man (Toshiro Mifune) marries into the family of a corrupt industrialist (Masayuki Mori), punishing those he feels are responsible for his father's death.

Harking back to his inner love for Shakespeare, The Bad Sleep Well has clear shades of “Hamlet” tied to its revenge-centric plot, the film serving as an ideal segue between Throne of Blood and Ran. As with many of Kurosawa's contemporary films, The Bad Sleep Well was a savage attack on the cutthroat ethics of the business world, with the first 30 minutes specifically singled out for praise.

Not currently streaming, but available to rent on VOD

10. Yojimbo

Yojimbo Toshirô Mifune
Image Credit: Kurosawa Production and Toho Co. Ltd.

In the 1860s, a nomadic ronin (Toshiro Mifune) wanders into a small town where two opposing criminal factions are engaged in an all-out gang war. As the ronin settles in, each of the two gangs approaches him hoping to bring him into the conflict.

Nowadays, Yojimbo's defining legacy is its direct influence on the Spaghetti Westerns of the 1960s (the film serves as an immediate blueprint for Sergio Leone's Fistful of Dollars, the first official Spaghetti Western to come out of Italy). When looking at the original film itself, though, you can recognize a powerfully entertaining action film, Kurosawa taking his time to dramatically build up each fight, making a duel between two men feel as epic as a massive battle between two large armies.

Currently streaming on HBO Max

11. The Hidden Fortress

The Hidden Fortress Minoru Chiaki, Kamatari Fujiwara, Misa Uehara
Image Credit: Toho Co. Ltd.

Desperate for work, two bickering peasants (Minoru Chiaki and Kamatari Fujiwara) are hired to escort a pair of strangers across the wartorn countryside, unaware that they are actually transporting a princess (Misa Uehara) and a powerful general (Toshiro Mifune) traveling in disguise.

Like Yojimbo, The Hidden Fortress's influence tends to overshadow the quality of the film itself, the movie serving as a narrative inspiration for George Lucas's original Star Wars. Yet, like Yojimbo, if you can sit back and ignore the obvious comparisons between The Hidden Fortress and Lucas's space opera, you can witness a humorous, suspenseful, rarely boring historical odyssey.

Currently streaming on HBO Max

12. Red Beard

Red Beard Toshirô Mifune, Yûzô Kayama, Haruko Sugimura
Image Credit: Kurosawa Productions and Toho Co. Ltd.

Having spent his life training in prestigious medical institutes, a young, vain doctor (Yūzō Kayama) is sent to assist the prickly but well-intentioned doctor (Toshiro Mifune) of a small town.

Admittedly much slower-paced than Kurosawa's action-packed samurai epics, Red Beard relies heavily on Kurosawa's go-to recurring themes. Focusing on topics such as existentialism and disparities among different social classes, the movie follows the young doctor's growth from self-serving arrogance to genuinely wanting to help people in his profession (an impressive evolution that Kurosawa handles with depth and ease).

Currently streaming on HBO Max

13. Sanjuro

Sanjuro Toshirô Mifune
Image Credit: Kurosawa Productions and Toho Co. Ltd.

Overhearing nine young men complain about the corruption of their local government, a wandering ronin (Toshiro Mifune) decides to protect the young men and rid their town of its scheming officials.

Sanjuro is unique in that it's the first and only time Kurosawa has ever turned his attention to making a sequel. Acting as a loose follow-up to Kurosawa's earlier Yojimbo, Sanjuro channels the same blend between comedy and action that had made Yojimbo so enjoyable in the first place.

Not currently streaming, but available to rent on VOD

14. Kagemusha

Kagemusha Akira Kurosawa
Image Credit: Kurosawa Productions and Toho Co. Ltd.

In the 1570s, a dying daimyō arranges for a doppelganger (Tatsuya Nakadai) to impersonate him after his death, maintaining peace in Japan.

Dismissed by Kurosawa as a mere “dress rehearsal” for Ran, Kagemusha nevertheless remains one of Kurosawa's most enthralling films. In addition to its impressive exploration of Sengoku era Japan, the movie also explores some more profound issues of the self, as seen with the doppelganger slowly falling in love with his new identity as the daimyō.

Not currently streaming, but available to rent on VOD

15. Dersu Uzala

Dersu Uzala Maksim Munzuk
Image Credit: Daiei Film and Mosfilm.

In the early 20th century, the Russian Army assigns an expeditionary force to survey the remote Siberian forests, relying on a mysterious Nanai hunter (Maxim Munzuk) as their guide.

A longtime passion project of Kurosawa's, Dersu Uzala continues to divide critics and ardent fans of Kurosawa's filmography. Some viewers see it as a prime example of age improving Kurosawa's artistic sensibilities. Others view it as his among his most underrated works.

Regardless, the unique setting alone makes the film a major creative experiment on Kurosawa's part, illustrating his tendency to take on new, drastically different subject matter despite his age (he was then in his mid-60s).

Not currently streaming, but available to rent on VOD

This post was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.

Author: Richard Chachowski

Title: Journalist

Expertise: Classic Film, Contemporary Film and TV, Video Games, Comic Books


Richard Chachowski is an entertainment and travel writer who has written for such publications as Wealth of Geeks, Fangoria, Looper, Screen Rant, and MSN. He received a BA in Communication Studies and a BA in Journalism and Professional Writing from The College of New Jersey in 2021. He has been a professional writer since 2020. His geeky areas of interest include Star Wars, travel writing, horror, video games, comic books, literature, and animation.