Akira Kurosawa made the best samurai movies in cinematic history, since he mixed in other elements (spaghetti westerns!) and crafted the action around the stories. And the two-movie pack of "Yojimbo" and "Sanjuro" is deeply satisfying -- vivid, compelling, often humorous and they star the fantastic Toshiro Mifune.
"Yojimbo" was an adaptation of Dashiell Hammett's "Red Harvest," the story of a detective who cleans up a city. But Kurosawa yanks the action across the world, to a grizzled samurai (Mifune) who wanders into an impoverished town, after hearing a farmer talking about the corruption there.
He wasn't kidding -- the nearby town is a battleground for two warring clans and the corrupt police. The samurai knows that he's smarter than anyone else in the town, so he starts playing the two clans against one another, while deftly sidestepping the inevitable clashes.
If "Yojimbo" is a dark comedy, "Sanjuro" is more of a straight-out comedy, with the return of Mifune's scruffy, wily hero. This time, he rescues nine naive, inept young noblemen from the Superintendent's thugs, and after figuring out the conspiracy that is forming in a nearby town, he decides to rescue the Superintendant, his wife and daughter.
Unfortunately, the samurai (now going by the name of Sanjuro Tsubaki) soon finds that the noblemen aren't very bright, and they also have a bad habit of disobeying him, since he is of lower rank than they are. He concocts a plan to thwart the Superintendant and his deadly lieutenant... assuming his army of nine doesn't botch it.
Kurosawa was a lover of American cowboy flicks, and at times this shows, especially in the rugged hero, who acts like a medieval Japanese gunslinger (he even has the piercing eyes for it). But first and foremost, these are solid stories -- no more and no less. And Kurosawa's storytelling ability is laced with drama, humor, and rapid-fire action. Not to mention great dialogue ("Get back in the cupboard!").
Mifune is the ideal rogue samurai -- he's gritty, unpretentious, and laughs openly when he sees a bunch of bullies who are too afraid to actually fight. Kurosawa gives him more dimension in the second movie, where he is compared to an "unsheathed blade" and compares himself to one of the villains, because they are the same kind of person.
For any rabid cinephile, Kurosawa's films are a must. Epic action movies with plenty of swords, comedy and grizzled heroes don't come any better than these.