Shonai Eigamura in Tsuruoka City

Where Japan’s Samurai Movies are Made

By Alena Eckelmann    - 3 min read

Ever wanted to slip back in time and join fearless samurai cohorts staging their bloody clan feuds in Edo era Japan?

All you need to do is buy a ticket for the Shonai Eigamura movie village and you are at the center of the scene, literally, at this open movie set in the countryside of Yamagata Prefecture.

Add some Japanese props to a Wild West ghost town and Hollywood comes to you in Japan. The movie village, an area as large as 20 Tokyo Domes, houses in fact three Edo-style sets: a mountain village, a fishing village and a postal down along an imaginary “highway” of old.

Most of the buildings, after closer inspection, turn out to have a frontal facade only; its doors lead into the expanse of nature behind the set as the interior scenes of the movies are mostly taken at a studio.

Nestled in a valley with the majestic peak of Mount Gassan in the back and the Yamagata plains stretching to the shores of the Sea of Japan in front, this nature-bound movie set provides the perfect backdrop for a number of Japan’s most recent samurai dramas.

Take ICHI, a classic samurai flick with a sword-slashing chick, or Zatoichi – The Last, another remake of the story of a blind swordsman featuring Shingo Katori, SMAP’s youngest member, as an unlikely sword swinging hero.

Like elsewhere in the world, the movie show-biz here is all about fantasy; just picture yourself in a ragged kimono with some straw sandals on your feet and a top-not on your head and you are ready to pick up one of the swords seemingly forgotten in front of the postal town’s tavern.

You may stab to death all your travel companions but they will resurrect in an instant. What looks like razor-sharp blades in a fast-paced sword fight on screen is in fact made of plastic.

Houses spiked in arrows and a giant barricade blocking the dusty street remind of the last heated battle in town. Some samurai-cum-guides dressed in period costumes “ambush” the unsuspecting tourists and enlighten them with snippets of information.

Trailers of the latest movies are shown on TV screens in some of the makeshift buildings while the scripts and some photos of shooting scenes are displayed at the Shonai Eigamura Movie Museum in Matsukaoka, a short bus ride from the open-air set.

If you are interested in Japanese contemporary movies, then you might also want to visit the movie set for "Okuribito" (a traditional Japanese undertaker). The main set in located in Sakata City but the sento (public bath) shown in the movie was actually moved to the Shonai movie village.

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Alena Eckelmann

Alena Eckelmann @alena.eckelmann

Born East of the Wall and South of Berlin, I am celebrating my 15th year anniversary in Japan in May 2020, the country that I call home now. I lived in crazy Tokyo for 6 years and since 2011 I call the beautiful Kii Peninsula (Kumano, Koyasan and Yoshinoyama) my home.I have been a JapanTravel Partner since the conception of the platform in 2011! In Tokyo I worked in market research at AIP Corporation and in business education at JMEC. For the last 10 years I have been a guide for foreign visitors at Venture Japan, on top of being a Freelance Writer and a Business Researcher.  Apart from work, I trained at the Yoshinkan Aikido Dojo and at the Oedo Sukeroku Taiko Dojo for several years each, and I ran the 1st Tokyo Marathon and enjoyed cycling around Tokyo. During the last 10 years I am working with local authorities to improve their hospitality to foreign visitors and I have participated in many monitors as a media representative.  My current interest is in Japanese nature and spirituality. I love spending time in the forest and mountains, and I love visiting temples and shrines.   I am a licensed guide for the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage trails  and for Koyasan, the Buddhist monastery, in addition to being a practitioner and licensed guide for Forest Therapy (Shinrin Therapy).  As a guide for walking tours, I have taken visitors to walk the Kumano Kodo trails, the Nakasendo trail and the Shikoku 88 temple pilgrimage trail.  Being grounded during this COVID-19 crisis, I enjoy gardening, baking bread in my new Japanese bread-maker and going for walks around 'my' village.  Take care, keep well, stay safe! 

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Rashaad Jorden 6 years ago
That's a place I should have visited (I can't believe I never did). Maybe next time.