For any creative endeavor, it is hard to find artists that work in a vacuum. The world of film and its creators is a web of many different traditions and techniques connecting and influencing others often worlds apart. Filmmakers are at their very core film lovers, and you will often see them influence each other. This can happen in interesting and unexpected ways; one famous example is what I like to call the “samurai Westerns,” movies from the Western genre that were heavily influenced by the samurai films of Akira Kurosawa. Let’s dig a bit deeper into this phenomenon.
Akira Kurosawa’s Samurai
While there are many samurai films that were produced in Japan in the ’50s and ’60s, those of Akira Kurosawa were by far the most revered, important, and widely watched by an international audience. With his star actor Toshiro Mifune and a stable of familiar collaborators, Kurosawa produced a number of memorable films which often included samurai as protagonists. This can be seen as early as 1945 when Kurosawa produced The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail and in 1950’s iconic Rashōmon where a samurai is one of the main players in a crime that is being investigated. In later films such as the incomparable epic Seven Samurai and Yojimbo, Kurosawa’s samurai move beyond the trappings of period dramas and establish themselves as action heroes in their own right. Despite these movies having a wholly Japanese aesthetic and cultural background, Kurosawa had a knack for strong storytelling and for infusing his works with a universal humanist appeal that played well for audiences of many different cultural backgrounds. To put it bluntly, Kurosawa’s narratives and characters were ripe for adaptation into other mediums, and other filmmakers thought so as well.
Samurai and the Spaghetti Western
Sergio Leone was able to build a quite successful career from his films of the 1960s starring Clint Eastwood. These films have their own cultural legacy of helping to create the genre of films known as “spaghetti Westerns,” that is, films with an American Western setting produced by Italian directors, many of whom followed suit after seeing Leone’s success. Clint Eastwood’s stoic gunslinger “the man with no name” has become an iconic character of film in his own right, but many don’t realize that the film which launched him to prominence (1964’s A Fistful of Dollars) is an unofficial adaptation of Yojimbo. For those unfamiliar with the narrative of either film, both involve a stranger rolling unannounced into a small town in which a dispute between two groups has created mounting tensions. Kurosawa especially has a knack for visually conveying just how dire things have become. Recognizing this newcomer as someone with great prowess in combat, both sides try to entice the protagonist to side with them. Recognizing injustices committed by both groups, the hero plays the two sides against each other until the bad eggs on both sides have been dealt with and peace can be restored. It should be noted that Toho Co. (the studio Kurosawa worked under) sought legal actions against Leone and eventually won due to Leone’s failure to credit his film as an adaptation. Interestingly enough, although Kurosawa never confirmed it, many film historians believe Yojimbo itself was actually an adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s 1929 novel Red Harvest, which takes place in a small Montana town. While others might like to quibble over the specifics of who inspired whom, that doesn’t detract from the fact that these are both excellent films that deserve a watch.
The Magnificent Seven Samurai
The Magnificent Seven is a title that will sound familiar to plenty of Americans. It was a star-studded Western that John Sturges produced in 1960 featuring Yul Brenner, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, and James Coburn. With such an illustrious cast, it’s easy to overlook that this film is an American adaptation of Seven Samurai, although unlike Leone, Sturges was very upfront about working his adaptation directly from Shinobu Hashimoto and Kurosawa’s original script. Seven Samurai is often credited with being one of the first films to employ the trope of gathering a team of heroes together for a task, a trope found from 1960’s Ocean’s Eleven to the more recent film The Avengers. Sturges certainly recognized the appeal of this when leveraging the star power in his adaptation; there is something exciting about seeing a ragtag team of heroes pulled together, especially in order to accomplish a task where the odds are against them. In both Kurosawa’s and Sturges’s films, a small farming town that is set upon seasonally by bandits recruits a group of reluctant warriors to fend off the next siege. In both films, an experienced warrior (Yul Brynner and Takashi Shimura) takes pity on the villagers and gathers a small group to aid the cause, despite the villagers’ inability to pay a decent wage.
Much of both narratives is focused on the band of protectors coming to bond with the poor townsfolk and developing a personal stake in defending the town. Both directors also build a fair amount of tension showing that while their group of seven are very skilled, they are heavily outnumbered, and this leads to some pretty thrilling action sequences after a slow build-up. While Sturges built off of Kurosawa’s memorable story, The Magnificent Seven became an iconic name in its own right, going on to spawn three sequels and almost 40 years later, a television series.
The Web of Influence – Kurosawa’s Influencers
When speaking of the directors that Kurosawa influenced, it is important to recognize that there were plenty of Kurosawa’s own sources of influence that contributed to the themes and characters of his films. Much of Kurosawa’s youth in the 1920s and ’30s was filled with the influence of Marxist thought which spread through much of young Japan as various socialist parties struggled to gain a foothold in the empire. Kurosawa was also heavily influenced by Russian literature, especially Dostoyevsky, whose novel The Idiot Kurosawa would go on to adapt in 1951.
Kurosawa was influenced by filmmakers outside of Japan as well, such as the often contrasted Russian directors Sergei Eistenstein and Vsevolod Pudovkin, the German-Austrian (and later Hollywood) film maker Fritz Lang, and perhaps most tellingly John Ford, whose Westerns such as Stagecoach are considered some of the finest ever produced. Ford’s production of Westerns can be traced back to his first silent films in 1917, and Ford’s films starring John Wayne were a staple of Kurosawa’s theater-going as a budding director.
In some ways, John Ford’s elevation of the then B-movie actor John Wayne into the prototypical Western hero is comparable to the way that Kurosawa’s championing of Mifune launched him to stardom. Film critics have argued ad nauseum over whether the extent to which Kurosawa was influenced by American and European filmmakers compromised his films and whether or not they can be seen as wholly Japanese. I think the universality of his films could only be accomplished because of his exposure to directors from many backgrounds, but I don’t agree with those who say that he was unduly pandering to the West. When tracing influences back through time like this, you start to realize that what we are talking about has very little to do with cowboys and samurai, but instead speaks to the themes which ring true and that audiences embrace.
Whether Guns or Swords — Why these Films Work
Comparing these examples of adaptations, it is interesting to note that both Kurosawa’s samurai and the Western directors’ gunslingers act as manifestations of justice against the morally compromised who seek to take advantage of the weak. These universal themes have proven to be very translatable, and all of these movies find success in portraying heroes that are admirable. Furthermore, all of the heroes within aren’t portrayed as the “Superman” archetype — all powerful paragons of justice who are eminently likeable — but as hardened warriors with deficient personalities that ultimately find themselves going to great lengths in the name of justice. These prickly personalities that ultimately win us over make for much more memorable characters. These films portray worlds that acknowledge a complex morality where simply being concerned with justice does not guarantee victory and where selfish interests are constantly weighed against doing what is best for the common good. Theoretically, a Japanese audience that had never seen Yojimbo will be able to watch A Fistful of Dollars and be similarly impressed by the hero’s convictions because, while the setting has aesthetics that contribute to the enjoyment, it is ultimately the strength of the story being told which makes it resonate so strongly across different eras.
More than Westerns — Other Samurai Adaptations
As you might expect, while Westerns proved to be a fitting transition for the samurai hero, many of these Japanese stories have also been adapted into films of other genres. The series of films (26 in total) featuring Zatoichi the blind swordsman are a staple of samurai cinema, and a Western adaptation finally surfaced in 1989 as Blind Fury. Rutger Hauer stars in this action flick as a soldier who, blinded in an explosion in Vietnam, has become a master swordsman after being taught by the villagers who rescued him.
Several animated films have been inspired by Kurosawa’s work. These include Pixar’s A Bug’s Life, which draws heavily from Seven Samurai, and the independent animated film Hoodwinked! whose narrative conceit of examining multiple perspectives of the same crime resembles Rashōmon. Yojimbo was once again drawn from for the 1984 fantasy film The Warrior and the Sorceress and re-imagined as a Prohibition-era gangster tale for Last Man Standing in 1996.
If you need any more proof that Kurosawa’s samurai films had a significant effect on Western film making, see if you can name the movie I’m describing:
In a world that is being ravaged by a civil war, a princess attempts to smuggle materials vital to her nation’s survival through enemy lines. She seeks out a skilled swordsman and former warrior who was loyal to her father in order to help her succeed. The audience is often placed alongside two bumbling and cowardly characters who, along for the ride, find themselves in several sticky predicaments from which they must be rescued.
All of these elements might call to mind Star Wars, but they are in fact elements from Kurosawa’s samurai adventure film The Hidden Fortress that George Lucas incorporated into his space-faring fantasy epic. Lucas incorporates plenty of elements and characters that were not in The Hidden Fortress, but I think it’s interesting to acknowledge that the film which revolutionized Hollywood blockbusters has some of its roots in the work of Kurosawa.
A Few Final Thoughts on Adaptation
In the current climate of film, some of us might be tired of everything being a sequel or adaptation of another property. Hopefully I’ve shed a bit of light on the idea that this isn’t a new practice. If anything, I think it shows us that filmmakers should be more selective in which properties they choose to draw from and how they choose to adapt them. In Hollywood, building a brand name has become more important than anything, and reworking an established story can be a safe bet, for better or worse. Whereas Sergio Leone and John Sturges reworked Kurosawa’s stories with a good amount of deference, too often today we see American remakes of foreign films that don’t seem to be interesting interpretations so much as a statement of, “Yeah, the original is good, but we can’t expect people to read subtitles.” Take for example Spike Lee’s Oldboy (a remake of Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy), Chris Kentis and Laura Lau’s Silent House (a remake of Gustavo Hernández’s La Casa Muda), and Neil LaBute’s Death at a Funeral (remake of Frank Oz’s Death at a Funeral). The last one is especially curious because the original, British version of the film is perfectly accessible to English-speakers, but perhaps that is just more evidence that the real goal here is to commoditize the original film rather than honor it. Storytellers as poignant as Kurosawa are few and far between, and I don’t begrudge anyone who is inspired by his works; I certainly count myself among them. There are very pure and creative projects that arise out of the way that filmmakers and story tellers influence each other; finding these connections can be fun and rewarding.
Want to learn more?
If you are at all interested in the films of Kurosawa, look no further than Stuart Galbraith’s The Emperor and the Wolf, one of the most thoroughly researched and comprehensive accounts of both Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune’s careers. If you want to learn more about how the renaissance of the Western film came out of Italy of all places, check out the IFC documentary The Spaghetti West. Are there any films you enjoy that can trace their roots back to unexpected sources? Let us know in the comments below. If you enjoyed reading this, please share with your friends!