This is going to be a long post, but that’s ok. It’s so worth it. For my write-up of the filmSeven Samurai, I have to discuss its influence on cinema — this will read like a review as well as a comparo piece.
First thing’s first. Seven Samurai has been in constant competition with Rashomon andTokyo Story for the title of Japan’s greatest ever contribution to film. Critics and filmmakers alike rave about all of these films, and I’m a huge fan of them myself. However, while I would have considerable difficulty choosing a winner among them, there’s no doubt in my mind that Seven Samurai influenced more films directly than the others. What do I mean by that?
Japanese cinema has a long history of give and take with Hollywood. The most obvious link has been between the western and samurai [chanbara] genres. As I mentioned in my write-ups of Yojimbo and Sukiyaki Western Django, there have been numerous cases of Japanese filmmakers drawing on the western formula to tell a story about samurai, as well as instances of western films inspired by samurai pictures. And although Fistful of Dollars, the film that used the story of Yojimbo, was a spaghetti western, there is a Hollywood movie that took the plot of Seven Samurai exactly. Or…two Hollywood movies, to be precise. Take a look at these trailers.
The Magnificent Seven:
A Bug’s Life:
As you can see, the story that began with Seven Samurai has been adapted for use in a high-budget western from the early 1960s and a groundbreaking animated children’s film from the 90s. Both of these films use the basic premise from Seven Samurai. A peasant village is beset by raiders who steal their food and leave them nothing. Facing death, they search for samurai who will help their cause and drive the raiders away. You can probably guess how many they find. In The Magnificent Seven, it’s a Mexican village being attacked by banditos led by Eli Wallach. The Mexican farmers find American gunfighters, including Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, James Coburn and Robert Vaughn. A Bug’s Life focuses on an ant colony that is terrorized by grasshoppers and the little ant who goes to find stronger bugs to help them. Both of these homages to Seven Samurai were critical and commercial successes; The Magnificent Seven spawned a number of sequels and later a TV series, and A Bug’s Life smashed expectations for box office performance.
They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and if that is true, the people who made Seven Samurai should be sincerely flattered. When it arrived in 1954, it was immediately the biggest and most popular film Japan had ever produced. Perhaps more important was that its director, Akira Kurosawa, had paved the way with 1950′s Rashomon and was already admired and recognized internationally. Two of Rashomon’s stars [and two constant fixtures in Kurosawa's films for an 18-year stretch], Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura, both return in leading roles as samurai. However, these two films were made four years apart, punctuated by the release of Kurosawa’s film Ikiru. Roger Ebert notes that Ikiru  was a turning point for Kurosawa, where his focus on characters as defined by their societal roles began to lose out to a new interest in the individual. It seems to me that this shift, which is clearly evident in Seven Samurai, is what made the story so conducive to western adaptation. After all, there are many ways in which samurai and the gunfighter are similar. Solitude, a code of ethics separate from religion, pride. Most of all, there is a clear distinction between the samurai/gunfighter and the people they protect — those who are heroic and those who are weak.
I haven’t gotten much into the plot of Seven Samurai because it starts simply enough. The premise that I explained above is enough to drive the film for nearly three and a half hours! However, I would like to talk about how it affected The Magnificent Seven because I’m fascinated by the Japan to Hollywood transition. Upon reviewing my copy ofGunfighter Nation, the companion text to the western film course I took at Wesleyan, I’m convinced that the Japan to Hollywood changes were augmented by the fact that American politics were changing by the time The Magnificent Seven was made. Kennedy used the rhetoric of the frontier myth to describe the Communist threat, and the American approach to foreign involvement was heavily influenced by the western. The Magnificent Seven, with its minor cosmetic changes from Seven Samurai, was an early thought experiment. It was an optimistic idea of how to deal with a conflict like Vietnam. Our heroes are the strong [America] helping the weak [South Vietnam] fight off bad guys [Communists] in what amounts to a counterinsurgency war. See the connections?
I’m sure Kurosawa didn’t have counterinsurgency in mind when he wrote and directed Seven Samurai. However, he did establish a few other practices in film that we take for granted. Namely, the formation of a team to tackle a problem together — Seven Samurai was the first film to introduce the team leader before making a team. This became popular in crime and heist films; you’d probably recognize that plot device in movies likeThe Italian Job and Oceans Eleven. We owe Kurosawa.
Discussions of Seven Samurai’s relationship with other films tend to highlight the give — where it provided inspiration and broke new ground. However, I noticed several areas in which it borrowed from earlier films to advance the plot. The shot of swords in the ground evokes the imagery from The Lost Patrol, an American war film directed by John Ford, whose style later made him one of the greatest directors of western movies ever. Some of the more effective references Kurosawa makes are to his own works; by the time Seven Samurai was made, audiences were quite familiar with a number of his characters. The most blatant reference is the introduction of Mifune’s character, which echoes his performance in Rashomon. As in the earlier film, he approaches someone with the intention of speaking to them but instead circles them a few times while staring and scratching his torso. You’re being told his name is Kikuchiyo and that he’s a poor ronin, but you see Tajomaru the highwayman. Shimura’s character, the wiser, older samurai is reminiscent of his role in Stray Dog as the experienced homicide detective.
This isn’t a “must-see Japanese film” so much as it’s a must-see film that happens to be Japanese. Kurosawa’s style, as I’ve come to see, is caught somewhere between Japan and the West. Even in this period piece with a quintessentially Japanese subject, his growing preoccupation with individual rather than societal roles is evident. Despite being over 200 minutes long, Seven Samurai may be easier for Western audiences to swallow than Tokyo Story [136 min] or even Rashomon [a paltry 88 min]. Its story is immediately transferrable through time and space; its setting in 16th century Japan is a vehicle for the plot, not a prerequisite. Find this movie on Netflix [DVD] or for purchase on the Criterion Collection. If you’re a fan of westerns, watch it along with The Magnificent Seven. Or, you can appreciate it for what it is — a gripping tale of heroism woven by perhaps the most adventurous director Japan has ever seen.