A short history of the transcendency of Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai
Every time a new season of The Mandalorian is released, it seems to restart the same argument on Twitter. One camp talks about how it’s essentially just a modern Western, something that’s been openly spoken about by the team behind it but a stance that always seems to be met with opposition from another vocal crowd. Their camp then talks about how it’s not a Western, it’s actually inspired by the Samurai films that inspired Westerns to begin with. After all, Chapter Four: Sanctuary from season one is a Seven Samurai remake in itself. The argument tends to go on for a bit until the two camps concede that it’s correct to say that The Mandalorian is a Western, but it’s also fair and correct to say that The Mandalorian isn’t only a Western. But the whole thing is a reductive take on the two genres.
Akira Kurosawa was as influenced by John Ford as Sergio Leone and John Sturges were both influenced by him. The two genres are as interconnected as any two genres could possibly be without crossing over into one another. Although Kurosawa would later play down his reverence for Ford’s films, a lot of his art was to combine the best aspects of the American Western with the newer Japanese jidaigeki (period drama) genre. Perhaps the finest example of a film that takes inspiration from Hollywood before it as much as it influences the Hollywood that came after it is Seven Samurai.
When the BBC conducted a poll on the 100 best films of all time, Seven Samurai took the top spot. This is perhaps unsurprising to most in the west, being that it’s a staple of the GOAT canon along with films like Citizen Kane and Vertigo. What’s interesting, though, is not a single Japanese critic who took part in the voting had Seven Samurai in their pick list. In fact, what’s amazing is that none of them voted for a single Akira Kurosawa film. There are plenty of speculative arguments as to why, but for one reason or another, Kurosawa has always been more highly regarded abroad than he ever was in his home country.
When John Sturges remade Seven Samurai as The Magnificent Seven in 1960, only six years after its initial release, Akira Kurosawa is said to have sent Sturges a sword as a gift in appreciation of his work. Sturges even considered a later meeting with Kurosawa as one of the best moments of his life. It’s no coincidence, though, that these two films, both iconic in their own context and genres, came from the same story. Ben, a fellow-founder of Good Brothers Film Club, summed up why the story is so adaptable and timeless best, “there will always be people who need help, and there will always be people who are willing to help.”
Given that Kurosawa was the first Japanese filmmaker to win a major award, the Golden Lion at the 1951 Venice Film Festival for Rashomon, in the pre-home video era his films would’ve been some of the first snippets of Japanese culture that western audiences were exposed to. Some of Seven Samurai’s success surely could be attributed to that, but it never would have become such a phenomenon without telling an accessible story in a way that was fresh and new to Hollywood audiences, while still tackling a relatable nuance of everyday life.
It’s amazing to think of its narrative structure in such terms now, ensemble films are a staple of most genres at this point, but before Seven Samurai they weren’t quite as commonplace. Most, if not all, Samurai films and Westerns would typically focus on a stoic central character, usually on an adventure of sorts. The goals and motivations would change, but the aspect that remained the same was that it was very much the norm to tell a linear story with one character as the focus. There’s a reason why stars such as John Wayne and James Stewart were able to become the huge stars that they were through the Western genre, and that’s largely why. They came during a time when the usual structure of a film benefitted from a star at the centre of it all, and they benefitted themselves from the structure putting a spotlight on that central character.
With Seven Samurai, all of a sudden we have multiple perspectives and rich stories for each of the seven samurai rather than just an anchor point to tie everything to.
From the very beginning, we know who are the good guys and who are the bad. A group of bandits wait until after harvest to raid a helpless village. Their plan is overheard by a farmer who then relays the news to the community, and after some significant back and forth they decide to hire the samurai to protect them from the upcoming confrontation. This leads to something that has become a mainstay and even obligatory part of mainstream action films, and one of the finest examples of a sequence depicting it in cinema history: Assembling the team.
Kurosawa’s next projects, Yojimbo and Sanjuro, were influential in their own rights too, with Sergio Leone using them as the basis for his Dollars trilogy. In fact, Kurosawa even sent Leone a scathing letter praising A Fistful of Dollars and stating in no unclear terms that he was aware that it was his own film that he was watching. Nonetheless, it’s these that kickstarted the Spaghetti Western genre.
By 1971, Kurosawa had attempted suicide due to his disillusion at being shut out by Japanese production companies who weren’t willing to fund the elaborate projects that had come to characterize his career so far. His next few films, most notably Kagemusha and Ran, were funded by the USSR, France and the USA, largely because of admirers such as Martin Scorsese, Steven Speilberg and George Lucas.
In 1998, Pixar was given a $120 million budget for the studio’s second film, A Bug’s Life. Information on the budgets for Kurosawa’s early films isn’t readily available, but that’s likely to be a huge chunk of the cumulative budget for all of his films. A film that recontextualizes and reimagines the story of Seven Samurai to become an animation about the insect kingdom mostly marketed towards children with the financial backing of Disney is probably the most significant watermark for just how adaptable Kurosawa’s film is.
So what we have is a story that can be recontextualised in endless ways and a narrative structure that was groundbreaking for its time. Those two factors have resulted in a film that has cut across language barriers, cultures, and generations, even if it didn’t make as much of an impact in its own country. For my generation, the adaptation was A Bug’s Life, for my dad’s it was The Magnificent Seven, and for others, it’s the fourth episode of the first season of The Mandalorian. We all have a Seven Samurai.