Western Month: Akira Kurosawa and Samurai Cinema

Operation Blacklist, the United States military occupation of the Japanese islands in the aftermath of V-J Day, lasted for seven years during the peak of Hollywood’s obsession with the Western. From 1945-1952, Americans saw hundreds of Western films find mass audiences and the careers of directors like John Ford explode to the point where Western films accounted for over half of the film industry. While the positives (women’s liberation, improved labor standards) and negatives (myriad unprosecuted atrocities by American troops, the general implications of imperialism) of the American occupation of Japan can, and will, be debated for decades and centuries to come, the cultural crossover that started during this era would impact both nations film industries forever. This is best exemplified in the relationship between the Western genre itself and the works of arguably the greatest director of all time, Akira Kurosawa.

Though he started his career during the height of WWII, Kurosawa’s lasting and most recognized works remain his output in the 1940s and 50s. During the war, Kurosawa’s works were considered too “British-American” and his films were either unsatisfactory to the man himself or heavily butchered by the Japanese censorship board at the time. Once the war ended and the American occupation began, Kurosawa embraced the changing Japanese societal landscape. Emboldened by the works of American directors, primarily John Ford, Kurosawa began making films that focused on human individuality, as opposed to the more feudal society of pre-occupied Japan.

Which is where the mutual influence of the Western comes into play. Westerns heavily lean on the idea of the strong individual against the odds and against the masses, and Kurosawa’s films heavily tap into that. However, there wasn’t an untamed frontier nor were there cowboys and indigenous peoples in Japan for Kurosawa to make Westerns about. So instead of making films about 1800s America like Hollywood was, he instead made his films about the age of the samurai,1 focusing often on rōnin (samurai serving no master) in the place of the traditional lone gunmen of the wild West.

Rashomon (1950)

The first of Kurosawa’s post-war samurai films, Rashomon (1950) is arguably his most accomplished work. The film tells the story of a samurai who has been murdered by a bandit and the conflicting accounts of the incident. The film’s unique narrative structure, innovative filmmaking techniques and use of a handful of unreliable narrators sparked international acclaim for Kurosawa. Inspired by the popular noir films and Westerns of the day across the Pacific, Rashomon was the first film by Kurosawa to reach Western audiences in a lasting way, earning an honorary award now recognized as the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.2 By the 1960s, Kurosawa’s worldwide prestige and renown would peak and the Western genre that helped form Rashomon and his later samurai films would find themselves molding Westerns themselves, forming a cross-pollination of cinematic folklore between Japanese and American films. Rashomon itself was no exception, as the film was remade as The Outrage in 1964 that depicts similar events but set in the Western frontier and starring Paul Newman and a young, pre-Star Trek William Shatner.

Seven Samurai (1954)

Four years after Rashomon, Kurosawa would return to the samurai genre with Seven Samurai, the most famous of his works among american audiences. Seven Samurai is almost the absolute ideal of a Western/samurai film: bandits plan to attack a small village and the townspeople hire a group of samurai to train and defend them, culminating in a violent battle between the samurai, townspeople and bandits. It’s a simple story, but Kurosawa’s film is anything but. Seven Samurai is an absolute epic at 207 minutes, and even at that runtime is exploding at the seams with characterization and verve. It is easily the most brisk three-plus hour film ever made.

Which is why it makes perfect sense why audiences connected with the film. It’s a story of heroism in the face of impossible odds and about the importance of both the individual and the collective. Japanese audiences flocked to the film, making it one of the highest grossing films of the 50s. Its historical importance across the world would be, and still is, immense. The primary effect Seven Samurai had on American audiences is found in the numerous versions of The Magnificent Seven that have been made between 1960 and 2016. Similar to The Outrage, The Magnificent Seven is a near like-for-like adaptation of Seven Samurai through the lens of a Western, and is considered one of the most iconic examples of the genre, leading to numerous adaptations of adaptations (Pixar’s A Bugs Life, for example) and remakes (most recently Antoine Fuqua’s adaptation starring Denzel Washington). Seven Samurai is possibly the best example of the give-and-take between the Hollywood Western and Kurosawa’s samurai films.

Yojimbo (1961) and Sanjuro (1962)

One of the key elements of a Western is that characters are disconnected from society as a whole, primarily out of their own volition. The protagonist of Kurosawa’s duology Yojimbo and Sanjuro fit into the traditional mold of a Western protagonist and are the clearest example of how Kurosawa created his samurai action dramas in the same vein as American Westerns. Both Yojimbo and Sanjuro find the film’s somewhat unnamed protagonist (he surnames himself in each film after what he sees at the moment of being asked who he is, and calls himself Sanjuro which means “thirty years-old”) tasked with helping protect, teach, and fight for the safety of those less capable than him. The character is a vagabond rōnin who travels from town to town and whose only ties to people are of his own volition.

Starring in both films as Sanjuro, Toshiro Mifune serves as Kurosawa’s muse in a similar capacity as John Wayne would for John Ford and Clint Eastwood would for Sergio Leone. Mifune was the star of most of Kurosawa’s films of his heyday, and his image as a samurai or rōnin are as iconic as any other in cinema history and he is arguably the biggest star in Japanese film history. The shot of Sanjuro facing down the town of antagonists in Yojimbo would be directly cited in works ranging from Westerns in the 1960s all the way to present day films.

This includes the Man With No Name trilogy of Spaghetti Westerns by Leone and starring Eastwood. These films would similarly include a somewhat nameless roving hero who travelled from town to town looking for adventures and played by an iconic actor at his peak. A Fistful of Dollars itself is an (initially uncredited) adaptation of Yojimbo and the two other films in the series are similarly only spiritually and not explicitly connected in the same way Sanjuro is to Yojimbo. Django, another Spaghetti Western starring Franco Nero and directed by Sergio Corbucci, is similarly an adaptation of Yojimbo though through a more starkly violent and heightened lens.

Sanjuro, much like a revisionist Western like The Searchers or Unforgiven, serves as a rebuke of previous films. The titular character is constantly reminded of the cost of violence, and Sanjuro eventually recoils at the thought of using violence. His final confrontation is a stark reminder of all that is lost when violence is the only answer. An explosive and bloody final battle might be the least subtle moment in all of Kurosawa’s filmography, but is also one of his most harrowing. Sanjuro is not hailed with the same reverence as Kurosawa’s other samurai films, but it might be the one with the most on its mind when dealing with both the samurai and Western genres.

Throne of Blood (1957) and The Hidden Fortress (1958)

In addition to being influenced by, and influencing, the American Western, Kurosawa found inspiration in a numerous european-centric forms of art, chief among them the Bard himself, William Shakespeare. Throne of Blood is a loose adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s plays, Macbeth, and The Hidden Fortress itself has elements of Shakespearean penned comedies, namely using characters of low status (both in terms of the world and in terms of plot) as the audience’s POV.3 Kurosawa’s melding of the Feudal Japanese way of life, the ideals of the Western, and the characters and plotting of Shakespeare, formed the basis of his late 50s samurai film output.

And while this may not have directly impacted the Western genre across the sea, a young George Lucas would, in The Hidden Fortress and Kurosawa’s other samurai epics, find the spark for a little film you might have heard of called Star Wars. By 1977, the Western had already lost its standing as the primary genre of Hollywood, but combined with the New Hollywood movement that took place in the late-60s and early/mid-70s, Star Wars would be sort of a death knell for the genre’s dominance. In its place, franchise films and science fiction would take the place that the Western once held, and while somewhat indirect, Kurosawa was a huge part of that eventual transition.

It is impossible to discuss the history of film without mentioning the vast and varied impact Akira Kurosawa’s mid-century output had on the film landscape. His works, both as a director and editor, have touched nearly every filmmaker who has ever lived in a way very few other directors have. But, given both his own personal influences and the state of the film industry of both Europe and America at the time, his legacy is most directly and immediately felt in the Western genre. His samurai and rōnin parallel the gunslingers and sheriffs of the Old West, and there’s zero disputing the importance of Kurosawa’s cinematic language on the genre itself. Kurosawa’s connection between these two genres and cultures reminds us that even though things might look, sound, and feel different, there is common ground and similarities to be found.

All of the films seen above, as well as the majority of Akira Kurosawa’s filmography, are available via the Criterion Channel on the streaming service Filmstruck.

  1. dubbed by my wife Udon Westerns
  2. The category wouldn’t be introduced for another 5 years
  3. Kurosawa would similarly loosely adapt King Lear as one of his final films, Ran