Legendary Japanese director Akira Kurosawa’s back catalogue is heaving with movies that have inspired generations of filmmakers. Apart from The Outrage (1964), the Hollywood remake of Rashomon (1950), the multi-angle perspective has inspired films as varied as The Usual Suspects (1995) and Talvar (2015). Although stylistically different, Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars (1964), which sparked off the spaghetti western genre, which in turn influenced Sholay (1975), was heavily inspired by Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961). The plot of the period comedy The Hidden Fortress (1958) was used by George Lucas to create the first film in his long-running Star Wars franchise.
None of Kurosawa’s films have had as much of a lasting influence as Seven Samurai (1954), which academic Mark Sandler described as “probably the most-oft remade, reworked and referenced film in all of cinema history”. Despite rumours circulating that a Hollywood version was in the works in 2011 and 2014, the latest iteration of Kurosawa’s epic is not a direct remake. In development since 2012, The Magnificent Seven is the updated version of the John Sturges-directed 1960 Western starring Steve McQueen and Charles Bronson, which was a remake of Seven Samurai. The Magnificent Seven will be released in India on September 23.
The 2016 adaptation has an A-lister in every department. Antoine Fuqua (Training Day, Olympus Has Fallen) is in the director’s chair, True Detective showrunner Nic Pizzolatto has written the screenplay and Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt and Ethan Hawke, among others, make up the cast. But if the 2013 dud remake of the South Korean film Oldboy directed by Spike Lee and starring Josh Brolin and Elizabeth Olsen proves anything, it is that star power is no guarantee that the film will be any good.
Seven Samurai has all the hallmarks of a great Kurosawa production: expertly choreographed action sequences, superb cinematography and editing that never allows the viewers to feel the weight of its close to three and a half hour running time. The plot is deceptively simple: a group of seven unlikely heroes come together to save a village from invading bandits.
In the over six decades since its original release, filmmakers continue to reference Seven Samurai across genres: in the science fiction of Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981), the comedy of Three Amigos! (1986) and Galaxy Quest (1999), the Pixar animation A Bug’s Life (1998), and the superhero fantasy The Avengers (2012). The movie even has a Hindi film remake, Raj Kumar Santoshi’s China Gate (1998), whose opening credits read, “Our humble tribute to late Akira Kurosawa.”
Kurosawa himself was a huge fans of Westerns. They are “liked by all people, regardless of nationality,” he said in a book-length interview with film critic Bert Cardullo. “As human beings are weak, they wish to dream of good people and great heroes who lived in olden times. Western dramas have been filmed, over and over again, for a very long time, have been kneaded, pounded and polished, and in the process have evolved a kind of grammar of cinema. And I have learned from this grammar.”
The Japanese director particularly admired John Ford, the American filmmaker whose films Stagecoach (1939) and The Searchers (1956) are counted among the best Westerns ever made. In his memoir Something Like An Autobiography, Kurosawa writes, “There is one more person I feel I would like to resemble as I grow old: the late American film director John Ford. I am also moved by my regret that Ford did not leave us his autobiography.”
Kurosawa himself never wanted to make a Western because, he said, “I am Japanese. I do not think I can make a Western picture.” Although Seven Samurai is firmly entrenched in jidaigeki, or the period drama genre, in Japanese cinema, it is the closest Kurosawa came to making a Western.
When Sturges’s remake found its way into cinemas in 1960, it was almost as if Kurosawa’s Hollywood influences had come full circle. But the Japanese director himself wasn’t a big fan of the movie. “The American copy is a disappointment, although entertaining. It is not a version of Seven Samurai. I don’t know why they call it that,” he told Cardullo.
Kurosawa’s film is three hours plus for all the right reasons. For an action film, there is an uncommonly deep exploration of every character including the villagers – a fact that almost every subsequent remake, including Sturges’s version, left out. As it thunders to a conclusion, the movie covers almost every major theme of the human experience. Along the way, there is also time for comic relief and a romantic sub plot, which means that there is a nearly endless supply of things for future filmmakers to steal.
Kurosawa’s reasoning for making Seven Samurai was simple. “Japanese films all tend to be rather bland in flavour, like green tea over rice,” he said in an interview. “I think we ought to have richer foods, and richer films. So I thought I would make this kind of film entertaining enough to eat.”
The final fight between the film’s samurai and the bandits is shot beautifully against the backdrop of a rainstorm. Kurosawa doesn’t lose sight of any of the players and allows viewers to understand what is happening to each character, while at the same time filling up the frame with characters and movement. It has become one of the most acclaimed sequences in cinema.
In his autobiography, Kurosawa attributed this dexterity to his use of multiple cameras. “Much is often made of the fact that I use more than one camera to shoot a scene,“ he wrote. “This began when I was making Seven Samurai, because it was impossible to predict exactly what would happen in the scene where the bandits attack the peasants’ village in a heavy rainstorm. If I had filmed it in the traditional shot-by-shot method, there was no guarantee that any action could be repeated in exactly the same way twice. So I used three cameras rolling simultaneously. The result was extremely effective, so I decided to exploit this technique fully in less action-filled drama as well, and I next used it for Ikimono no kiroku .”
In the rain-drenched climax of Blade Runner (1982), the fight scene between Neo and Agent Smith in The Matrix Revolutions (2003) and the battle of Helms Deep in The Lord of The Rings: The Two Towers (2002), rain has been used to set the tone for action scenes across board.
Mani Ratnam, who has spoken of his admiration for the Japanese director, pointed to Kurosawa’s use of rain and natural elements as an influence on his visual style. He paid tribute to Seven Samurai’s ending in his Mahabharata-inspired crime film Thalapathi (1991) in the song Sundari Kannal (without the rain, though).