Monday, November 22, 2004

Kurosawa's Samurai

No time to write an original blog entry? Then recycle old college papers!

This is the last in a series of excerpts from a paper on Japanese cinema and filmmaker Akira Kurosawa that I wrote in grad school. The following explores Kurosawa’s unique characterization of samurai warriors and discusses a couple of his famous samurai films:

As Japan began to recover and prosper economically from World War II, Kurosawa found it difficult to find an audience for his stark contemporary dramas. He began to focus his attentions mainly towards the historical drama. These types of dramas, deriving from Kabuki theatre, are populated with samurai. Traditionally, these idealized warriors are characterized as strong, wise, and determined. Imbued with Confucian morals, samurais’ loyalty to feudalistic lords is above that of family, placing no value on romantic love whatsoever. Kurosawa made major reforms in the characterization of samurai by combining their traditional majesty with narratives that had universal appeal. Unlike their forebears, Kurosawa’s samurai hold little if any allegiance to feudal authority, while retaining their strong personal integrity. This characterization of samurai provided a new ideal of Japanese manhood. At the same time, it made the films more accessible to Western audiences, who found the traditional samurai too overbearing.

A major theme running through Kurosawa’s films is the individual’s responsibility to criticize society for its betterment. Kurosawa found the means to express this through the framework of the Hollywood western. The American genre, like all genres, has specific structures. Western film scholar John H. Lenihan writes, “At the heart of the western was preoccupation with individual freedom amid social constraints…Within the framework of the western, a man could do what he had to do with an instinctive natural awareness of right and wrong. The pursuit of individual good would not threaten society but would protect and perfect it.” Essentially, Kurosawa took the western formula, replaced the cowboys with samurai and substituted the American frontier with a feudal Japanese landscape, with ingenious results. Kurosawa was no stranger to the Hollywood western. As a child, he became fascinated with the films of John Ford, who is considered in most circles as the father of the genre. Kurosawa often cites Ford as one of his filmmaking idols. It is also worth noting that Kurosawa was a descendant of a samurai family and often incorporated samurai imagery into his personal mythology—in various texts he is referred to as a “samurai filmmaker.”

Kurosawa’s film THE SEVEN SAMURAI (1954), indeed, can be seen as a homage to John Ford. A group of rural farmers, terrorized by unruly brigands who steal their crops, hire seven samurai to protect their village. When introduced, the samurai are drifters, roaming the city with their swords strapped to their sides. In an early scene, one of the samurai faces-off with a bullying townsman. With sword drawn, the bully rushes forward, only to be struck down in one blow by the cool samurai, in a scintillating take on the traditional “gunfight in the streets” scene. The seven, each possessing a unique personality, travel to the village and become part of the community, all the while readying themselves and the villagers for a final epic battle with the brigands.

Kurosawa’s clever reinterpretation of the western genre did not go unnoticed. Hollywood remade The Seven Samurai into a traditional western. Entitled THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, the film takes place south of the border, with a group of rural Mexican farmers terrorized by a band of Pancho Villa look-alikes. The farmers travel north to hire seven, white gun-slingers to protect their village. The essential characterizations of Kurosawa’s samurai remain intact as well as the basic plot structure in this version. This film’s success spawned three sequels: RETURN OF THE SEVEN (1966), GUNS OF THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (1969), and THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN RIDE! (1972).

In 1961 Kurosawa made another samurai/western hybrid film entitled YOJIMBO. Based on Dashiell Hamet’s novel RED HARVEST, the film centers on an amoral samurai who wanders into a warring nineteenth century town and becomes a hired assassin for both sides of the feud. This film, too, was remade into a western entitled A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS (1967), a film commonly referred to as a “spaghetti western”. Responding to a lack of exported Hollywood films, Italian directors began making their own versions of westerns. Using a largely European cast with English-speaking leads, these films were later dubbed and exported to the United States. Directed by Sergio Leone and starring Clint Eastwood, A Fistful of Dollars and the rest of the “Dollars Trilogy”—FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE (1965) and THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY (1966)—have, in particular, been adopted as “classics” of the Hollywood western genre. In essence, an Italian created his version of the American West, using a Japanese samurai film as his source, which was modeled after an American western to begin with. The western genre, literally, has come full circle.

Sources used within this excerpt:

Tadao Sato (trans. by Gregory Barrett), CURRENTS IN JAPANESE CINEMA, (Kodansha International, 1982).

John H. Lenihan, SHOWDOWN: CONFRONTING MODERN AMERICA IN THE WESTERN FILM, (University of Illinois Press, 1985).

Gerald Peary, “Akira Kurosawa: Japan’s Existential Cowboy Looks West and Thinks East”, AMERICAN FILM, (April 1989).


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