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Pop Culture 101 - Seven Samurai
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Pop Culture 101: THE SEVEN SAMURAI

Much has been written about the influence Akira Kurosawa had on American films, particularly Westerns and those that dealt with violence in a very stylized way. On the other hand, film analysts have argued over to what extent Kurosawa was influenced first by American Westerns, particularly the work of John Ford and Howard Hawks. Certainly, one can make a connection between such films as My Darling Clementine (1946) or other Ford films of the period and The Seven Samurai in the way they deal with the end of an era (the old West/the period of the samurai's greatest glory). Kurosawa and Ford's films also focus on men who fight to preserve and advance a civilization that no longer has any place for them (gunfighters and cowpokes/ronin or masterless samurai).

There is certainly, at least on the surface, a long acknowledged affinity between the samurai movie and the Western. Where they part company, according to many critics, is in the much greater sense of class division at work in Seven Samurai, although even that aspect is reflected in the division between the "civilized" farmers, business people, and authorities of the New West and the less restrained life of the cowhand or gunfighter. This theme has been extensively explored in several films, notably in Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West (1968).

The most obvious influence of The Seven Samurai on American Westerns is the remake by John Sturges, The Magnificent Seven (1960), in which a disparate band of gunfighters is pulled together to defend a Mexican village from marauding bandits. The title of the remake was the original title under which The Seven Samurai was released in the States, but when Sturges claimed it for his version, the Kurosawa film was referred to with the English title by which it is known today (sometimes including "The" and sometimes without it).

One of the filmmakers most influenced by Kurosawa and The Seven Samurai was Sam Peckinpah. Talking about his second feature Ride the High Country (1962) with Ernest Callenbach in Film Quarterly, Peckinpah said his aim was to make Westerns the way Kurosawa did. The Wild Bunch (1969) is seen by many as Peckinpah's Seven Samurai for its visual style, pacing and story of a group of men making one last stand for their way of life; its evocation of the time shows how social progress renders the misfits of the title obsolete and no longer capable of adapting. During production of The Wild Bunch, Toshiro Mifune wrote to Peckinpah wishing him the best, and Peckinpah replied that he hoped Mifune would appreciate the film. Years later, when Kurosawa made Kagemusha (1980), he invited Peckinpah to Japan for the premiere. The continuing influence is evident in a remark made by production designer Ted Haworth regarding a visual effect in a film he worked on with Peckinpah, the war movie Cross of Iron (1977): "Kurosawa Peckinpah at his best."

Arthur Penn was also very influenced by Kurosawa and The Seven Samurai in the making of Bonnie and Clyde (1967), particularly in the slow-motion, multi-camera montage of the death of the title characters. Discussing his concept of that scene, Penn said, "Having seen enough Kurosawa by that point, I knew how to do it."

Kurosawa's use of intercut footage from more than one camera running at different speeds is evident in the scene in which Kambei kills a thief who has kidnapped a child. It has been called "the textbook for modern movie violence." (Stephen Prince, "Genre and Violence in the Work of Kurosawa and Peckinpah" in Action and Adventure Cinema, Yvonne Tasker, ed., Routledge, 2004).

The Seven Samurai is generally acknowledged to be the first use of a shot now commonplace in cinema, the "horizon shot," when the bandits come pouring over the hilltop into view. It has been seen in a number of action films, and was employed by Spielberg in the desert shot in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977).

George Lucas has acknowledged his debt to Akira Kurosawa, and several homages and allusions can be found throughout the Star Wars series. In Star Wars (1977), the robot C3PO echoes the comments of the Japanese peasants when he says, "It seems we are made to suffer. It's our lot in life." Luke Skywalker also bears similarities to both Kikuchiyo (the farmer's son aspiring to warrior status) and Katsushiro (the young man yearning to be a disciple to a master). In The Phantom Menace (1999), the shot of Federation tanks coming over the hill is a direct tribute to the horizon shot of the marauding bandits. Lucas has said Yoda rubbing his head while thinking was a conscious homage to Kambei's head-rubbing gesture. Lucas has also said in interviews that while he was in Japan he became familiar with the cinematic genre jidai-geki ("period film," a category to which Seven Samurai belongs), so it is widely assumed this was an inspiration for his invented word "Jedi" (rebel warrior). Lucas has also employed the rarely seen wipe effect as a scene transition, which Kurosawa uses frequently in The Seven Samurai.

The plot of The Seven Samurai has inspired several other stories with widely divergent settings, including the Hong Kong action flick Liu he qian shou (Duel of the Seven Tigers, 1979), Italy's sword-and-sandals fantasy I Sette magnifici gladiatori (The Seven Magnificent Gladiators, 1983), and the Indian film China Gate (1998).

The John Sayles-scripted Battle Beyond the Stars (1980) has several points of connection with the original, notably in its plot about seven mercenaries of the future assembled to defend a peaceful outer space farming colony from evil aggressors. Robert Vaughn plays a character closely modeled on the one he played in The Magnificent Seven. The main character hails from the planet Akir, whose natives are known as Akira.

A Japanese TV anime series, Samurai 7 (2004), was based on The Seven Samurai and aired with the blessings of the Kurosawa family. There is a PlayStation video game called Seven Samurai 20XX, based on the story and characters but transposing them to a futuristic setting.

An alleged remake to be produced by the Weinstein Company and Kurosawa's son Hisao is already generating considerably negative comments on Internet blogs, particularly for the rumor that it will star George Clooney, Chinese actress Zhang Ziyi, and Hong Kong action star Donnie Yen.

The idea of a disparate band of misfits being recruited for a difficult but righteous cause is often credited as having begun with The Seven Samurai. In his book The Great Movies (Broadway Books, 2002), Roger Ebert notes Kurosawa's influence on such Hollywood action films as The Guns of Navarone (1961), The Dirty Dozen (1967), "and countless later war, heist, and caper movies." (Although not specified by Ebert, one of those films would be John Frankenheimer's aptly named Ronin, 1998, the term for a samurai without a master, dealing with a group of mercenaries with various specialties assembled for an espionage-related job.)

Roger Ebert also points out that Sergio Leone's remake of Yojimbo (1961) as A Fistful of Dollars (1964) gave birth to the spaghetti Western, and notes the influence of The Seven Samurai and The Hidden Fortress (1958) on the Star Wars series. "It could be argued that this greatest of directors gave employment to action heroes for the next fifty years, just as a fallout from his primary purpose."

The awareness of Japanese film in the West began with Kurosawa's earlier pictures, particularly Rashomon (1950) and Ikiru (1952). The success of Rashomon at the Venice Film festival in 1951 opened the door for Western distribution of films by Mizoguchi and Ozu, highly praised directors who had been working for many years in Japan.

Kurosawa's influence on filmmakers outside Japan, particularly in America, was evident in his honorary Academy Award. It was presented to him in 1989 by two of the directors most heavily influenced by him, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, for "accomplishments that have inspired, delighted, enriched, and entertained audiences and influenced filmmakers throughout the world."

"It is not surprising that Seven Samurai was remade by Hollywood because it was already close to the Western in its use of an elite body of brave warriors, a slow preparation for violent action, and the generally pusillanimous civilian population––like the townspeople in High Noon [1952]." – David Thomson, A Biographical Dictionary of Film (Alfred A. Knopf, 2000)

Scottish-born film critic and director Lindsay Anderson compared the scene of Kikuchiyo training the villagers to Falstaff drilling the troops in Shakespeare. There have also been suggestions that the battle scenes in Orson Welles's film of the Falstaff story adapted from Shakespeare, Chimes at Midnight (1965), were influenced by the battles in The Seven Samurai.

"Surely [Toshiro Mifune] copied John Wayne, and surely others (like Eastwood) have copied him." – David Thomson, A Biographical Dictionary of Film (Alfred A. Knopf, 2000)

by Rob Nixon