Seven Samurai is no longer just a film. Similar to Rashomon and Yojimbo, this film has transcended its original context and become a genre that has defined hundreds of films around the world for fifty years. The idea of Seven Samurai, which has become so common as to become cliché when done poorly, is of a group of tragic, flawed, lonely mercenaries who come together for one last job in a hope to regain their lost honor. Of course, Kurosawa’s own inspiration was extremely varied–he drew as much from Japanese culture as he did from the West. Kurosawa has, directly and indirectly, adapted Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, Dashiell Hammett and even Tolstoy.
Many of his films, and especially Seven Samurai, were inspired as much by the classical Hollywood western as later westerns would be inspired by Kurosawa. One of Kurosawa’s biggest influences may have been John Ford’s cavalry films, Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, and Rio Grande. Of course, the film is also indebted to Kurosawa’s native culture, and the most obvious influence was from Japanese history and mythology itself. The history of the Samurai has all the right elements: the code, the honor, the swordsmanship and the portents of the end of an era. The stories of Ronins–Samurais without masters who wandered the land–are legend and have inspired countless Japanese and non-Japanese adaptations. Kurosawa was probably not the first to merge these ideas with the western mythos, but he was the most effective.
Seven Samurai was among the first films to do many things. Most importantly, it was probably the first to assemble a group of roughs for a mission, a concept which would soon spawn remakes and mash-ups with other genres. We have seen Seven Samurai in space, as animated insects, as a heist movie, as a war movie, western, fantasy, and so much more.
One of the first was a charming remake, John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven, with Yul Brynner leading an all-star Hollywood cast. It took a story that Kurosawa had partially borrowed from the westerns and brought it back to the Wild West. Very soon, the idea was adapted to other genres. In Robert Aldrich’s The Dirty Dozen, convicted murderers are pitted against the Nazis. 1980’s Battle Beyond the Stars took the story in to space and turned the Samurais in to futuristic space cowboys. The most successful Indian film of all time–from the largest film industry in the world–is a film called Sholay, which is based on Seven Samurai. Recent films like Armageddon and Space Cowboys have put similar loner mercenaries against nemeses in space. Even Tarantino has repeatedly claimed to be working on a similar World War II epic called Inglorious Bastards.
The basic premise has become so familiar that when Pixar re-imagined Seven Samurai as A Bug’s Life, it was on the verge of parody, with self-conscious humor and clear references to its inspiration. A Bug’s Life had the Samurai being replaced by a motley crew of circus bugs who end up protecting a colony of ants–an entirely new generation being introduced to the Seven Samurai genre through cute insects.
The influences of Seven Samurai are not restricted to its plot–the visual style and character development has found its way into a variety of genres. One obvious example is the classic wipe between scenes, which adapted by Lucas in the Star Wars series, and in both cases it provides the film with a pulp literary feel.
Of course, Kurosawa’s influence hardly stops with Seven Samurai, and the wipe transitions of Seven Samurai were not the only Kurosawa influence in the Star Wars films. Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress is the story of a general who sets out to rescue a princess. The parallels with the Star Wars films span from broad plot points to specific scenes and characters, most notably the two peasants that provide comic relief form the basis for R2-D2 and C-3PO.
In a sense, Yojimbo inspired every western that followed–especially Sergeo Leone’s spaghetti westerns, so much so that after watching A Fist Full of Dollars, Kurosawa allegedly wrote to Leone saying, “You have made a fine film. Unfortunately, it is mine.” In many ways, Yojimbo was also responsible for the nameless, loner anti-hero from Clint Eastwood in Leone’s films to Uma Thurman in the Kill Bill movies–although Uma was not entirely nameless in those films, of course.
Kurosawa’s influence is also felt on the other end of the cinematic spectrum. Rashomon is the quintessential art film, inasmuch as it challenged conventions of audience identification and film’s capacity to give us the “truth” of a situation merely by showing us what happened. Yet the film is also entirely unique, and it’s complex flashback structure–in which the same crime is related by several different characters each with his own perspective–made “Rashomon” the only word appropriate to describe this specific kind of situation and specific kind of film.
Towards the end of his career, Kurosawa films became infrequent and had a hard time getting financed. He probably had more supporters in the United States than he did in his own country by this time, and a few of those he influenced repaid the favor by helping him continue his career. One of his last films, 1980’s Kagemusha was created with the support of Lucas and Coppolla, two people who owed much to Kurosawa. He made his last film, Madadayo, in 1993 at the age of 83 and died 5 years later but his influence lives on in films of every genre, in many languages, from the villages of India to the outer reaches of the universe.