The goal of the most basic genre pieces, no matter the medium, is to provide a temporary escape from reality based on a well-worn formula. They appeal to a particular demographic in order to maximize capital, if not always artistic, profits. Gangster films, samurai flicks, and westerns all fall into this category. Hundreds, if not thousands, of these films have been made, and most of them are quickly forgotten and ignored by subsequent generations. However, a few pieces always manage to subvert or transcend their genre roots.
The samurai films of Kurosawa are particularly successful examples of this feat. Calling on Shakespeare and Japanese tradition as their sources, they use technical expertise and morality plays to elevate their material, sometimes simply by combining what initially appear to be disparate genres. When one thinks of quick-talking gangsters with Brooklyn accents, the image of a stolid samurai does not usually come forward. Kurosawa, however, recognized the base similarities in these characters and the worlds they inhabit. And, more impressively, he was able to blend Eastern and Western genre pieces to develop a more universal style of filmmaking.
Several of Kurosawa’s films immediately after WWII, such as Drunken Angel and Stray Dog were fairly straight-faced works of film noir. As in American and European cinema at the time, these were simply darker reinterpretations of the gangster film. American-occupied post-war Japan provided a fitting setting for dark, paranoiac tales in which the rapid modernization of the country created a new set of social issues to be confronted. As morality evolved and transformed between generations, so did the notion of the hero. These noir themes were reinterpreted and combined with feudal period Japan in the hero-less Rashomon.
The film unfolds in unorthodox fashion, telling the story of a murder from the perspectives of several equally unreliable narrators, a narrative mechanic that has been borrowed by dozens of works since arguably evolving into a genre all its own. The characters in the film could easily fall into a genre piece from Hollywood. We see the charismatic rogue portrayed in so many facets by the inimitable Toshiro Mifune, as well as Machiko Kyo’s innocent widow, eventually revealed to be as deadly as any femme fatale. The events depicted — a duel, a murder scheme, a lustful communion, or possible rape — are familiar to American noir. The deft use of light and shadow and the dappled sunlight filtering through the trees alternately hides and reveals the players and their motives in a manner reminiscent of the stylized set work on such films from the 40s.
The connection between samurai and gangster is explored further in Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1967 thriller Le Samourai. Alain Delon plays Jef Costello, a lone assassin who lives by a strict code. Within the first few minutes of the film, viewers understand that Jef is as focused, trained, and prepared to die as any of Kurosawa’s most respected masters. In an outstanding use of form serving function, the film’s structure is as sparse and simple as the life the protagonist leads. To be successful, to survive, the hit-man must live his life a certain way — any other path leads only to failure, dishonor, and death. Melville combines facets of noir and the more nuanced work of Kurosawa to reinterpret one genre by diverting our attention through another.
Jim Jarmusch’s 1999 film Ghost Dog likewise features a hitman who, working for the mafia, follows a Kurosawa-esque samurai code known as the Hagakure. Furthermore, showing his debt to the Japanese director, Jarmusch uses Rashomon-like storytelling methods at one point and even features a copy of the book Rashomon in the film. The Canadian Jarmusch recognizes the debt that he and other filmmakers owe to Kurosawa for adding a Japanese flavor to the gangster film.
But Kurosawa’s genre work was not confined to noir; his most notable genre influences involved the American western. The Seven Samurai was remade as the classic western The Magnificent Seven. Both films are period pieces bringing together a star-studded ensemble cast as mercenaries hired to protect a small village from raiders. Ronin samurai and mercenary gunmen, bloodthirsty raiders holding a town hostage, a set of divergent personalities lighting up the screen — all are interchangeable elements between samurai and western films, bringing into focus how Kurosawa’s Western-inspired work affected the genre almost immeasurably. The overlapping spheres of influence across genres would ultimately lead to an international style of filmmaking, of which Kurosawa was at the forefront. For confirmation of this, one needs to look no further than Yojimbo.
During the 1950s, Japanese critics often denigrated Kurosawa for creating films that were too Western in style and narrative. In 1959, he responded by making a film based on the most typically American genre, the gun-slinging western. While a western in form, Kurosawa actually borrowed the idea for Yojimbo from a 1929 Dashiel Hammet novel, Red Harvest. Red Harvest tells the now-familiar story of a lone detective who plays two crime families against each other. Yojimbo tells the story of a lone samurai who plays two crime families against each other.
Kurosawa viewed the film as a hybrid genre piece, a mash-up of the gangster film and samurai period piece filmed through the lens of a dusty western. Several shots and themes were inspired by the noir film The Glass Key, again based on a Hammet novel. Indeed, it’s not hard to imagine Mifune’s cold, anonymous anti-hero as a noir lead, ordering about the barkeep, making some quick quips, and staying ahead of the curve as he plays the two crime lords against each other, all while perpetually chewing on a toothpick like a chain-smoker.
But when Mifune walks alone down those empty streets, the deep-focus cinematography is straight out of a western. How Mifune is framed against his enemies is reminiscent of a western: two men facing off with a whole lot of sand and space between them. The plot too is familiar: a skilled hero makes a dusty, sun-dried, and corrupt town safe again — one character even carries a gun and adds a Western-style scarf to his samurai garb. It is a traditional Hollywood western with swords and one glaring difference — while most of the John Ford and Howard Hawks westerns had good guys in the leads, men of sturdy moral character that a young kid could look up to, Kurosawa looks more toward a noir-inspired anti-hero to save the day.
Toshiro Mifune is no John Wayne; instead, like Mike Hammer in Kiss Me Deadly, we are never sure which side of the line in the sand he falls on. Kurosawa sees the sword-slasher/gun-slinger as a complex figure, a man whose morals do not necessarily match that of society who, at the end of the day, plays for no team but his own. It was this fascinating, rarely seen take on the western genre in Yojimbo that would spawn a new style of western in the 1960s when Clint Eastwood and Sergio Leone ushered in the anti-hero fueled spaghetti western, borrowing heavily and unabashedly from Kurosawa.
A Fistful of Dollars tells the now-familiar story of a lone gunslinger playing two crime families against each other. It is a near-exact, sometimes shot for shot, remake of Yojimbo, and pieces in the two films are very nearly interchangeable. Rather than a samurai with no master, Eastwood portrays a soldier with no war, a gunslinger wandering from town to town, finding what little purpose there is to his existence where he can. He talks (barely — if Mifune was sparse, Eastwood is nearly silent) to the undertaker and barkeep, demonstrates his considerable skills, plays a bodyguard for both sides, and is able to be the last man standing at the end of the day. Even when the town is saved, our hard-to-like hero is unfulfilled.
The hard-edged lack of emotion for which Eastwood would become known cribs heavily from Mifune’s iconic performance, and Leone went as far as reusing Kurosawa’s framing of certain locales and situations more or less identically. Yes, it’s a rip-off, but it’s an extremely well-done rip-off, and it eventually allowed Leone to further redevelop the western landscape with his succeeding films and making the Man with No Name trilogy a landmark in not only the western genre but in world cinema. It also demonstrates Kurosawa’s gift for reinterpreting ideas for his audience, all the while influencing future generations of filmmakers.
The notion of genre mash-up comes to its hyperactive apogee with the work of Quentin Tarantino. Tarantino’s work as a whole is a pastiche, a stitching together of various styles and elements from film history. Kill Bill is a basic pulp revenge flick with a samurai theme strung through a spaghetti western score and shot structure. Though Tarantino himself may state he was more influenced by the chop-socky samurai flicks of the 1970s, it is worth noting that these action-heavy films would likely not have existed without Seven Samurai and Yojimbo. The latter film, in particular, with its lone protagonist facing overly impossible odds in a hard-boiled yet often comical manner, sets a tone that, through Leone, Tarantino has used on several occasions. Even echoes of Shakespearean tragedy reverberate in Tarantino’s revenge drama of misguided lovers, broken families, and trusts betrayed.
The Bard has been influencing Western artists for centuries, but it took a Japanese filmmaker to take the Shakespearean tradition to the next level. By using precedents outside the traditional Japanese framework, Kurosawa was able to reach a wider audience and reconfigure the notion of genre. Through his influences and achievements, he became one of the first true international filmmakers, inspiring several generations of filmmakers who would explore notions of genre and identity in film. His method of classicism and cultural collage has inspired a wave of filmmakers who create without borders, where west meets east meets west.
+ + +
This article was originally published on 12 October 2010.