I Kurosawa That Coming!

Posted by on Feb 12, 2014 in Film Review
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One of my all time favorite film-makers is Akira Kurosawa. Although his films are slower paced than most Western viewers prefer, his films are so deep and robust. He submerged you into his characters and built plot mechanisms which are now iconic in story telling. It is sometimes said, that every story which can be told has been told. Well Kurosawa is responsible for kicking off many of those stories which get retold over and over.

Seven Samurai (1954)

Seven Samurai (1954)

You might have no idea who the guy is or never watched a film of his, but I know you’ve seen his influences if you’ve watched movies at all. In Star Wars, C-3P0 and R2-D2 are trudging through the deserts of Tatooine in a scene lifted right out of the Kurosawa film, Hidden Fortress. Ever watch Clint Eastwood taking down rival gangs in the western, A Fist Full of Dollars? That’s a Kurosawa film called Yojimbo. Ever seen a movie or Tv show where we experience an event (like a murder) over and over from different perspectives until we find out what really happened? That’s a film called Rashomon, and that plot mechanism is even now called, “The Rashomon Effect”. Ever see the western, The Magnificent Seven? The original was called Seven Samurai… by Akira Kurosawa. And this is the main one I’d like to focus on.

Seven Samurai has been told over and over and over. In fact, there have been recent rumors about a new spin-off Star Wars movie based on it again. I guess audiences never seem to tire of the plot: bad guys terrorize a weak defenseless group, so a band of misfit heroes step in to defend them and teach them to stand up for themselves. So let’s look at the “Seven Samurai Effect”.

Seven Samurai itself was made in 1954 in Japan. You will no doubt notice similarities to other films. The story takes place in Japan in 1587 where a small farming village is terrorized by a gang of bandits who raid them for food during the harvest. Knowing they must do something to survive, a young man leaves in search of Samurai who will help them. He finally enlists the help of an honorable ronin named Kambei. Kambei, then enlists the help of five other ronin he knows. A seventh follows them and is reluctantly accepted in the group. A lot of drama ensues over the next 3 hours or so, until the bandits arrive to be surprised by the now trained villagers and a new resolve to fight for what is theirs.

This pattern of story telling has been used in many derivative ways since. Most of the time, it’s very close in design. Sometimes fewer heroes are involved, but many times seven is still the magic number. Even when fewer heroes are involved, they still combine or maintain the unique personas of the Seven Samurai which are:

  • Kambei (The Hero) – This is the main hero who usually receives the call to help and is bound because of honor.
  • Gorōbei (The Hero’s Compliment) – This guy compliments the hero by being extremely different than the hero. For example, he is what Han Solo is to Luke Skywalker.
  • Heihachi (The Smart Guy) – This guy is less of a fighter and more of a strategist.
  • Kyūzō (The Tough Guy) – The tough bruiser no one wants to challenge.
  • Shichirōji (The Old Guy) – The wisest of the bunch. The one who’s been there and done that.
  • Katsushirō (The Young Guy) – The spit-fire wanting to prove himself worthy to the group.
  • Kikuchiyo (The Clown) – Seemingly a goof-off, but in the end proves himself heroic.

Let’s look at how Seven Samurai [7S] has influenced others.

The Magnificent Seven (1960)

The Magnificent Seven (1960)

The Magnificent Seven (1960)

Made just six years after 7S, The Magnificent Seven is a trimmed down Americanized version of the same story starring Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, and Charles Bronson. This time the samurai are gunslingers and the setting is Mexico. The Magnificent Seven was made with Kurosawa’s blessing as it introduced his story to American audiences and spawned multiple sequels. This makes The Magnificent Seven less inspired by S7 and more of a remake. So much so that you can map the characters to their samurai counterparts. The popularity of The Magnificent Seven is probably largely responsible for the influences that followed.



Battlestar Galactica (1978) – Episode 5: The Magnificent Warrior

Battlestar Galactica (1978)

Battlestar Galactica (1978)

Battlestar Galactica was a great, yet campy sci-fi series which has a lot of western icons anyway. Many of the episodes are mini-retellings of big budget films. Apparently they chose The Magnificent Seven as an influence for this episode. The seven heroes were reduced down to four. In this episode the away team is searching for seeds for their ship-grown crops. While visiting a small village on a local planet they encounter the pig-like Borays who raid the village during harvest. The villagers trick Starbuck into serving as their disposable law-keeper. This brings the heroes of the Galactica into defending the village in classic S7 style.

Marvel Star Wars comics issues 7-11

Marvel Star Wars: Issue #8

Marvel Star Wars: Issue #8

While not film or television, the series of comics that Marvel produced for Star Wars contained a very blatant homage to 7S. Beginning in issue number 7, Han and Chewbacca are hired by a farm boy to protect his village from marauders so they hire six warriors to help them out. This brings the hero count up to eight instead of seven, but most of the character archetypes from 7S are present.







Battle Beyond the Stars (1980)

Battle Beyond the Stars (1980)

Battle Beyond the Stars (1980)

In 1980, B-movie king, Roger Corman decided to throw 7S into a blender with Star Wars with the help of “John Boy” from the Waltons. This movie is beyond horrible but still induces a little bit of a guilty pleasure for me. This is in essence, the Magnificent Seven in Space (it’s Spanish title actually translates to that). Here’s the IMDB synopsis: “A young farmer sets out to recruit mercenaries to defend his peaceful planet, which is under threat of invasion by the evil tyrant Sador and his armada of aggressors.”

Oddly Corman must’ve really sold this well because he landed an all star cast including Richard Thomas, Robert Vaughn (who was in The Magnificent Seven), John Saxon, and George Peppard (who gets to do a lot more 7S before the decade is up). The movie also included some yet to be big names like James Cameron (Art Director) and Gale Anne Hurd (Production Manager).

The A-Team (1983-1987)

The A-Team (1983-1987)

The A-Team (1983-1987)

The corny but fun TV series of the 80s, A-Team essentially used the 7S model every week. It is tweaked and modified each time, but at it’s basic level the A-Team is a group of mercenaries for hire who protect the innocent from oppressors. The team is a reduction in number from seven to four, however they contain the same character archetypes from 7S. George Peppard (John “Hannibal” Smith) reprises his 7S role from Battle Beyond the Stars as the hero and leader. “Face” (Dirk Benedict from Battlestar Galactica) is the Smart Guy. The unforgettable Mr. T plays B.A. (the tough guy). And Dwight Schultz’s “Howling Mad” Murdock is obviously the clown archetype. It’s also fun to note that Robert Vaughn (The Magnificent Seven and Battle Beyond the Stars) has a recurring role.

Galaxy Quest (1999)

Galaxy Quest (1999)

Galaxy Quest (1999)

Galaxy Quest is a smelting pot of pop-culture. In a fun-loving way it mocks Star Trek fandom by making the heroes of the film washed out sci-fi actors from a Star Trek-ish TV show. Then it injects the 7S model. Oppressed aliens (the villagers) see broadcasts of their TV show and think it’s a documentary of real events. So they come to Earth to recruit the actors to serve as warriors to defend them against an evil oppressor. Galaxy Quest injects a couple of new twists into the 7S model. First, it’s a comedy. Second, there’s the plot element about the heroes not being legitimate warriors, but instead inexperienced actors. We’ll see both of these elements played out again in the 7S model.

A Bug’s Life (1998)

A Bug's Life (1998)

A Bug’s Life (1998)

Finally, I want to add the charming Disney/Pixar animated film, A Bug’s Life. Bringing the S7 effect to children. A Bug’s Life really draws heavily from Seven Samurai in it’s basic story. Harvester Ants work all year gathering food, but each year the terrifying grasshoppers show up to take their harvest. So young Flik sets out to recruit warriors. Much like Galaxy Quest he mistakes actors for warrior bugs. There are ultimately eight warriors in this rendition, but the archetypes are once again all there.

This is just a small sample of how Seven Samurai has influenced story-telling over the years. There are many other examples which use the 7S model in one way or another. Here’s a small list of honorable mentions. Star Trek: Insurrection, the Star Trek: Enterprise episode “Marauders”, the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode “The Magnificent Ferengi”, Kung-Fu: The Legend Continues episode “Dragonswing” (more Robert Vaughn), Three Amigos (1986), and The Star Wars: The Clone Wars episode “The Bounty Hunters” (even dedicated to Kurosawa). There are undoubtedly many more we could list, but you get the idea.

There are many other Kurosawa films with heavy influences. I love studying types and archetypes so perhaps I’ll do a follow up with more of those. 🙂

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