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Samurai Westerns

Andrew Osmond investigates the long love affair between samurai and cowboys

Unforgiven Remake

28th February sees the classic Hollywood Western go East. Yuresarazaru Mono has the English title Unforgiven; it remakes the celebrated 1992 Western of that name, which was directed by its star Clint Eastwood and won the Best Picture Oscar. The remake features Ken Watanabe (Inception, The Last Samurai) as an exiled samurai, replacing Eastwood’s leathery gunslinger, and transposes the story from dusty Wyoming to the snows of Hokkaido. Yet it’s a remarkably close adaptation – so faithful that if you’ve forgotten what happens in Eastwood’s Unforgiven, we suggest you don’t rewatch it before seeing the remake, as it’d spoil too much. On its own terms, the Japanese film is an enthralling story, full of majestic landscapes, good humour and true grit.

An American Western becoming a samurai picture… Historically, the famous precedents were the other way around. Both involved films by Akira Kurosawa. The Seven Samurai (1954) was remade as The Magnificent Seven (1960), while Yojimbo (1961) became A Fistful of Dollars (1964). A Fistful of Dollars pretty much defined its star, Clint Eastwood, so you can argue that without Yojimbo, there wouldn’t have been Unforgiven!

The parallels between the American Western and Japan’s samurai films have been discussed for decades, mirroring the perceptions of Japan itself. In particular, the samurai films by Kurosawa occupy a vital place in cross-cultural history. They were exported abroad in the early 1950s – a key title was Rashomon, which was shown at the Venice Film Festival in 1951 and won the Golden Lion Award with its fable about unreliable truths, in which a violent story is told in different (and mutually incompatible) flashbacks by competing witnesses. Hence the famous Simpsons joke – “You liked Rashomon.” “That’s not how I remember it!”

Very shortly, critics began noting similarities between such films and the American “Western” drama. In the words of the critic David Desser, “The obvious similarities of being set in the past, of having armed heroes who protect the weak or who seek bloody revenge, and the subscription to a codifed set of behavioural norms like ‘The Code of the West’ or the code of ‘Bushido,’ gives the two forms [Western and samurai film] an obvious affinity. Deeper, though… both forms function as myth-makers. Both film genres gave rise to iconic archetypes; both formulas transformed historical figures or folk heroes into mythic heroes.”

Rashomon, in fact, is more an anti-hero story, if it can even be called that. Yet it still foregrounds the sense of a dangerous, wild, exhilarating past, where violence is dealt between skilled, hyper-manly fighters. For many foreigners, Rashomon was their first glimpse into Japanese culture since World War II, when Japan and its enemies demonised one another as monsters or vermin. Rashomon was itself remade as a Western, 1964’s The Outrage, which featured Paul Newman, Edward G. Robinson and future Enterprise captain William Shatner.

A far more heroic – albeit tragic – portrait of samurai came in Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai. That’s the one where a group of masterless samurai is hired to protect a peasant village from bandits. In the trailer below, the true show-stealer appears at 2-15 in. He’s Toshiro Mifune, “the wildest and rowdiest” of the samurai, and the actor who’s the star of samurai pictures for millions of viewers in Japan and worldwide. We’ve already seen him as the murderous brigand in the Rashomon trailer above, and we’ll see him again later.

The Seven Samurai was remade as 1960’s The Magnificent Seven, directed by John Sturges, which transferred the story to Mexico. The closest equivalent to the Mifune character is a manic fighter played by Horst Buchholz (a year after he played a runaway killer in Britain’s Tiger Bay). However, the film is dominated by two things: Yul Brynner as the Seven’s shaven-headed leader, and the unforgettable theme music.

A point of dispute for film and cultural critics, though, was how similar Westerns and samurai films really were. The parallels cited above might seem obvious, but some critics argued they were superficial or illusory. For example, it’s argued, the Western is essentially a fantasy of individualism, of strong men turning a wilderness into a new world. The samurai, in contrast, are an elite with centuries-old roots but no future; they’re bound to class and duty, even if they look masterless and independent.

Critic Stephen Prince claimed, “The gunfighter is skilled and pure in his isolation from society, while the samurai may be diminished or destroyed when attempting to escape the constraints of social obligation.” Both Prince and Desser point out other differences. For example, the Western traditionally sees the “wild” as needing to be tamed as a prerequisite for civilisation, whereas the samurai film has quite a different view of the landscape, its storms and seasons. Or does it? How much difference is there between the use of torrential downpours in the finales of, say, Seven Samurai and Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven? Or between the ageing, deglamourized men with past careers of violence, played by Eastwood in Unforgiven and Ken Watanabe in the Japanese remake?

Even Kurosawa seemed ambivalent on the subject. In one interview, he said, “Good Westerns are liked by everyone. Since humans are weak, they want to see good people and great heroes. Westerns have been done over and over again and in this process a kind of grammar has evolved. I have learned from this grammar of the Western.”

But in another interview, he discussed the Westerns based on his own films. “I’ve got nothing against adaptations of my films. But I do not think they can succeed. The basic context is so very different. And, whatever my views, pastiche films, of a premeditated kind, can never be good films… It is, for example, ridiculous to imagine me directing a Hollywood western. For I am Japanese…” But then, Kurosawa plainly had no qualms in adapting other foreign forms, such as Blighty’s Elizabethan drama. One of his samurai classics, the 1957 Throne of Blood (yes, it stars Mifune) is based directly on Macbeth.

Moreover, while samurai movies were exported worldwide, a generation of Japanese were being introduced to the Western. They didn’t see them in the cinemas, at least not at first, but through TV. American-made oat operas such as Wanted: Dead or Alive (featuring Steve McQueen) and the long-running The Virginian were screened in Japan while the country’s cinema attendances were plunging. The Dorama Encyclopedia by Jonathan Clements and Motoko Tamamuro notes that these imports sparked Japan’s own domestic TV period sagas, including the never-ending stream of “taiga” Sunday series on NHK. There were samurai shows, of course; an early case was Fuji TV’s Three Swordsmen from 1963, which spun off a film and later reboots for new generations.

One of the TV Western imports to hit Japan was Rawhide, co-starring an actor called Clint Eastwood. He graduated to the big screen, and to the most important samurai-derived Western of all, a film that was critically-panned on its release, yet now seen as a genre milestone. A Fistful of Dollars (1964) by Italy’s Sergio Leone, introduced the world to the Spaghetti Western and to Eastwood’s Man with No Name. It was based on Kurosawa’s film Yojimbo, made three years earlier.

Kurosawa’s original is the story of a ronin who wanders randomly into a town torn apart by a local gang war. With much amusement, the ronin plays both sides against each other, on the basis that they all deserve to die anyway! The word “Yojimbo” (referring to the ronin) simply means “the bodyguard.” No prizes for guessing who Kurosawa chose to play him…

The adaptation of Yojimbo as A Fistful of Dollars led to a messy legal argument that’s amusing on several levels. Leone made no secret that he had seen Yojimbo in Rome (entitled La Sfida del samurai). Yet someone (cough) forgot to get Kurosawa’s permission before Dollars was made. Some accounts blame the studio; one version claims the studio sent a request to Toho Films, which made Yojimbo, but never got a reply. After the film was made, Leone received a letter from Kurosawa, reading: “Signor Leone – I have just had the chance to see your film. It is a very fine film, but it is my film… You must pay me.” Presumably, Kurosawa wrote it when he was the mood to think samurai films could be adapted into Westerns – and indeed, Dollars was an adaptation, full of what would be Leone’s signature imagery and style. Leone himself reacted to the letter like a thrilled fanboy (“The great director Kurosawa liked my movie!”)

Leone, in fact, claimed Kurosawa had adapted Yojimbo from another genre – not a Western, but an American gangster thriller novel by Dashiell Hammett, who wrote The Maltese Falcon. In the biography of Leone by Christopher Frayling, the director is quoted: “What stirred my curiosity… was a piece of news in the paper which accompanied the Italian release of Yojimbo. In it, the writer noted that Kurosawa’s film had drawn its inspiration from an American thriller – Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest [published in 1929]. Kurosawa had rearranged the story, by adding the grotesque masks and the martial code of the samurai. What I wanted to do was undress these puppets and turn them into cowboys, to make them cross the ocean and return to their place of origin.”

Scholars have fought over whether Yojimbo was really based on Red Harvest (the debate is summarised in this article). But Leone’s lawyers went to a much older source to combat Kurosawa. Reasoning that it would be best to choose an Italian source, they claimed that both A Fistful of Dollars and Yojimbo were derived from an eighteenth-century stage comedy, Servant of Two Masters, by Carlo Goldoni. (As it happens, the play has recently had a hugely successful British revival, updated as One Man, Two Guvnors, with gangsters!) Anime fans might compare this to Disney’s statements that its Lion King was based on Hamlet, with nothing to do with any imported Japanese TV cartoon

In the fall-out, Kurosawa and Yojimbo’s co-writer Ryuzo Kikushima received exclusive rights to distribute A Fistful of Dollars in Japan, Formosa (now Taiwan) and South Korea. They also got 15% of the film’s world box-office takings. As well as eating into Dollars’ dollars, the case delayed the film’s distribution in America and Britain for more than two years. This was a huge annoyance to Clint Eastwood, though it was old history by the time he met Kurosawa, at Cannes in 1990. According to Frayling, the two legends laughed about “the fact that Eastwood owed his big career break to a piece of plagiarism.”

A shame… We’d have loved to have seen the shoot-out, or swordfight, Happily, Eastwood had no reservations about permitting his Unforgiven to be remade in Japan, saying he was “honoured” by the adaptation. And if anyone complains about a genre legend like Eastwood being replaced by a relative stripling like Watanabe (star of Clint’s Letters from Iwo Jima)… well, remember we all start somewhere. How do you think Clint felt when he made A Fistful of Dollars, having to follow in the magisterial footfalls of Toshiro Mifune?

Unforgiven, the Japanese version, opens in British cinemas on 28th February.

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