Go west: 8 Japanese classics and the western films inspired by them

Christopher Nolan, Quentin Tarantino and George Lucas are just some of the Hollywood directors who’ve found inspiration in the masterpieces of Japanese cinema.

4 November 2021

By Kambole Campbell

The original: Seven Samurai (1954)

Seven Samurai (1954)

What it inspired: The Magnificent Seven (1960)

The Magnificent Seven (1960)

Legendary Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 epic Seven Samurai has seen many reworkings and homages in the nearly 70 years since its release. Most prominent is its direct American remake, John Sturges’s The Magnificent Seven (which was itself remade in 2016). Kurosawa’s film tells the story of a village of farmers who hire seven ronin, or masterless samurai, to fight off bandits planning to take their crops. In Sturges’ remake, the ronin become American cowboys facing off against Mexican bandits.

Now with an all-star American cast including Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen and Charles Bronson, Sturges’ rollicking western has become a classic in its own right, yet has never eclipsed Kurosawa’s original. Although it might be seen as a ripoff of the earlier film, it’s really part of a fascinating cultural exchange between the American western and the Japanese jidaigeki (period drama) and chanbara (samurai film).

Kurosawa himself was inspired by the classic cowboy films of John Ford, while as recently as the 2000s, Japanese director Ken Watanabe was putting his own spin on Clint Eastwood’s revenge western Unforgiven (1992). Meanwhile, Seven Samurai’s basic plot has cropped up in everything from Battle Beyond the Stars (1980) to Pixar’s A Bug’s Life (1998).

The original: The Hidden Fortress (1958)

The Hidden Fortress (1958)

What it inspired: Star Wars (1977)

Star Wars (1977)

The Hidden Fortress is a lighter, funnier affair than Kurosawa’s other period epics, yet it’s had a far-reaching impact on popular culture thanks to its influence on one major Hollywood franchise. In Kurosawa’s film, a general (played by frequent Kurosawa collaborator Toshiro Mifune) and two peasants (Minoru Chiaki and Kamatari Fujiwara) escort a princess (Misa Uehara) through enemy lines to safety. Replace those peasants with a couple of mouthy robots, and that begins to look a lot like George Lucas’s Star Wars.

Samurai cinema is omnipresent in Star Wars. Darth Vader’s costume and helmet are inspired by the headgear of Japanese warlords, and even the word ‘Jedi’ can be traced back to the term jidaigeki – the name for the kind of historical drama that Kurosawa is most famous for. Kurosawa’s influence has also been felt in the franchise’s more recent entries, with The Last Jedi (2017) using contradicting flashbacks inspired by Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950) to tell and retell the story of Luke Skywalker and Kylo Ren’s fateful altercation.

But it was The Hidden Fortress that set the template for that first space opera, and thereby found its way into the DNA of many blockbusters since, as other filmmakers tried to replicate Star Wars’ worldwide success.

The original: Yojimbo (1961)

Yojimbo (1961)

What it inspired: A Fistful of Dollars (1964)

A Fistful of Dollars (1964)

A lone, taciturn man walks into town. On either side of him, two gangs squabble for power as the locals are caught in the middle. There begins the story of both Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo and Sergio Leone’s 1964 spaghetti western remake A Fistful of Dollars, starring Toshiro Mifune and Clint Eastwood respectively as two men without a name. 

Where Kurosawa treated the story of a wandering samurai intervening in the brewing trouble with sly wit and surprisingly goofy comedy, Leone gives it a more intense, hard-bitten grandeur. In the confrontation scenes, the Italian uses tight closeups focused on the eyes, where Kurosawa films his antihero – who adopts the nickname Sanjuro – in stark, wide shots.

The kind of dusty, desolate town that Kurosawa depicts was always going to appeal to makers of cowboy films, and another spaghetti western classic – Sergio Corbucci’s Django (1966) – offers a much darker and more cynical take on the material. Kurosawa’s plot may have been inspired by a western source itself, however: some commentators have pointed out its similarity to Dashiell Hammett’s 1929 novel Red Harvest.

The original: Lady Snowblood (1973)

Lady Snowblood (1973)

What it inspired: Kill Bill (2003/04)

Kill Bill Vol. 1 (2003)

Based on the acclaimed manga series by Kazuo Koike (of Lone Wolf and Cub fame), the revenge thriller Lady Snowblood was one of the templates for Quentin Tarantino’s two-part martial arts pastiche Kill Bill. Directed by Toshiya Fujita, Lady Snowblood’s tale of Yuki (a fierce Meiko Kaji) jumps between past and present as it traces her conception, eventual training and her quest for bloody revenge as the living incarnation of her mother’s wrath.

Kill Bill takes the same non-linear approach in contextualising The Bride’s (Uma Thurman) equally ruthless quest – the difference being that she’s bringing violent retribution not on strangers but on her former comrades. Kaji herself claimed that Tarantino would make the cast watch Lady Snowblood between takes, and such reverence can be felt from the geysers of blood that spray from dismembered bodies to the matching climactic fights at a masked party that both culminate in the snow.

That fight between O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu) and The Bride in the House of Blue Leaves further emphasises the film’s inspiration: the song ‘The Flower of Carnage’, sung by Kaji herself at the opening and closing of Lady Snowblood, is the music playing as O-Ren dies. 

The original: Ghost in the Shell (1995)

Ghost in the Shell (1995)

What it inspired: The Matrix (1999)

The Matrix (1999)

The Wachowski sisters have proudly referenced Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 cyberpunk thriller Ghost in the Shell as an inspiration on The Matrix. Oshii’s work was part of their pitch to producer Joel Silver, and the visual influence is clear enough – notably in the flowing green code that represents the digital connections that allow each film’s protagonists to plug into computers. 

In fact, The Matrix had a number of anime influences mixed in (Katsuhiro Otomo’s 1988 landmark Akira among them), but the thread to Oshii’s film is the clearest. Each film comprises an exciting combination of man vs machine action and heady existentialism. Both are concerned with the intersection of technology and the soul, whether or not the former can erode the latter, and whether digital interconnectivity could subsume us entirely.

The systems that each film’s protagonist comes to break free from differ slightly: Ghost in the Shell’s Major breaks free from her government employers, while The Matrix’s Neo breaks free from enslavement at the mercy of actual machines. The trans reading of each is consistent, however: both Major and Neo share and reconcile a disconnect between the mind and the body. 

The original: Perfect Blue (1997) 

Perfect Blue (Pafekuto Buru, 1997)

What it inspired: Black Swan (2010)

Black Swan (2010)

Darren Aronofsky has spent a good part of his career trying to recreate Satoshi Kon’s debut feature about a pop star, Mima, being stalked by an obsessive fan. After buying the rights to create a live-action adaptation that never came to fruition, Aronofsky instead ended up replicating a sequence of shots from Perfect Blue during the bathtub scene in his film Requiem for a Dream (2000). 

Starring Natalie Portman as an increasingly disturbed ballerina, his later film Black Swan makes the influence clearer still. Like Perfect Blue, it’s a story about a performer in the midst of a potentially deadly identity crisis while in the pursuit of success. There are a number of superficial similarities, including Mima’s ballerina-style outfit during her days as an idol, and both films tackle questions of duality and split personalities.

This is a theme that Kon treats a little more delicately than Aronofsky. Aronofsky’s psychosexual approach to the blurring of fiction and reality is the more melodramatic, where Kon’s subjective use of editing practically gaslights the viewer as much as Mima, presenting hallucination as fact and vice versa.

The original: Battle Royale (2000)

Battle Royale (2000)

What it inspired: The Hunger Games (2012) 

The Hunger Games (2012)

In Kinji Fukasaku’s Battle Royale, a dystopian future Japanese government captures a class of ninth-grade students and forces them to kill each other for sport. In Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, a future dystopian government kidnaps random children, including one Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), and forces them to kill each other, for sport. Both stories originated as books, with The Hunger Games first published in 2008 and Battle Royale by Koushun Takami in 1999. 

The thread of influence is undeniable, but there are divergences: Battle Royale is a lot bloodier than the YA thrills of The Hunger Games for starters, and the details of the circumstances that give rise to each film’s barbaric contests are dissimilar. Both belong in a long tradition of genre thrills about people being rounded up in a remote location and hunted for kicks – one that stretches as far back as The Most Dangerous Game (1932) and as recent as Netflix’s Squid Game (2021).

The original: Paprika (2006) 

Paprika (2006)

What it inspired: Inception (2010)

Inception (2010)

Alongside Aronofsky, another filmmaker inspired by Satoshi Kon’s work is one Christopher Nolan, whose Inception may have partially derived from Kon’s final feature, Paprika – itself based on a 1993 techno-thriller novel written by Yasutaka Tsutsui. Both Paprika and Inception are thrillers based around the idea of machines that allow free and lucid travel into – and interaction with – dreams. Paprika completes an arc begun by Kon’s Perfect Blue, which sees the internet as a new dreamscape to rival that of cinema itself, yet is concerned where that might lead. Paprika suggests a more hopeful view that the new technology might also result in new companionships and even healing.

Inception borrows a number of visual conceits from Paprika, including an elevator that rides up through the different levels of a subconscious. The moment when the real world and the dream world overlap is also suggested with a strikingly similar idea: a background that, upon touch, cracks and shatters into fragments of glass. Linking these two visionary sci-fi projects together, it’s the perfect image for the fragility of human memory.

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