Way back in my first review, I remarked on how Akira Kurosawa is the one Japanese live-action film director the average American is most likely to know about, at least by reputation. Such renowned creative talent is often copied, with his two most frequently reimagined movies being Seven Samurai and Rashomon. Today, we’ll be looking at six movies and TV shows which offered their own interpretations. For those of you who wouldn’t know a Kurosawa from a Kawasaki, Wikipedia is your friend.
This is the one that immediately comes to mind when people think of Kurosawa adapted to American cinema. So much so that, when some folks believe a piece of media is mimicking Seven Samurai, it’s actually doing so from The Magnificent Seven. It’s kind of like how the typical visualization of The Wizard of Oz comes from the 1939 MGM musical instead of the L. Frank Baum book.
Of course, there is considerable tweaking when the story gets transferred from the Exotic East to the Wild West. Instead of Sengoku-era Japan, our village of meek farmers is located in 19th Century Mexico. The anonymous bandits of the original are given a face so that viewers can properly boo and hiss at them. Culturally specific elements like the caste awareness between the peasants and the samurai (and the antagonism it generates between the two) are dropped. Also dropped is an hour and twenty minutes of runtime, because dear Gawd three-and-a half-hours is way too long.
If there’s one aspect where the adaptation is inferior, it’s in how the characters from the original have their personality traits stripped out and swapped about. I have no objection to the process itself, as it produces some interesting results. For instance, Chico has Katsushiro’s youthful enthusiasm and Kikuchiyo’s contempt for the timidity of the peasants. However, this does mean there’s a risk a character might get lost in the mix and wind up as a blank slate. I of course am speaking of the forgettable and otherwise useless Lee. But at least Robert Vaughn had The Man from U.N.C.L.E. to look forward to.
The Law of Link Hogthrob states that any classic story will eventually be reimagined… IN SPAAAAAAACE!!!!! Should Seven Samurai be exempt from this precedent? Our old pal Roger Corman sure didn’t think so.
Like every other film producer and his dog at the time, Corman was trying to hitch onto the Star Wars gravy train and get the most out of the trend while the getting was good. Recognizing that Star Wars is essentially a samurai film in space, he went and produced a knockoff of the biggest samurai film of them all and included George Peppard as a space cowboy, Sybil Danning wearing ever so slightly more than she did in her Playboy shoots, and Robert Vaughn. I’m guessing Vaughn signed on under threat of his early shame Teenage Cave Man getting a rerelease if he didn’t cooperate. At least I’m sure that’s what his fanbase would like to believe.
I’ll freely admit that this is the only title on this list which I haven’t seen personally. But I do have it on my Tubi watchlist, so I’ll get to it eventually. It can hardly be worse than The Peanut Butter Solution.
For those who never saw it or just don’t remember, Farscape was a science fiction series from the turn of the century which partially served as a platform to showcase the creative endeavors of the Jim Henson Company and their wild alien puppets. It tells the story of John Crichton, an astronaut who accidentally opens a wormhole that sends him to the other side of the galaxy. He ends up cruising around in a former prison transport that had been commandeered by the inmates as they seek to evade the Peacekeepers, an interstellar organization of enforcers with a casual disregard for planetary sovereignty. Their starship Moya is a living being. How living? Living enough that she became pregnant and, by the end of the first season, gave birth to a baby starship.
The second season episode “The Ugly Truth” took a crack at the Rashomon formula. It opens with the crew of Moya having been contacted by Crais, a renegade Peacekeeper of dubious integrity who captains Talyn (the above-mentioned baby starship). A Plokavian ship approaches and Talyn opens fire and destroys it. The transport pod used by Moya’s crew leaves Talyn before he skedaddles, and they are captured by a second Plokavian ship. The crew are then separately interrogated to determine what happened and (more importantly) who pulled the trigger. Each recounting shares many of the same basic points. Crais claims that Talyn is getting more aggressive and harder to control. So he wishes to replace his current armament with something nonlethal, which will be provided by the Plokavians (infamously amoral weapons merchants).
But aside from this, the accounts vary wildly, from the level of skepticism expressed by the crewmembers of Crais’ intents to their general behavior (in particular the way Stark is so much more hysterical in D’Argo’s recounting). But it’s the subtle differences that impress, like how the rest of the crew is deferential to D’Argo in his own recounting, while in Crichton’s recounting everyone mispronounces Plakovian as Plakavoid instead of just him.
A Bug’s Life
Of the Pixar oeuvre, I’ve always thought that A Bug’s Life never got the respect it deserved. There is a silver lining to this in that at least it didn’t wind up with a series of increasingly hollow sequels to sully the original. Be that as it may, one of the reasons why it deserves greater recognition is how it not only apes the Seven Samurai formula, but in two key areas subverts it.
The set-up is fairly typical for a Seven Samurai homage, with an ant colony and grasshoppers taking the place of the farming village and the bandits respectively. The first twist comes when protagonist Flik proposes that they hire warriors to defend the colony and finds himself being encouraged to do so. What he doesn’t realize is that the rest of the colony has no interest in mounting a defense. They just want to get rid of him, since it was thanks to his bumbling that their tribute to the grasshoppers was lost, which was followed by a demand for a larger replacement tribute. The second variation is that the mighty warriors he hires are in reality out-of-work circus performers. A subversion like this is a thing of beauty. The way it’s dismissed as Pixar’s sophomore slump is nothing but a foul slander. Don’t allow yourself to be deceived by such falsehoods and recognize the true greatness of A Bug’s Life.
For our last two, we’ll be heading back to Japan to see how Kurosawa gets reinterpreted in his ancestral land, specifically in anime. Samurai 7 hews much closer to its source material than most adaptations, thanks in part to the setting being modeled on feudal Japan. But this is anime, so there are also giant robots and absurdly sharp katanas that can slice a flying warship in half with a single stroke.
Also, Kikuchiyo is re-envisioned as a steampunk-esque cyborg wielding a chainsaw katana.
Something else Samurai 7 retains which most other adaptations dispense with is the original film’s more downbeat tone. As in the movie, Kikuchiyo is the only one of the four samurai killed who gets a meaningful death. For the others, they don’t so much go out in a blaze of glory as a fizzle of insignificance. This is particularly emphasized with the taciturn Kyuzo, who suffers the further indignity of being taken down by friendly fire.
Dusk Maiden of Amnesia: “Ghost Maiden”
At first glance, this one doesn’t have any obvious connection to Kurosawa. It takes place at the Seikyou Private Academy, where a series of haphazard extensions added to the main building over the years make for a confused layout that could rival the Winchester House. In such an environment, ghost stories are inevitable, with many centering around Yuuko. Most of the stories agree that she was a student, but details about her are all over the place. While Yuuko does indeed exist, she knows nothing about how she died or why she haunts the academy (hence the rather flowery series title). The only thing she’s certain about is that her remains are entombed under the floor in the Paranormal Investigation Club meeting room. Through the club, she seeks to determine which stories are fact and which are tall tales, though the ultimate truth may not be to her liking.
The series has its ups and downs. But what really captures the attention of potential viewers is how the first episode “Ghost Maiden” takes the Rashomon formula and applies a good solid twist. To get an idea of what I’m talking about, let’s go over the sequence of events.
The story opens with club secretary Momoe Okonogi going over written testimonies regarding paranormal incidents at the school. As she does this, a variety of minor poltergeist activity occurs, though Momoe never observes it directly. Once she takes notice, Momoe becomes increasingly agitated until fellow club member Teiichi Niiya arrives. He appears quite distracted and occasionally makes unsettling verbal responses to Momoe’s innermost thoughts. Final member Kirie Kanoe enters the room, appearing to be angry for no discernible reason. After making a call to determine that the club’s president will once again be absent, the meeting begins. The proposed target to be investigated is an unused dumbwaiter that is said to occasionally run on its own, luring in unsuspecting students who are never heard from again. This is obvious hogwash. But as they check it out, the dumbwaiter switches on by itself. The door opens and a mysterious force sends Teiichi flying into the dumbwaiter, presumably dooming him to eternity in a hellscape from Clive Barker’s darkest fever dreams.
We then go back to the beginning and watch the events unfold from a different viewpoint. But unlike other Rashomon homages, every shot and every line of dialogue is identical. The key difference is that we can now see and hear Yuuko. Thanks to that, everything about the sequence of events takes on a different meaning.
“But this is anime, so there are also giant robots and absurdly sharp katanas that can slice a flying warship in half with a single stroke.”
But are those katanas about a foot and a half wide + eight feet long, while seemingly weighing maybe six ounces?
Only with Kikuchiyo, he of the above-mentioned chainsaw katana. It’s not immediately apparent, as he’s also the biggest of the seven.
Wow. Ha ha! I was half joking.
Nice bit about A Bug’s Life. I think it also suffered by comparisons to Antz.