The biggest trap directors fall into when remaking Kurosawa films is putting the gun centre stage.
I’m going to admit something: I’m biased. I love Akira Kurosawa’s movies – though I tend to prefer the jidai-geki flicks to the ones set in the present day. Yet there’s an inherent issue unrelated to quality that precludes the creation of solid remakes. It’s the fact that the gun is often associated with novelty, and that’s just not the way it is in your standard American version. Bullets, in US films, are everywhere. In fact, there are so many, you frequently can’t count them.
You can, however, in The Seven Samurai (1954), one of the masterpieces of world cinema. In this tale of peasants and samurai versus bandits, the brigands have three guns; their opponents have none. That’s an advantage, and the counting and, ultimately, collection of these weapons is integral to the plot. A gun means long-range firepower; the samurai use either swords or bows and arrows. A gun also symbolises modernity, and the fact that it’s responsible for taking the lives of four samurai suggests a conflict between the past and the present. When master swordsman Kyuzo falls at the end after being mortally wounded by a bullet, he throws his sword in disgust. That’s not how he wanted to die. It’s not the samurai way.
Nope. You don’t find that in Shichinin no Samurai’s remake, The Magnificent Seven (1960).
Guns have a curious history in Japan. They were welcomed early on, with manuals on marksmanship even produced before they were discarded and stored voluntarily for years before being brought back. In Kurosawa films such as Ran (1985) and Kagemusha (1980), they play a huge role in the major battles; in the former, a gun is responsible for killing lord Taro as he assaults his father’s castle, while in Kagemusha, Oda Nobunaga – one of Japan’s three great unifiers – uses guns en masse at Nagashino to wipe out the rival Takeda forces. This final battle makes its presence felt in Kagemusha, where it is heard, in the reports of the gunfire, rather than shown until the horrific bloody aftermath, which powerfully documents the waste of life expended on the field.
But guns also offer warnings and the possibility of disaster in smaller Kurosawa films, notably Yojimbo (1961) and Stray Dog (1949). In the latter, a detective loses his gun to a criminal, and nearly the entire film is spent searching for it, as it could be used for evil. There’s a loss of control there, and without control, firearms offer the potential for villainy; the sword is a nobler instrument and can even be sheathed to prevent violence. That’s the weapon of choice for Toshiro Mifune’s Sanjuro Kuwabatake in Yojimbo, and he’s countered by a bad guy with a pistol: the wild, scary Unosuke (played magnificently by Tatsuya Nakadai). Unosuke displays this gun frequently, as if proud of it, and it’s obvious that he got it via nefarious means. To him, it’s a novelty, yet to Sanjuro, it represents danger, and when he ultimately disables Unosuke with a knife to the wrist before dispatching him, the miscreant asks to hold his instrument of destruction once more before he dies. It’s a not-so-obscure object of desire as well as a weapon, and just touching it provides a thrill.
That’s the biggest problem in the initial remake, Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars (1964). Because it’s a Western, guns are used both by the heroes and villains, so they lose their impact. So what if Clint Eastwood’s Joe is a superb marksman; his adversaries carry firearms, too, so there’s no discrepancy. Therefore, the conflict is minimised. Both sides can compete with each other equally; thus, it’s not about the sword versus the gun. You don’t have a historical context.
Strangely, the whole idea of a melee weapon being somehow nobler and less proletarian than a firearm also comes up in the original Star Wars (1977), which was highly influenced by Kurosawa. Alec Guinness’ Obi-Wan Kenobi speaks of the lightsaber as “an elegant weapon for a more civilised age” when compared with the brutish blasters, whose “clumsy or random” ways are off-putting to a Jedi Knight. Sure sounds familiar, right? With Star Wars pervading our popular culture so much, perhaps there’s a little Seven Samurai in all of us.
I don’t expect the remakes of Kurosawa’s films will subside now that supposedly definitive ones such as The Magnificent Seven or A Fistful of Dollars have been crafted. Periodically, we get stuff like Last Man Standing (1996), so we know nothing’s sacred. Stories like the one in The Seven Samurai are timeless, and although they’re well told, the prevalence of flicks such as A Bug’s Life (1998) suggests anything can be reimagined as long as the theme’s durable. The issue for me, however, is not only whether such recreations are done right, but also whether they provide a counterpoint to the firearms or their equivalents. An entire subtext is lost without this contrast, and a film wants without it.
In Kurosawa’s 1962 sequel to Yojimbo, Sanjuro, the titular character is told that “good swords are kept in their sheaths.” For remakes of this great director’s movies, I suggest good guns be kept in their holsters for the most part – unless they have something to say.