The gun against the sword: Why Kurosawa remakes miss the point

Akira Kurosawa - Stray Dog

Stray Dog

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.

Akira Kurosawa - Seven Samurai

Seven Samurai

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.

Akira Kurosawa - Yojimbo

Yojimbo

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.

Kagemusha - Akira Kurosawa

Kagemusha

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.

 

Simon Hardy Butler is a writer and editor living in New York City. He has written for publications ranging from Zagat to Adweek and has interviewed innumerable people—including two Auschwitz survivors whose story may be heard at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s website: http://collections.ushmm.org/search/catalog/irn189827. He also blogs about anti-Semitism for the Times of Israel. His views and opinions are his own.

16 thoughts on “The gun against the sword: Why Kurosawa remakes miss the point

  1. i’m going to have to voice a desenting opinion on this post, although the point of guns being a symbol of progress in seven samurai (and indeed many samurai movies) is indeed a valid one as it is reinforced by takashi shimura’s monologue at the end saying the peasants will be victorious, and implying the Samurai are doomed. The remakes (particularly A fist full of dollars) have a different agenda to pursue with the depiction of firearms that has no less impact then what kurosawa thought to do. Faulting a fist full of dollars for an over abundance of guns is the same as faulting seven samurai for an over abundance of swords. Guns are an intrinsic part of American culture (for better or worse) and this is especially certain when a film is set in the old west, as the setting alone calls for the abundance of firearms and as any good adaptation should, the basic story is used as a foundation for other ideas (RAN springs immediately to mind).

    if you compare the presentation of the violence in Fist Full of Dollars to Magnificent Seven you can clearly see a bit of an effort to preserve the nobility of the hired guns in the latter, whereas in the former nobody who uses a gun often can be seen in purely a good light, and if my memory serves me correctly the level of violence on display in fist full of dollars was quite shocking to audiences and critics of the day, and the shot of eastwood’s hand as he blows away 6 people was something that had never been shown in westerns (directly showing and connecting the “hero” of the film to cold blooded murder). i would argue that Leone was using that shot to directly challenge the notion of there being such a thing as a “noble gun-fighter” in the old west.

    With that in mind i really don’t think a Fist Full of Dollars misses any point of Yojimbo as it was trying to do something else entirely, as a result i honestly consider it to be Yomjimbo’s equal as on top of using the narrative of the original in a clever way it also cleans up a bit of the narrative bumps Yojimbo had.

    i also have to disagree with the romanticism of swords being a “noble” weapon, While the sword (particularly a japanese one) is a very elegant weapon with its beauty disguising its purpose, to say it is more “noble” and somehow less vicious or brutal then a gun is to ignore some very important facts. The amount of will power it would take for Yomjimbo to walk up to a group of strangers, incite a fight, and kill them as intimately and casually as he did is a
    testimate to his ruthless nature. Death by sword is not a pleasant way to go, in Sanjuro after the initial excitement of watching mifune explode into action after saving the three captured samurai dies down we are left to watch him slice and dice his way through for the most part a group of terrified men with every blow being puctuated by a cry of pain or fear.

    Also there is a prevailing myth that it doesn’t take much skill to kill with a firearm, which is a bogus claim. it doesn’t take much to kill with a sword either, all of the thugs and goons in yojimbo have swords and they all get slaughtered by Yojimbo, Unosuke on the other hand displays a great deal of skill with his firearm when he manages to ring the town bell with bullets. Also a gun can remain in its holster much like how a sword can remained sheathed,
    this is one of the central conflicts in Unforgiven.

    i really don’t mean to nit pick or insult you in any way i do apologies if you take offence to me pointing it out, but the final picture in this post does not come from Kagemusha it is from the first battle in Ran. again i don’t mean to offend you in anyway it just kinda bothered me while i read your post.

  2. Outstanding insight into the two contrasting motifs Simon! Though I think your stance on Seven Samurai in comparison to The Magnificent Seven might be a little off kilter. I have always the act Kyuzo casting away his sword as a symbolic statement that age-old tradition can not resist the unstoppable force of modern change. I would even say that when Britt dies in The Magnificent Seven, his last act of hurling his knife into the broken fence is angry with his death and that was not how he wanted to die.

    Just a thought. Either way, thanks for this amazing post.

    • Thanks, Matt! Yes, I admit to a bias in favor of The Seven Samurai; recently, I’ve enjoyed The Magnificent Seven less and less, in part owing to the issues described above, but I think also because of the absence of the class differences prevalent in the feudal world of The Seven Samurai. That’s another meaty portion of the film that I feel is lacking in The Magnificent Seven. But I do think you have an interesting point; certainly the death of Kyuzo is up for interpretation, and it’s a powerful counterpoint to the death of Britt. Many thanks for reading!

  3. Great piece. The traffic still occasionally goes in the opposite direction. Lee Sang-il’s YURUSAREZRUMONO remakes Eastwood’s UNFORGIVEN, while relocating it to Meiji era Hokkaido (and featuring both a lament for the rise of the gun, and a duel betweeen gun and sword).

  4. A fascinating subject Simon, and a welcome look at some of the work of the man who is possibly my favourite director, Kurosawa.

    It also brings to mind the 2003 film ‘The Last Samurai’. Though lacking the class of any comparable Japanese production, this film also highlights how the use of firearms changed the ways of war in Japan. It also allows the character of Nathan Algren, played by Tom Cruise, to realise the dignity of his enemy (a familiar theme in modern cinema) and he eventually changes sides, joining the futile resistance against the new weapons.

    There is also an interesting nod to the modern arms industry, with American gun dealers travelling to Japan, to sell these new weapons of mass destruction (including Gatling Guns) to a society seeking to emerge into the modern world, from its medieval past.

    Thanks for a really good article, and best wishes from England. Pete.

  5. Great piece, Simon. In every instance, Kurosawa’s films have been superior to their American remakes – there is no doubt. And the sword/gun motif is undeniable.

    It’s funny that, while the western comes with its own set of motifs which deal with the inescapable spread of “civilisation”, they are not particularly present in ‘For a Fistful of Dollars’ or “The Magnificent Seven”. At least, not so far as I can recall….

    • Thanks, James–I totally agree. And I think you’re right about the motifs being hard to find in A Fistful of Dollars and The Magnificent Seven. Perhaps Leone and Sturges forgot about including them while trying to replicate the Kurosawa films 😀

  6. Brilliant stuff. Just to add on the discussion if I may, you’re spot-on with the Star Wars reference. Lucas was (and I imagine still is) a huge fan of Kurosawa (The Hidden Fortress offering a loose plot for Star Wars, a debt which Lucas would later repay by executive producing Kagemusha), and was heavily inspired by the code of the Samurai when forming his own Jedi ethos.

    • Many thanks! I love The Hidden Fortress–if I’m not mistaken, isn’t there even a line in the original Star Wars mentioning a “hidden fortress” that the rebels have? I wish the forrmer film was more widely seen here in the States.

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