Seven Samurai or Samurai 7
door David Desser
There are two Japanese cinemas; at least it often appears that way. One has been the object of serious scholarly attention in the west for over forty years; the other only far more recently and rather sparingly. Scholars and fans of the first sort of Japanese cinema can point with pride to the number of film festival prizes and American Academy Awards their cinema has captured; fans of the second cinema tend to talk among themselves and even the occasional festival or Oscar nomination need not convince them of what they already know. The first Japanese cinema has given the world a number of acknowledged classics, films which have been remade and reworked in other contexts, often to great success; the second Japanese cinema has actually had greater box-office impact, but recognized classics have been fewer and farther between. The first Japanese cinema, which began as an “art house” phenomenon, has grown to accommodate more popular and even outré films and figures, like giant monsters, near-motiveless avenging spirits and directors whose work stands far outside the decorous realm of art cinema. The second Japanese cinema, alternately, possesses a canon almost far too wide and varied to describe with any accuracy or simplicity and seems to grow ever larger and unwieldy. With films like Rashomon (1950), Seven Samurai (Shichinin no samurai, 1954), Ugetsu Monogatari (1953), and Tokyo Story (Tokyo monogatari, 1953) among many others, films in the first Japanese cinema are familiar even to those who might otherwise know little of Japan’s film culture; but one would have to be far more expert and dedicated to name any more than one or two films drawn from the second Japanese cinema. Yet if one were to pose the question as to which Japanese cinema produced Japan’s most commercially successful work in the international arena, would it surprise anyone to learn that it is drawn from this second Japanese cinema? Indeed, for all the renown of Rashomon, Seven Samurai, Tokyo Story, or, for that matter, a more recent film like Shall We Dance? (Sharu wi dansu, 1996), the biggest box-office draw from Japan has been Pokemon: The First Movie (1999). And say what you will about a resurgent live-action cinema in the 21st century (which has been a considerable and happy surprise), the most popular Japanese movies in Japan have also emerged from this second cinema via the work of MIYAZAKI Hayao, which, of course, makes them, like Pokemon, animated films, or anime.
In the vast majority of books on “Japanese cinema”—which always means, but need not be so stated, live-action cinema—anime merits nary a mention. Though the Japanese have been producing animated films since the Pacific War (two propaganda films featuring Momotaro, the Peach Boy, are well-known in this regard), such films have quite literally been written out of mainstream Japanese film history. By the same token the handful of scholarly books, or even the larger segment of fan-oriented publications, similarly segment anime out of Japanese cinema. Antonia Levi’s pioneering Samurai from Outer Space, for instance, attempts a cultural grounding of anime, but the context from which anime emerges has little or nothing to do with Japanese cinema, at least according to that book. Thus, in a study that invokes “samurai,” and can do so presumably because non-specialist readers will know samurai from the popular films of Kurosawa, Kobayashi, et. al., no actual non-animated samurai films are even mentioned. In another cinematic invocation, Brian Ruh entitles his book on the films of OSHII Mamoru, Stray Dog of Anime. While the title “Stray Dog” surely invokes the great Kurosawa film of that name (Nora inu), apparently for Mr. Ruh such is not the case. Kurosawa himself is invoked only once in the book (to compare Jin-Roh to Rashomon in terms of finding favour in Japan only after it succeeded in the west), while the magnificent scholarly achievement of Donald Richie is similarly called forth only once, to berate Mr. Richie for dismissing anime. Turnabout being fair play, Alex Kerr turns the tables on Mr. Richie, dismissing all of contemporary live-action Japanese cinema in favour of anime is his run-through of the cultural landscape of modern Japan, Dogs and Demons: Tales from the Dark Side of Japan. Still, this may be compared to Patrick Galloway’s rather self-serving, Stray Dogs and Lone Wolves: The Samurai Film Handbook (poor Kurosawa—books keep stealing the title of his film and then do not even have the courtesy of discussing it!) which mentions not a single anime, despite the numerous animated swordplay films. This mutual elimination society, where either Japanese cinema is consonant with live-action film, or anime exists in a Japan that seemingly has no live-action cinema worth mentioning, is a situation that should come to a halt. Susan Napier, in Anime: from Akira to Princess Mononoke, the best book on anime yet written, is something of the exception here. She recognizes, if not necessarily the mutual influences that flow between anime and the live-action corpus, then at least some instances where the two Japanese cinemas have overlapped their interests, as, for example, images of apocalypse and the Atomic Bomb. And, to be fair, the scholarly fan-boys who produced The Midnight Eye Guide to New Japanese Film do more than pay token lip service to anime. Still, given both a resurgent Japanese live-action cinema and an animated film industry that is the envy of the world, some greater confluence between the two Japanese cinemas is a desirable outcome.
Seven Samurai (1954)
But what are the connections between anime and live-action cinema in Japan? In accounting for the popularity of anime, Susan Napier rides a slippery slope of cause-and-effect. We cannot simply say that the popularity of anime is in inverse proportion with the appeal of Japan’s live-action cinema. It may be that in the 1950s and 60s, the Classical Japanese cinema experienced a golden age while anime was only a marginal, child-centred entertainment, and that the decline of the Japanese cinema starting in the 1970s saw the more widespread appeal of anime. Napier is right to note that the decline of the mainstream Japanese cinema left less space for talented, creative people, but whether such people turned to anime is surely debatable. To take a counter example: the decline of Hollywood cinema in the 1960s hardly led to a golden age of American animation. Indeed, for many scholars, at least what we might call the first golden age of Hollywood animation is precisely consonant with the tremendous appeal and success of the studio system; and that the decline in film animation in the US is simultaneous with the decline of its mainstream cinema. Meanwhile, the tremendous, unprecedented success of American animation today hardly implies the evacuation of live-action Hollywood cinema. Moreover, since publication of Napier’s book in 2000, it is hardly accurate to claim that IMAMURA Shohei, ITAMI Juzo and KITANO “Beat” Takeshi represent the odd-man out of the otherwise routinely made Japanese cinema. Although the films of Miyazaki may represent the apogee at the Japanese box-office, the appeal of KUROSAWA Kiyoshi, MIIKE Takashi, TSUKAMOTO Shinya and, to a different audience, IWAI Shunji, not to mention the continuing importance of Kitano, should not be overlooked. In other words, a mini-renaissance of live-action Japanese cinema has not caused a decline in anime. Instead, we should start to think about simultaneity and mutuality, not exclusivity.
In discussing Japanese televisual anime, Trish Ledoux and Doug Ranney note that such programs positively “overflow” with things such as tracking shots, fancy pans, and unusual point-of-view structures among other things, in contrast to American-produced TV animation. Yet instead of merely contrasting anime with American cartoons, why not note that perhaps anime derives from or may be related to the classic Japanese cinema of Ozu and Mizoguchi with their complex stylistics; or, for that matter, much of mainstream Japanese cinema which is always ready to interject stylistic “flourishes” (as David Bordwell terms them)? In other words, all too typical of analyses of anime is its contrast to, its difference from, mainstream (i.e. Hollywood) animation. By the same token, anime typically becomes a site for studying Japanese culture. While the live-action Japanese cinema, too, has often been utilized as a site to discover the particularities and, all too often, the eccentricities of Japanese culture, it has more often been the recipient of scholarly critique that pays attention to its art and artistry and not just its sociology. By now, the live-action Japanese cinema need not be the West’s cinematic “Other” as anime still yet remain animation’s Other. Nevertheless, if anime and mainstream Japanese cinema derive from Japanese culture and each undeniably has artistry to it, perhaps we might think about those moments of contact between the forms. Seven Samurai and Samurai 7 would be an interesting place to start this thinking.
Seven Samurai is one of the most influential films in all of world cinema, not to mention one of the best known. And while its impact on world cinema could be easily demonstrated simply by a run-through of the many films that have clearly remade and reworked it, all the way from Hollywood to Bollywood, perhaps its impact on Japanese cinema has been less-well documented. For our purposes here, what does it mean when an anime pays overt homage, tribute and credit to the film, from its very title to acknowledging its source material at the head of each entry? Through 26 half-hour episodes (making the TV anime far longer than the original) Samurai 7 remakes, reworks and re-imagines Kurosawa’s classic of the live-action cinema. And while Samurai 7 has yet to enter the anime canon alongside the likes of Akira (1988), Sailor Moon, Pokemon, or the Studio Ghibli oeuvre, its routine availability in an elaborately packaged English-language DVD edition and its showing on television (the Independent Film Channel in the US, for example), and with releases in France, Germany, Italy, Hong Kong, and Portugal, among other places, this series certainly demonstrates the kind of global appeal anime producers and distributors have come to expect from the finest entries into the genre.
Samurai 7 is a brilliant remake/re-imagining of Kurosawa’s samurai classic. In its basic outline it reproduces the fundamental plot, the essential nature of the characters, and many of the basic thematic motifs and structures so fundamental to the success of the original. A farming village is imperilled by marauding former samurai and, unable to defend themselves, they send a small group to the nearby city to recruit samurai to their cause. The samurai they recruit undertake the mission for varied motivations, from sheer heroism, to a desire to prove oneself in combat, to the camaraderie among warriors or the desire to test oneself against impossible odds. A major subplot is added to Kurosawa’s original (and it is what accounts for the rather longer running time of the series), yet it is very much in keeping with a theme implicit in Kurosawa’s film: the exploitation of the weak by the strong and the manipulation of Japan’s class system for personal gain.
It isn’t hard to see the appeal that Samurai 7 has to anime fans. In re-imagining Kurosawa’s original, the anime now belongs to the SF genre so typical of the form and, even more definitively, participates in the prevalence for mecha—the mechanical/technological hybridization of the human body. The samurai fighter Kikuchiyo is a mecha-warrior, while all of the bandits are no longer human, having traded in their bodies for android status. Similarly, the characters possess fighting skills and abilities far in excess of even the most outrageous live-action drama; indeed, the film derives a lot of its fight choreography and picturisation from post-1990s Hong Kong martial arts movies (the link amongst East Asian manga and anime is another subject, one to broach at a later date). Character iconography is typical of anime, too—Kyuzo now sports blond hair while Katsushiro is highly androgynous, for instance. Yet fans of the samurai film will also profit from investing in this series. It wonderfully imagines Medieval Japan in a post-industrial landscape, with typical anime iconography drawn from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1926). And in its imaging of the bandits as mecha-warriors, can we not see an apt metaphor for a samurai’s loss of status along with larger questions about what it means to be human in a chaotic, amoral world? Of course, this is precisely what Kurosawa’s classic original is about. Indeed, isn’t all great cinema, live-action, anime or hybrids of their own sort, centrally concerned with these kinds of issues?
David Desser teaches film studies at the University of Illinois. He has authored and edited numerous books on Japanese cinema, including The Samurai Films of Akira Kurosawa, Eros Plus Massacre: An Introduction to the Japanese New Wave Cinema and Ozu´s “Tokyo Story”. He also did the commentary on the Criterion Collection DVD of Tokyo Story and contributed commentary to the special edition of Seven Samurai.