The ’60s were an age that saw Hollywood running dry on Western ideas, so they turned elsewhere for influence and found gold in samurai movies. Up until this point, the genre had dominated a large part of moviegoers’ diets. Classic Westerns were being cranked out of Hollywood left and right in the ’50s, with most bearing a heart of gold, and clear lines in the sand between good and evil. Over in Japan, there were way more interesting movies being made by folks like Akira Kurosawa, who was making some of the greatest movies of all time. Many samurai movies would go on to influence Western filmmakers, but no one would have a greater impact than Kurosawa. After the release of movies like Seven Samurai, Rashomon, and Yojimbo, cowboys would never be the same again.
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‘Gunsmoke,’ ‘Bonanza,’ and ‘High Noon’ Were Some of the Best 1950s Westerns
Back in the 1950s, Westerns were like superhero movies are today. There was a new cowboy picture being released everywhere you’d look! And even though the genre became oversaturated, it did for good reason. Loads of them are great! There were movies like Rio Bravo, The Searchers, and High Noon being made one after the other. The small screen was also full of sheriffs and outlaws, with shows like Gunsmoke, Bonanza, and The Rifleman premiering that decade. Audiences couldn’t get enough… or so we thought. They actually did start to have enough after a while, and filmmakers were obviously struggling to find ways to keep the genre alive and profitable.
That’s when the conversation jumps over to Japan and enters the world of Akira Kurosawa. Kurosawa had been active as a filmmaker for decades by the time cowboys were dominating movie screens. Once the late 50s rolled around, he had already secured several classics under his belt. 1950 saw the release of Rashomon, ’52 had Ikiru, ’54 introduced us to Seven Samurai, ’57 had him re-imagine Macbeth with Throne of Blood, and ’58 brought us to The Hidden Fortress. Kurosawa was a master, and like the best of them, his works were diversified. He didn’t just tell samurai stories, but when he wanted to, he did so better than anyone else.
Akira Kurosawa’s Samurai Movies Influenced Cowboys in Westerns
These movies picked up wind around the world and caught the attention of many influential filmmakers. The samurai stories that Kurosawa was telling weren’t just gigantic badass epics, these were stories that weren’t far off from the cowboy pictures that were so popular, and could be the template for loads of new movies to be made — and that’s exactly what went down. The ’50s were a highly original time for Westerns, but some of the very best movies in that genre from the ’60s were pulled straight from the book of the samurai. Some might take issue with that, but honestly, it only further proved that Kurosawa had more game than any director on the planet. Everyone can try and imitate the master, but not everyone can be the master. Kurosawa had that title in the bag.
Kurosawa’s samurai movies were striking in a multitude of ways. It wasn’t just that he made movies with fresh stories that also happened to resemble cowboy movies in a lot of ways, his filmmaking, the types of characters that he brought into the equation, and the general tone of his works all really struck home with audiences. He has a way of bringing stoicism to his characters that is never alienating. That being said, his characters were also often badass because they didn’t cut any corners. A lot of the time, these folks operated in self-serving ways, even if it appeared that they were doing it for the good of others. Kurosawa’s movies weren’t as much about good and evil because their morality was constantly being juggled. These samurai characters were some questionable folks!
Kurosawa’s movies were also incredibly patient in their pace. That’s not to say that they were slow; they actually keep you on the edge of your seat a lot of the time. It really just means that he often gives the audience time to sit and ponder over a character’s actions, or builds up the tension leading up to a brawl or battle by letting the soundtrack go quiet for a moment. He was constantly ratcheting up the tension, but not by blowing your ear drums out with obvious music cues and fast cutting. These movies let shots linger and follow characters as someone with a face as pensive and expressive as Toshiro Mifune wanders the screen, leaving you wondering what could possibly be coming next. If there was any music at all, Kurosawa usually dialed up some really ominous or tense compositions from Fumio Hayasaka or Masaru Soto. The ’60s saw many Westerns take on a new degree of patience that they had never sat with before.
‘The Magnificent Seven’ Pulled Right From ‘Seven Samurai’
Of course, when it comes to the action scenes, Kurosawa always brought a brutality to the screen that you’d never find in a John Wayne movie. John Wayne’s characters weren’t always the most uplifting guys in the world, but his movies were rarely ever dour, nor this aggressive. Kurosawa, on the other hand, throws you in the dirt, dices you up with a samurai sword, and tells you to figure it out. It’s not like Kurosawa made gorefests or exploitation films (these weren’t the Lone Wolf and Cub movies!) they just weren’t the kinds of movies where someone gets stabbed and falls over like it didn’t really hurt all that bad. Westerns would now become more violent and gritty than ever.
The first Western to notably pull from a samurai film would be The Magnificent Seven, which liberally pulls from Kurosawa’s masterpiece Seven Samurai. This film was made in the States and released in 1960, six years after the original was first released. Both films follow a group of seven individuals who band together to protect a village from oncoming hordes of bandits. While it isn’t as dark as Seven Samurai can be (nor is it anywhere near as epic in length or storytelling), Magnificent Seven still rocks as a fun and exciting ’60s Western, with some truly great performances from its ensemble cast. Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, and Charles Bronson? Bring it on!
Sergio Leone & Clint Eastwood’s Westerns Share Similarities With Kurosawa’s Work
Then there’s Kurosawa’s Yojimbo and Sanjuro duology, a pair of movies that had an impact on Italian filmmakers more than anyone else. These films’ total kick-ass nature rippled through the Spaghetti Western subgenre for years, most notably in films like Django, and of course, Sergio Leone‘s Dollars trilogy, but most notably A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More starring Clint Eastwood. All of these movies revolve around a lone samurai or gunman who stumbles into a little town full of garbage individuals, so he has to start cleaning things up, but there’s typically a central bad guy involved as well. These Spaghetti Westerns were the movies that most understood the grit of Kurosawa’s movies better than any other. Like Seven Samurai or Yojimbo, you feel like you’re right there in the middle of the action with Eastwood and Nero, both because of how dirty everyone and everything is (even down to the lens itself). That being said, as great as those two leads are, no one plays a mysterious badass rolling into town like Toshiro Mifune.
Then there’s The Outrage, which acts as a Western remake of Rashomon. This film isn’t as stylistically similar to the works of Kurosawa as other ’60s Westerns ended up being. That said, it is a film that follows a group of people who are giving contradictory accounts of rape and murder. These stories are all told in the same way as Rashomon, utilizing flashbacks to show these different stories one after the other. Unlike the Dollars trilogy, Django, or The Magnificent Seven, The Outrage isn’t necessarily a classic, but it is continued proof that folks wanted anything and everything to do with samurai movies and the works of Akira Kurosawa.
The influence of samurai movies on the Western genre is still being felt to this day. Movies like Kill Bill: Volume 1 and 2 pull from both genres and perfectly represent how the two complement one another. Meanwhile, shows like The Mandalorian might be set in the Star Wars universe, but they are also clearly inspired by classic Westerns and samurai movies alike. In the wake of Kurosawa and his incredibly popular, gritty samurai films, Westerns would become more patient, morally gray, dirty, and badass. Rarely ever would filmmakers revert to the sweet and idyllic cowboy stories of the ’50s, because from there on out, everyone wanted to hang with the samurai.