(Kanopy Streaming, October 2018) A band of men get together to protect a village from bandits: If Seven Samurai feels familiar, it’s because it’s been very, very influential since its release. You can trace successors both direct (The Magnificent Seven, original and remake versions) and indirect (the entire ensemble-cast of heroes action movie genre) to what it solidified. Akira Kurosawa left behind two templates (in between this and Yojinbo) for the action movie and other filmmakers haven’t been shy in reusing it. The draw here is as much the story as the performances of the actors, especially Toshiro Mifune as the wild card of the group, skilled but not sane. Seven Samurai is long, but there are a lot of rewards along the way, and a very immersive sense of being in a feudal-Japan-era village as the action unfolds. This may be an older black-and-white film, but it’s certainly not boring.
(Kanopy streaming, October 2018) If you really want to know where Clint Eastwood’s screen persona comes from, then have a look at Akira Kurosawa’s Yôjinbô, the classic “man comes to town” western story … except for being set in medieval Japan. And being adapted from a hard-boiled Raymond Chandler novel. As the film begins, a Ronin played by none other than Toshiro Mifune strolls into town, asking for nothing more than a place to stay for the night. But the small town he just walked into is divided between two warring gangs. Many would like to see the gangs gone except … who will take them on? If that feels like an overly familiar premise, keep in mind that it was done here first, with many of the traditional action movie tropes (such as the introduction of the protagonist through some unrelated heroic business) being codified here for the first time. The link between Yôjinbô and Sergio Leone’s films is well documented, but it’s also blindingly obvious from even a casual watch, as you nearly don’t even need the subtitles to tell where we are in a familiar story. Mifune is nothing short of amazing here, a force of nature transcending cultural and temporal borders. While the film definitely feels too long, it also definitely feels like a western despite not being at all in the same time or place. Action movie fans should enjoy a look at this, the progenitor of an entire subgenre.