Your action movies—those big Hollywood Blockbusters—owe an incalculable debt to one of Japan’s greatest film directors, Akira Kurosawa. He’s the man who nearly single-handedly created the template by which almost all modern action is made. So, as a matter of public service, we thought we’d briefly introduce you to a few of the most important gems in Kurosawa’s collection that profoundly affected the direction of the modern day action movie.
The first stop in our trip down memory lane is Seven Samurai (1954). If you’ve never experienced the movie, consider yourself on notice. An epic at nearly three hours (which doesn’t seem like a big deal today thanks to Peter Jackson), this movie includes virtually every aspect of the modern action movie. Directly remade in America as The Magnificent Seven (1960)—a far inferior, but distinctly Hollywood version—Seven Samurai is an astounding piece of cinematic history.
When a village finds itself constantly under attack by vicious bandits, the residents collectively gather up their meager possessions to hire help. The result is, of course, a band of seven warriors who teach the town to come together, think tactically, and ultimately fight back. The cast of characters will seem familiar now—the zen killer; crazed and untrained, yet passionate outcast; thoughtful strategic leader; young and impetuous warrior-in-training…
Characterizations are deep and fleshed out, and Kurosawa’s trademark for mixing drama and humor all help make this a superb movie that remains gorgeous and moving. What it gave to modern audiences is the ever-familiar trope of a small group of heroes fighting against overwhelming odds. It’s a concept we see repeatedly in action movies and shows, whether it’s only seven or a litany of aging 80s action stars (see the Expendables).
In 1958, Kurosawa made the Hidden Fortress, a movie that, decades later, would serve as the creative foundation for one of the most famous and important pop culture artifacts ever—Star Wars. Kurosawa regular, Toshiro Mifune, stars as a general who must guard a princess as they try to smuggle royal treasures through enemy territory. Along for the adventure are two bumbling peasants of questionable motives. Sound familiar? The movie has all the foundations that would lead to movies like Star Wars and countless other action adventure epics. Comedy mixes with tension and small and large-scale action in waves that will feel familiar to virtually any viewer now.
The most familiar and beloved trope in action, however, is the lone, unstoppable warrior. In 1961, Kurosawa returned to working with the inimitable Toshiro Mifune in Yojimbo. Even if you’ve never heard of this film, you’ve seen the impact it’s had on visual story telling. In Yojimbo, a lone warrior (Sanjuro) walks into a town under siege between two rival gangs. So, Sanjuro does want any devious wandering ronin would—he expertly plays both gangs off against each other at first for personal gain, then out of a sense of dismaying personal obligation to do what’s right.
Sanjuro is an unstoppable killing machine, so far above everyone else in the movie that the only hope the villains have against him is a lone fire-arm-wielding psycho, leading to a climactic (and symbolic) battle between old and new. Yojimbo has been directly re-made at least three times. The first and easily most notable is Sergio Leone’s quintessential “spaghetti” western, For a Fistful of Dollars (1964), which helped propel a young Clint Eastwood to fame.
Director Walter Hill and Bruce Willis took the idea to a prohibition-era town in 1996’s Last Man Standing and Rutger Hauer took the role in the bizarre B-movie of rival cyborgs, Omega Doom. More importantly is the influence Yojimbo had in the creation of the modern hero archetype. Witness the rash of revenge movies like Liam Neeson’s endless string of Taken movies (and clones) or the shockingly good John Wick. The lone warrior trope had its birth in dime store detective novels (Yojimbo is actually unofficially based largely on Dashiell Hammett's novel, Red Harvest), but Kurosawa moved action movies away from the aging stereotypes of the early cinema noir and action, and pointed them defiantly forward.
Akira Kurosawa had a long and illustrious cinematic career. He wasn’t defined by any one genre, but the work he did, especially early on, helped shape the future of visual storytelling like no other director. Kurosawa took the clichés and tropes of the time and modernized them. He wasn’t afraid to play with tone, cinematography, and bold characters. If you’ve never seen any of his films, it might be hard to understand the impact he made. Yet, modern action movies took Kurosawa’s ideas and ran with them, reshaping what action heroes are and how their stories are told.