“With a good script a good director can produce a masterpiece; with the same script a mediocre director can make a passable film. But with a bad script even a good director can’t possibly make a good film. For truly cinematic expression, the camera and the microphone must be able to cross both fire and water. That is what makes a real movie. The script must be something that has the power to do this.” —Akira Kurosawa
I often wonder if Akira Kurosawa knew how good he was. It’s evident that he knew he had talent. He knew he was a good director; he knew he could write. And he held this opinion of himself in the face of countless adversities. He was maligned by Japanese studios that refused to finance his films; he was termed ‘difficult’ by Western studios like 20th Century Fox and all but blacklisted by them. But, at his death in 1998, and in the subsequent years, we—or, at least, certainly I—have arrived at the conclusion that he is, and likely will remain, the greatest film director of all time.
Kurosawa tells us that the secret lies in his scripts. In his autobiography he wrote, “If your goal is to become a film director, you must master screenwriting.” Yesterday, Variety reported that Splendent Media purchased the rights to sixty-nine scripts written by Akira Kurosawa, with the intention of licensing them out for remake projects. The question of remakes is a tricky one, and it becomes markedly more difficult when the original work we’re discussing was authored by Kurosawa. He has achieved near god-like status, and one’s natural inclination is to fear that a remake will sully his original efforts.
Perhaps a better way to phrase the issue is ‘why should his films be remade at all?’ This is a question difficult to answer. Traditional responses applicable to near all remakes can be offered: it would be good for new generations to experience his stories (to which one retorts that watching the originals would be better for said new generations), and adapting Kurosawa’s tales to contemporary settings offers a new and interesting take on his narratives and themes (a compelling and perhaps fruitful line of reasoning).
Many of Kurosawa’s works would be simple to adapt. Kurosawa suffered with his contentious status in Japan. Japanese critics attacked him for being too Western, for using traditionally Western themes and for eschewing the important parts of his native culture. Conversely, when his films arrived here critics, especially the imprudent Bosley Crowther, termed him too Japanese. But the reality is neither: Kurosawa wrote about common themes across all cultures; Kurosawa wrote about humans. Ikiru’s subject is the Japanese bureaucracy, but the film is actually about the human condition. Drunken Angel is set in a post-war Tokyo slum, but the film is actually about the choices people make and about good and bad. Kurosawa’s stories are entirely relatable even in their Japanese context.
To be sure, as Rorie noted in his piece, a handful of Kurosawa’s scripts are uncompromisingly Japanese. One can see no use for a remake of Ran, even ignoring the fact that it draws heavily from King Lear. The likes of The Most Beautiful (a wartime propaganda film), The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail (a mashup of the Kabuki play Kanjincho and the Noh play Ataka), and Dersu Uzala (a Russian-language film with universal themes but a decidedly Russian taste) are similarly too regionalized to be suitable for Western audiences.
Remakes should look to draw from those universal themes as opposed to simply transmuting the entire plot. To adapt Rashomon, for instance, you would not set it again in feudal Japan; you would give it a harsh, local twist, ala The Wire: make it about petty crime, set it in a district court, and have witnesses issue conflicting viewpoints. For a pressing illustration of this, we can look at a remake currently in the works. The Weinstein Company is financing a remake of Seven Samurai. Their script shifts Kurosawa’s story to a village in Thailand that hires seven military contractors to defend their township from imminent attack.
I would posit that this is the wrong way to go about a remake. There is no possibility that this project could in any way better Kurosawa’s original or offer us a new perspective. It appears to be a near verbatim remake, albeit with some minor details updated to fit our modern era. Rather, a better way to remake Seven Samurai would be to divorce the script’s base themes from the narrative and setting.
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You can’t remake Seven Samurai. Kurosawa’s film succeeds because it is a scripting and directorial masterpiece; the feat cannot be repeated twice. The best you can do is take the beats of the film, the central themes, adapt them to a new setting, and tell a new story. They can be the simplest, basest themes: friendship, loyalty, honor, personal excellence; with care the “remake” will flourish and do the original proud. Dumping Seven Samurai onto modern Thailand won’t do that.
With that in mind, let’s consider the variety of scripts that Splendent Media purchased the rights to.
Films directed by Kurosawa
Kurosawa’s earlier films are likely to remain untouched for aforementioned reasons, though the two Sanshiro Sugata tales have been spiritually echoed by The Karate Kid and its progeny. “Post-war Kurosawa” offers more fertile ground. No Regrets for Our Youth and One Wonderful Sunday are common family tales that may ultimately prove too mundane for modern sensibilities, but Drunken Angel is a highly legitimate candidate that almost demands a Western adaptation (one hopes that the rumors of a Martin Scorsese/ Leonardo DiCaprio collaboration are true—it is worth noting that Splendent does not, in fact, have the rights to Drunken Angel). The Quiet Duel, Stray Dog, and Scandal are all stories set in modern Japan that are easy enough to translate, but that, truth be told, don’t really need to be rehashed. But I Live in Fear, The Bad Sleep Well, and High and Low are each as easily relatable as Drunken Angel. Finally, Madadayo—Kurosawa’s final directorial effort, and easily in the top five of his films—could also work as a touching tale of one’s autumnal years. Clint Eastwood stars.
Films written but not directed by Kurosawa; scripts written by Kurosawa but never filmed
Scripts that were not directed by Kurosawa (or not filmed at all) are better candidates for adaptation than his own works, if only because they are not well known in the West. A late 40s piece, Snow Trail, also Toshiro Mifune’s film debut, was received well in Japan. It follows three bank robbers as they flee from police into the Japanese Alps. The script entertains themes present in Kurosawa’s later works. In his outstanding dual-biography of Kurosawa and Mifune, The Emperor and the Wolf, Stuart Galbraith IV gives it high praise, and being a “hard-boiled thriller” (Galbraith’s words) it seems too perfect a match to modern sensibilities for Hollywood tastes to ignore.
There aren’t many other prospects in the group of films written but not directed by Kurosawa. Four Love Stories is a take on romance that was actually four vignettes cobbled together (each written by a different director), and many of his other early scripts were pro-Japanese wartime efforts or narratives geared toward Japanese sensibilities that could pass stringent wartime censorship. After the Rain and The Sea is Watching are both period pieces that were recently adapted and are widely available.
I am more drawn toward Kurosawa’s forgotten screenplays. Many of them could not survive wartime censorship and were jettisoned, never to be revisited (save for The Lifted Spear which Kurosawa rewrote into Kagemusha; also, Splendent Media erroneously list Runaway Train as never filmed when in fact a lackluster take-off was directed by Andrei Konchalovsky, starring Jon Voight and Eric Roberts).
A German at Daruma Temple is an account of the life of architect Bruno Taut. All is Quiet and Snow were deemed good enough to be awarded large cash prizes by the Japanese government. Information on these screenplays is scant, and it’s difficult to know each script’s full content, but one can almost take for granted that there will be solid stories behind each treatment.
My outlook on film has been forever influenced by the work of Akira Kurosawa. I saw Ran at a very young age—around nine or ten—and haven’t looked back since. I don’t think it’s worth being concerned over Kurosawa’s work in the hands of others. It’s not a matter of faith or trust in those that have the material. It’s more the case that Kurosawa was so brilliant that nothing will surpass his pantheon of works; no torrent of poor Yojimbo remakes could cause his image any detriment. His stories are universal. His themes are everlasting. Near all the films we watch today have, in some way, been influenced by him. We don’t notice it because we’re accustomed to it. There are spiritual remakes of Seven Samurai that we don’t identify as such because that story, that basic tale of men banding together, has become such a classic that it is almost as if it was never Akira Kurosawa’s to begin with.
But, of course, he and his trusted circle of writers were responsible for some of the greatest films ever created. For his talent we are truly grateful.