Samurai films maintain an essential space in the history of cinema, being the Japanese equivalent of what cowboy westerns were in the west. Many innovations made in samurai films by the likes of Akira Kurosawa went on to become a standard part of western filmmakers’ vocabulary. Most notably, the genre was also responsible for the birth of the Star Wars franchise.
The influence went both ways, as many prolific filmmakers in the samurai genre often took inspiration from Hollywood movies. In particular, the samurai genre maintained a peculiar relationship with the cowboy western, per Hollywood Insider, with the two genres sharing many tropes. This constant interaction between these two highly colloquial genres also allowed for the creation of some of the most iconic Westerns of all time. Let’s check out eight Westerns, new and old, that were directly inspired by Samurai movies.
1/8 A Fistful of Dollars (Yojimbo)
A Fistful of Dollars is perhaps the most famous instance of a Western that was inspired by a samurai movie, being a direct adaptation of the Akira Kurosawa movie Yojimbo. Director Sergio Leone expertly transposed the story of Yojimbo from its period Japanese setting to the Wild West. In doing so, the movie established the Man with No Name trope in Hollywood cinema, borrowing from its samurai counterpart where the lead character is shown to make up a fake name at the very beginning. A Fistful of Dollars was followed by two sequels, collectively dubbed the Dollars trilogy, and was responsible for launching Clint Eastwood into stardom.
2/8 The Magnificent Seven (Seven Samurai)
Kurosawa’s shadow looms large over the history of cinema, as he introduced many enduring storytelling tropes to cinema. His movie Seven Samurai introduced one such plot element, becoming the first major instance of a movie where a group of warriors bands together for a common cause. The movie was a major success, becoming the highest-grossing Japanese movie of that year. It was remade for the western audience in 1960 by John Sturges, called The Magnificent Seven, and the remake quickly became a classic of its own with top stars of the day, like Steve McQueen and Charles Bronson, in the leading roles.
3/8 The Outrage (Rashomon)
Rashomon is considered an essential watch for any film aficionado, as it is the most famous example of a movie driven by unreliable narrators. Once again, Kurosawa established an entire storytelling plot by exploring the power of unreliable narrators in a movie. The original movie follows the testimonies of an assorted bunch, including such characters as a bandit, a priest, and a woodcutter, all of whom give their firsthand account of witnessing a murder. The 1964 movie The Outrage adapted this same concept and replaced the characters from the original movie with those fitting the Wild West setting — a preacher, a gold prospector, a conman, and an Indian shaman.
4/8 Requiem for a Gringo (Harakiri)
Requiem for a Gringo is one of the most unusual movies on this list, packed with mystical elements that give it a very psychedelic tone. The Italian-Spanish spaghetti western is an adaptation of the movie Harakiri by Masaki Kobayashi, one of the most celebrated samurai movies of all time. It is a tense and thrilling tale of revenge that asks poignant questions about ethics and morality. The movie earned great praise for its visual composition, which was designed meticulously by Kobayashi. This visual style is replaced by a very different aesthetic in Requiem for a Gringo, where mystical motifs are aplenty to create a sense of otherworldliness for its main character, the Jaguar Man.
5/8 Django (Yojimbo)
The 1966 movie Django was another famous Western from the 20th Century, an Italian production that sought to capitalize on the success of A Fistful of Dollars. The movie also adapted Yojimbo to an extent, introducing a lone stranger who inserts himself between two warring factions. Django was considered one of the most violent films at the time of its release, and the movie also featured the breakout role for Italian actor and filmmaker Franco Nero.
6/8 Blindman (The Zatoichi Franchise)
Over the years, the samurai movie genre has developed a number of recurring hero characters who can be compared with the superheroes of modern-day cinema. Of these heroes, the blind swordsman Zatoichi is probably the most famous. Actor Shintaro Katsu starred in 26 films and 100 television episodes featuring the iconic character. Later, the 1971 Western titled Blindman introduced a lead character based on Zatoichi, a blind gunman who takes on a job of delivering 50 mail order brides to their husbands. The movie is also remembered for including Ringo Starr of Beatles fame as a cast member.
7/8 Kill Bill (Lady Snowblood)
Lady Snowblood is one of the most unique Japanese period action movies ever, starring a female lead who trains as a deadly assassin to take revenge upon her parents’ killer. The premise wasn’t the only thing special about the movie. Lady Snowblood was full of elegant action sequences and had a compelling lead performance by Meiko Kaji. The strangely alluring scenes of violence in that movie, as well as its plot, was a major inspiration for Quentin Tarantino, who went on to write Kill Bill as a loose adaptation of this movie.
8/8 The Mandalorian
Star Wars fans are quite familiar with how Japanese cinematic sensibilities broadly influenced the Star Wars fictional universe, borrowing many things from narrative elements to the samurai values as seen in samurai movies. As the Star Wars franchise continued to grow, stand-alone stories and spin-offs were able to explore this Japanese influence even further.
The Mandalorian is perhaps the best celebration of the Japanese influence that Star Wars had from the very beginning, with a basic premise similar to the Lone Wolf and Cub franchise. Both of them showcase a grizzled warrior traveling with a helpless child. The Mandalorian has also adapted popular samurai movies in individual episodes. Most notably, episode four of season one features a plot that is very similar to Yojimbo, as Pedro Pascal’s lead character saves a village of helpless farmers from raiders.