Chances are, even if viewers haven’t seen Akira Kurosawa’s classic SEVEN SAMURAI, they have seen one of its many variations that have echoed down through the ages. Despite being made over 60 years ago, Kurosawa’s film has become ingrained in the cinematic landscape— not just through its own great filmmaking and storytelling—but due to all of the pale imitators that have followed since its release. Whether it’s THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS, or a few other films and TV series, Kurosawa’s tale has been retold in many different formats through the years. Why has this story resonated for so many years? What is it about the story of outlaws banding together to face impossible odds that keeps bringing filmmakers back to this story time and again? How is it that a simple narrative about outsiders taking on a ravenous army on behalf of innocents has resonated across decades, genres, and tones?
For the uninitiated, Kurosawa’s film (which he directed, co-wrote, and edited) features seven ronin (samurai without a master) working together to protect a village of farmers from a rampaging army of mercenaries that will soon descend upon the townsfolk to steal all of their harvest. That may sound familiar, as it’s very similar to the plot structure of multiple films, including those listed above, A BUG’S LIFE, and even ¡THREE AMIGOS! While aspects of the film have been lifted countless times—most notably its action-packed, rain drenched climax—it’s the story itself that has been reworked the most by other filmmakers for the past 60 years. Kurosawa’s tale tapped into something akin to Joseph Campbell’s idea of a “monomyth,” that is a frequent format of a classic story that is used in cultures across the world (see THE HERO’S JOURNEY for example). It’s impressive that the 1954 film was able to find something new that artists could latch onto and still find more to explore within its narrative structure.
One element that Kurosawa’s film borrows from is the idea of a David & Goliath situation in which heroic figures must face impossible odds. In every version of SEVEN SAMURAI, the protagonists are up against considerable opposition, usually nameless figures (with one or two exceptions in the ranks) lead by an unscrupulous figure who uses his might to take whatever he wants from the innocent. The avenging heroes (or antiheroes, depending on how they are portrayed) must use their impressive and unique talents to combat wave after wave of villains, usually with some cost as various characters fail to survive the onslaught. That idea, of the few standing up to the many, has always been appealing throughout history—whether it’s the Spartans facing down Persia (portrayed in 300), or the American Revolution in which an outgunned militia was able to outwit and outmaneuver the greatest military force the world had seen at that point. So when it’s just a handful of actors taking on El Guapo’s forces, or various gunmen joining together in the old west, it stokes the imagination and beliefs of an audience who desire to believe that the good guys can take on the bad, even when the odds suggests otherwise.
Another aspect of the tale that is used in the retelling of the story is that these protagonists are never considered likely heroes. They are a troupe of circus bugs, or a disparate gathering of strange aliens, or lone gunmen simply trying to live their lives. In SAMURAI 7, the anime adaptation of the tale, the group consists of various bounty hunters and warriors—including a plucky robot—who work together against an alien oppressor. The antagonists are usually all the same—faceless, nameless opponents who simply follow orders and try to hurt innocent people. But the seven figures—or however many—that oppose them are mutable, ripe for filmmakers to recast the characters in whatever light they like, just so long as they are an unlikely group. That appeal to the outsider, that someone who isn’t considered a “good guy” can do the right thing when called upon, is another powerful motif that runs through all of these adaptations and variations. People never see themselves as part of the horde, never believe they are in the majority or the swarm that inflicts pain upon a helpless few. But they do see themselves as misunderstood, different, the heroes of their own personal stories. And they like to think that, no matter their faults and problems, they would rise up to do what’s right if given the chance.
Kurosawa was able to tap into both the idea of the downtrodden facing off against innumerable odds and the appeal of the anti-hero who delivers justice. But what makes it truly a lasting story is that it is so changeable, ready to be adapted to any time period or genre as long as it meets those very simple story beats and structure. There are elements from history that are part of this monomyth, as well as stuff that simply reflect human psychology and archetypal figures, which resonate with audiences no matter the decade in which the film or TV series is released. That’s why SEVEN SAMURAI is being updated and released again, this time as THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN remake, with a multicultural band of misfits with their own baggage and prowess to fight against that same oppressive mob. It’s a basic story that taps into many parts of the human psyche, while providing a lot of room for writers and filmmakers to riff and expand on various characters and incidents. As long as those basic beats are met, and the same classic elements are included, there will always be room for new versions of this story of unlikely heroes facing off against an insurmountable foe; robots and aliens are just an added bonus.