From Sergio Leone to George Lucas: The five best Akira Kurosawa remakes

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It would be fascinating to know what Akira Kurosawa would make of Zack Snyder’s interminably bombastic sci-fi blockbuster Rebel Moon, merely the latest in a long line of movies to have liberally lifted elements from one of the filmmaker’s many classics.

Kurosawa has proved fruitful ground for future generations, although not always for the best. Such was the impact he left behind on cinema, though, rarely does too much time pass before another film arrives that’s indebted to one of his masterworks in some form or another, whether it’s for better or worse.

Not every remake of a Kurosawa original directly credits its progenitor, but in several cases, they’ve been forced to admit it after the fact in the face of legal action. It’s a tall order trying to imitate one of the greatest to ever do it, not that it’s prevented a litany of writers and directors from trying.

Of course, the success rate is a long way from 100%, but there are still more than a few Kurosawa do-overs that stand tall as great movies in their own right.

The best Akira Kurosawa remakes:

5. Last Man Standing (Walter Hill, 1996)

Walter Hill was already a well-known commodity as a director with a penchant for gritty genre flicks through his work on The Warriors, Southern Comfort, Streets of Fire, and 48 Hrs., successfully retaining his signature aesthetic while taking on the tricky task of remaking Kurosawa’s Yojimbo.

A box office bust that gradually morphed into a cult favourite with plenty of lasting appeal for those who prefer their gangster flicks brooding, bloody, and brutal, Bruce Willis’ John Smith hires himself out to a gangster running a local bootlegging operation in Texas, before manipulating Karina Lombard’s Felina into pitting underworld figures Fredo Strozzi and Doyle against each other.

It’s pretty much exactly how it reads on the tin, with Last Man Standing being a fairly faithful adaptation of Yojimbo transplanted to the guns, dolls, and molls prohibition era, with Hill and Willis utilising their rougher edges to craft an entertainingly action-packed spectacle.

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4. Living (Oliver Hermanus, 2022)

Bill Nighy secured an Academy Award nomination for ‘Best Actor’ for his emotionally resonant and powerful central turn in Living, which also found itself in the running for ‘Best Adapted Screenplay’ on the strength of screenwriter Kazuo Ishiguro’s update on Kurosawa’s Ikiru.

The original was itself partially inspired by Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich, which is a pair of heavyweight creative minds to be cribbing from, but it’s to the immense testament of director Oliver Hermanus that his film never feels like a remake, telling its own story that just so happens to be indebted to a pair of titans in their respective fields.

Ikiru is one of Kurosawa’s most heartbreaking movies, and that carries through to Living, with Nighy on irresistible form as a veteran civil servant who finds out he’s running out of time left on this earth before using his final months to embark on a journey of self-discovery that imbues him with renewed purpose.

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3. Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977)

The Hidden Fortress has never been publicly credited as a direct inspiration behind Star Wars, despite George Lucas’ well-known love of the Kurosawa classic, not to mention the number of direct similarities between the 1958 original and the filmmaker’s game-changing sci-fi blockbusters.

The Japanese epic tells a sweeping story as relayed through the eyes of lowly duo Tahei and Matashichi, with Star Wars substituting in C-3PO and R2-D2 during its opening act. Both begin with large-scale battle sequences, Toshiro Mifune’s grizzled warrior Makabe Rokurōta was such a huge influence on Obi-Wan Kenobi that Lucas wanted him for the part, and there’s a rebellion led by a princess present in both.

Even the symbol of the Galactic Empire is evocative of the Yamana clan insignia in The Hidden Fortress, while Obi-Wan’s duel with former protégé Darth Vader is comparable to Rokurōta infiltrating an enemy base and facing down his own great rival. Not an official remake, then, but a remake nonetheless.

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2. A Fistful of Dollars (Sergio Leone, 1964)

Sergio Leone did his best to pretend his massively influential Spaghetti Western wasn’t a direct remake of Yojimbo, which backfired spectacularly when he was sued by production company Toho.

As a result, not only was A Fistful of Dollars forced to acknowledge Kurosawa’s inspiration, but Toho was obligated to receive 15% of the film’s gross revenue, with an urban legend suggesting that Kurosawa earned more from the unofficial redux than he did from his own original.

Clint Eastwood’s arrival as a certifiable movie star stands up just fine on its own regardless of how heavily Yojimbo‘s shadow looms in the background, though, with Leone serving up the first of three all-time treats that paired him with the leading man in a trio of Westerns that have rarely been bettered.

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1. The Magnificent Seven (John Sturges, 1960)

Remaking one of the greatest movies ever made is a daunting prospect, but John Sturges made it look easy by assembling a star-studded classic of his own in The Magnificent Seven, which endures as one of the finest Westerns to emerge from the genre’s golden age.

Seven Samurai has inspired dozens upon dozens of thinly-veiled imitators, transplanting what’s essentially a beat-for-beat recreation of the exact same story to the Old West, but injecting it with plenty of star power, thrilling shootouts, and memorable character work from a high-powered ensemble who didn’t always get along behind the scenes.

Countless filmmakers have tried and failed to take on Kurosawa and do it better than the master, but Sturges shrewdly decided that instead of playing the iconic director at his own game, he’d turn a distinctly Japanese story into a uniquely American one without sacrificing any of its impact, effectiveness, or quality.

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