‘Star Wars,’ ‘Speed’ And Other Movies Inspired By Akira Kurosawa On His 100th Birthday

Today is the 100th birthday of Japanese master filmmaker Akira Kurosawa. He died back in 1998, but his films carry on his legacy in many ways. First, obviously, there are the literal titles that continue to be watched and studied religiously (13 of them are being aired on Turner Classic Movies today). Second, there are the upcoming remakes of “Seven Samurai,” “High and Low,” “Rashomon” and “Ikiru” in development. And third, there are those films directly inspired by Kurosawa’s films.

Kurosawa himself had many influences, and a number of his films were loose remakes or direct adaptations of everything from Westerns to Dostoyevsky to films noir to Shakespeare. So it’s unlikely he’d be upset about the idea that his work has gone on to influence some of today’s most notable filmmakers. He might even be enjoying some of the following blockbuster movies, all owing much to his work, from beyond the grave:

“Star Wars”
If you think you’re a “Star Wars” fan and you’ve never heard of Kurosawa’s “The Hidden Fortress,” you need to think again. In fact, you’d better not just have heard of it; you’d better have seen it. So much of George Lucas’ franchise is influenced by Kurosawa, but it’s the original, “Episode IV: A New Hope,” that is most obviously lifted, albeit loosely, from a specific work. Everything from the wipe scene changes — a Lucas standby — to the models for R2-D2 and C-3PO originate with “The Hidden Fortress,” which tells of a general transporting a princess to a safe haven with two comical peasants along for the journey. One big difference: in Kurosawa’s film, the Luke Skywalker equivalent is a girl.

“Ocean’s Eleven”
Kurosawa’s most famous work, “Seven Samurai,” is considered one of the most influential films of all time. It was directly remade as the western “The Magnificent Seven” and more loosely as the sci-fi flick “Battle Beyond the Stars,” but it’s also credited as the origin for most movies centered around a collected band of individuals united for a big mission. So we can count “The Wild Bunch,” “The Dirty Dozen,” “The Guns of Navarone,” “Saving Private Ryan,” “Inglourious Basterds” and both the original and the remake of “Ocean’s Eleven.” I guess it makes sense that George Clooney has been connected to the “Seven Samurai” remake, as well.

“The Usual Suspects”
Another very influential Kurosawa film, “Rashomon,” is pretty much the inspiration for any movie you’ve ever seen in which a story is told from different perspectives. Though based upon the writings of Ryunosuke Akutagawa, it’s the film that is the clear source for the structures of “Go,” “Courage Under Fire,” “Reservoir Dogs,” “Vantage Point,” “Basic,” “Hero” and plenty others. Out of all the followers, though, “The Usual Suspects” is the most like “Rashomon” in its address and skepticism of the trustworthiness of witness accounts, whether first-person or relayed by a second party. Also, a final revelation that puts everything into a new perspective is present in both films.

“A Fistful of Dollars”
Whether more influenced by Dashiell Hammett’s “The Glass Key” or the same author’s “Red Harvest,” Kurosawa’s “Yojimbo,” about a loner caught in the middle of a gang war, has gone on to inspire multiple films in a variety of genres. More recent versions you may have seen include “Lucky Number Slevin” and “Last Man Standing,” but if you’re a fan of Clint Eastwood’s “Dollars Trilogy,” you should be aware that the first installment, “A Fistful of Dollars,” is directly adapted from “Yojimbo.” Oddly enough, Kurosawa’s sequel to that film, “Sanjuro,” was not the basis for the second of Eastwood’s “Man with No Name” films, “For a Few Dollars More.”

Did you know the 1985 action movie “Runaway Train” is the work of Kurosawa? Yep, he co-wrote the original screenplay and had planned on directing the film in America in the 1960s, but due to financing issues the project was shelved for twenty years and ultimately made by Russian director Andrei Konchalovsky. Another decade later, the action movie “Speed” took the film’s basic premise, easily surmised from the title, and changed the runaway vehicle to a bus. Though not directly linked, there are some basic similarities, including the idea of having the driver put out of commission. And if this isn’t enough to connect Keanu Reeves to Kurosawa’s legacy, perhaps his upcoming samurai film “47 Ronin” will suffice.