I know I’ve been bleating on about remakes and reduxes for the past few articles but, seeing as it’s Sunday night, I thought I’d round out the week on the theme. When thinking on the subject yesterday, another horrible prospect reappeared in my mind. The Weinstein Company seems determined to get another remake of Seven Samurai underway. Of course, John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven is a fine film in its own right, and where would Westerns be without Sergio Leone taking Yojimbo back to his John Ford inspiration? Well, the Western would probably still be in the same situation it is now, dead as Doc Holliday. But in general, those few examples aside, mucking about with Kurosawa is just not going to be good for your health. I’ve always thought, whenever mention of some remake project appears, that it must take brass ones to finish watching a Kurosawa movie, lean back in your chair and say “Pfft, I could that!“. However, it’s not just big, bad evil Hollywood money men who have had a go at Kurosawa. They’ve been doing it in Japan for years. Today I thought I’d take a look at some of the less famous Japanese attempts to outclass the Master himself, from the start of his career to the present day.
In 1943, Kurosawa made his first picture as director. Although, as an assistant director to the great Kajiro Yamamoto, he had helped shoot a great number of films, it wasn’t until Sugata Sanshiro that he received director’s credit. Often the title of this film is given in English as Judo Saga or Judo Story. This name can be found on some of the VHS copies of the movie, and it bothers me no end. The clipped nature of that title makes it sound like it’s a direct translation of the Japanese or an Ozu film, such as Tokyo Story. Of course, the actual Japanese title is simply the name of the main character, Sanshiro Sugata, a young man who does eventually help to develop and popularise the sport of Judo, after misusing his basic training in Jujitsu to become a bully and ignoring the philosophy of the martial art. The direction, like many of Kurosawa’s early films, would not be very familiar to fans of his later films such as Kagemusha. The camera is very dynamic, the editing quite surprisingly stylistic. Memories and similarities in the environment flash onto the screen suddenly.
The film was a huge success for Kurosawa and for the studio Toho. Two years later, a sequel was produced, Zoku Sugata Sanshiro, which isn’t a patch on the original and was not as well received. Kurosawa only made two sequels in his life, and watching Zoku Sugata Sanshiro makes you think he directed that one with a gun to his head. As it was released in the closing days of World War Two, around the time Kurosawa was both preparing to get married and contemplating suicide, perhaps his mind was not quite on the job. Regardless, the first film was still a well thought of picture amongst audiences. So in 1955, Daiei pictures decided to have another crack at it with their remake of Sugata Sanshiro. Who did Daiei get to replace Akira Kurosawa? Company man Shigeo Tanaka, who is probably best known to Western audiences for directing one of the Gamera movies to get mocked on Mystery Science Theatre. Tanaka, a go to fill-in director at the best of times, couldn’t make anything out of his remake, despite having Kurosawa’s script to go from.
This wasn’t the end of the remakes either. In 1965, another attempt was made on Sugata. This time, it was the original studio Toho that was going ahead with the project, but crucially it was to be co-produced by Kurosawa’s own production company. The director, Seiichiro Uchikawa, was no Kurosawa but was quite accomplished himself, having made a fine adaptation of popular writer Rampo Edogawa and had just finished working on a samurai movie with Hideo Oguni, Kurosawa’s long time screenplay collaborator. His Sugata had a strong cast too, with Yuzo Kayama from Red Beard and the ‘Young Guy’ series in the main role, and featuring supporting work from Eiji Okada of Hiroshima Mon Amour fame and Kurosawa mainstay Takashi Shimura, who was actually in quite a lot of the original film 22 years earlier, albeit in a different part. Uchikawa’s Sugata is the most successful remake and we might imagine Kurosawa thought so himself. Of the ten feature films produced to date by the Kurosawa Production Company, the 1965 remake of Sugata Sanshiro is one of only two not to be directed by Kurosawa himself, and the only one he didn’t direct to be produced within his lifetime.
Between 1965 and 2008, three more Sugata Sanshiro movies were made, and a television series last year. I’ve counted these separate from the remakes as they were in fact different takes on the original Tsueno Tomita novel, rather than Kurosawa’s 1943 script. It could be argued though that they all owe something to Kurosawa’s original effort. Of these later versions, the best is probably the one by another well known filmmaker, the 1977 version by Kikachi Okamoto, the director of movies such as Sword of Doom. The television series that ran last year I haven’t seen, so if it’s pure gold, someone let me know but until then I’ll remain sceptical.
It was during the 70s that another Kurosawa remake was released, the Tetsuya Watari starring version of Stray Dog. The original Stray Dog is one of my favourite movies of all time and I’m sure I’ll speak about it at length another time. In the 1949 version, Toshiro Mifune played a young detective and war veteran who has his pistol stolen and used in a string of assaults and murders. Mifune tries to recover his weapon and his sanity with the help of a senior detective played once again by Takashi Shimura. Unfortunately, while I’m a huge fan of the original, I’ve only seen parts of the remake, so I’m not entirely sure how it comes together. The setting was updated to the present day (well, the present of 1973) and the location shifted from Tokyo to Okinawa.
Since it’s set in 1973, the movie must lose the post-war subtext which makes the original so interesting. I can’t imagine what they replace it with but I’d like to find out. I was disappointed that, while the film stars Tetsuya Watari in the Mifune part, it was not produced by Nikkatsu Studios, who probably would have made something really outrageous out of the material once upon a time. Once again, the choice of an uninteresting director probably sinks it. Azuma Morisaki is another also ran. His only claim to fame I’m aware of is that he made one of the few Tora-san movies not to be made Yoji Yamada. He has also contributed to the Free and Easy series, which is a Japanese series of twee Grumpy Old Men style movies that sicken my happiness.
Over the years I’ve heard a lot of people call something or other a Stray Dog remake, but in actual fact most of these movies have very little to do with Stray Dog at all, beyond a character misplacing his gun. Johnnie To might have been inspired by Stray Dog when he made PTU, but his movie is not a remake of it. For a Johnnie To movie that interacts with a Kurosawa film in a more interesting way, you should look to Throwdown, which I’ll write about on this blog some other time. The references to Sugata Sanshiro in that picture are bizarre and often hilarious.
This brings us to the present day and Sanjuro. Kurosawa’s Sanjuro was released in 1963. It is the second, and last, sequel Kurosawa ever made, in this case a sequel to the famous Yojimbo. Unlike Zoku Sugata Sanshiro before it, Sanjuro is a worthy follow up, if not quite as good as the original. Kurosawa wisely spun Sanjuro into a slightly different direction. Here the lone ronin is teamed with a bunch of clueless young samurai. The feel of the movie is less John Ford and more stage production. The tone of the movie is generally skewed much more toward the comical, although this is exploded (literally!) at the end with a shocking burst of violence. Some of the casting is reversed as well. Sanjuro himself is still the same, played pitch perfectly by the scruffy Mifune, but Tatsuya Nakadai, who played the psychotic pistol man in Yojimbo, is now playing a balanced and principled ronin, a mirror of our hero. Though made on a tight production schedule (I believe tighter than the one for Zoku Sugata Sanshiro) the film is a great success. For a long time the movie was generally skipped over, but more recent years have brought it much deserved attention.
Unfortunately, this might also be why someone decided it would be a good idea to remake it. Yes last winter, another version of Tsubaki Sanjuro was released by Toho. I watched the trailer as soon as I heard about it and was quite surprised by a few things. First of all, the script seemed to be almost identical to the original Kurosawa one. Second, the stage-like filming was also present. It seemed that, for better or worse, the director Yoshimitsu Morita had tried to emulate Kurosawa’s original work quite closely. But there’s one big fat problem at the centre of this remake, and it presents itself right at the beginning of the trailer. The actor they selected to play the part totally owned by Toshiro Mifune was Yuji Oda. If you’re not familiar with the name, Yuji Oda is the star of the Bayside Shakedown series, Whiteout, and a number of daft television dramas. And he seems like a nice guy. He’s pretty funny, always smiling, he presents the Olympic coverage on Japanese TV. I’m sure he eats his vegetables. He’s a lot of things.
But he’s no Toshiro Mifune and he’s no Sanjuro. This is kind of like if they remake The Dirty Dozen and cast that guy from Will and Grace in the Lee Marvin part. It just doesn’t go! I have nothing against Yuji Oda, and I quite like Bayside Shakedown 2, but that kind of staggering miscasting puts the whole project on the warn list for me. When they came to make the 1973 remake of Stray Dog, they obviously looked for a Mifune type. They said “Who do we have now who is young, dangerous and exciting?” and they came up with Tetsuya Watari, which is a great choice. Watari had been in a string of Yakuza action films for Nikkatsu in the 60s and was just the kind of actor with the right amount of sketchy attitude to make it work. But this! Imagine you’re trying to cast someone in new version of a young Bogart part. I mean, around The Petrified Forest kind of time. In 1973 you might go for someone like Al Pacino. Then in 2007 you go for Jason Biggs. It doesn’t make any sense.
But regardless of it makes any sense or not, the film did moderately well in Japan on it’s release, probably helped by the old women who make up a lot of the Japanese film going public and helped all those Yoji Yamada films make money and win awards. The DVD came out in Japan a few days ago, so hopefully I’ll be able to get the disc soon. When I do, I’ll post a review here and, if it’s excellent, I’ll happily eat my words. I’ll even post a picture of me eating them. And I’ve written 2000 words so far in this article, so it’s a lot to eat. Somehow though, I think I’ll be safe enough.
Next post, no mention of remakes. I promise.