In Westworld Season Two, the park’s hosts criticized narrative writer, Lee Sizemore, for the fact that Hector Escaton’s iconic bloody heist to steal a brothel’s safe was essentially a line-by-line rip-off of a heist that takes place in the neighboring “Shogun World” park. The scene is a playful jab at the heavy influence Hollywood directors drew from Japanese samurai movies—especially those of acclaimed director, Akira Kurosawa—when making the cowboy-filled Westerns beloved by millions of Americans.
The affinity between Samurai cinema and Westerns has inspired a lot of research and debate. Both share the trope of the rugged individualist—the outlaw cowboy or the rogue samurai. Both have plots largely driven by epic gun/sword fights—often with one rugged individualist facing off against a crowd of bad guys. Both embodied a romanticized view of a past that, in reality, didn’t quite live up to the ideal portrayed in the film.
Interestingly, where they differ is in their overarching moral messaging. While both genres emerged in the aftermath of World War II, the respective countries themselves—America and Japan—did not emerge from that war in quite the same way. Namely, America emerged feeling victorious after dropping two nuclear bombs. Meanwhile, Japan had two nuclear bombs dropped on it.
This difference in experience comes through in how the movies tend to differ. Where Westerns tend to glorify violence and portray these outlaw cowboys with their roguish good looks as heroes worth emulating (or at least revering), Samurai movies adopt a much more tragic tone. The roguish good looks remain but the protagonist is often portrayed as a tragic hero, for whom over-reliance on brute strength and violence end up backfiring or causing the protagonist to question whether it was all worth it after all.
Whether you’re looking to take a deep dive into the cultural similarities and variations between the two genres or you just want to load up on showdowns, rugged anti-heroes, and bandits, here are some of the movie pairings that should be on your list.
The Magnificent Seven and Seven Samurai
The most classic example of the dialogue between Hollywood and Tokyo is the legacy Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai left on American cinema. Not only was it directly remade into the likes of The Magnificent Seven and other adaptations, but it also served as the inspiration for films as far-flung as Mad Max, Galaxy Quest, and even Star Wars. It’s become one of the most remade or referenced movies in the world.
It’s not hard to see why. Set in 16th century Japan, the film follows seven ronin (masterless samurai). The seven are hired by a man whose village is being repeatedly ransacked by bandits. During this time period, villages were often raided by both bandits and samurai, who were ostensibly meant to serve as the police or defensive military for the people.
So, when the ronin arrive, distrust was high and warranted. Initially offended by the cold reception from the villagers, the ronin behave just as arrogantly as samurai were believed to be. But with time the seven learn of the widespread abuses and violence committed by supposedly lawful samurai and feel shame.
The film culminates in an epic battle between the bandits and the ronin, a tragic but action-packed means of atoning for the excess violence perpetrated by samurai on the villages they should have been protecting.
The Magnificent Seven has the same basic story and characters: seven fighters are hired by a village that’s got a bandit problem. Initially met with distrust and fear, the seven gradually gain the villagers’ trust and the film ends in an equally action-packed battle—down to the same casualty count.
Unlike Seven Samurai, the seven in the Western are not former police or soldiers but a ragtag group of outlaws and mercenaries. The fear felt by the villagers stems from the fact that these lawless armed men are hard to distinguish from the lawless armed men who have been tormenting them—rather than from the systemic abuses of power at the hands of a tax-funded protective force. The message is more about courage and triumphing when the odds are against you than it is about atoning for past crimes.
A Fistful of Dollars and Yojimbo
Another Kurosawa classic, Yojimbo tells the epic story of a mysterious, nameless ronin in the waning years of the Edo period (19th century). Japan is desolate, ravaged by the violence of warring shogunates but also by the intrusion of the United States, who came in with literal guns blazing to force the country to open its ports to American trade.
Our nameless protagonist finds himself in a small town where two warring crime lords are vying for control. He convinces each to hire him as a personal bodyguard and then proceeds to covertly disrupt each group’s criminal operations, including freeing a woman who’d been sold into sex trafficking, while convincing the crime lords that his disruptions were actually the work of the opposing side. His manipulation brings the rivalry to a boiling point and the gangs end up all but slaughtering each other.
The nameless ronin gets himself smuggled out of town in a coffin in the nick of time, only to return shortly after to save the town from the surviving remnants of the gangs. The slaughter is a clear cautionary tale about excess violence as is the nameless ronin’s avoidance of violence, using it only when no other option exists and often sparing enemies where possible, such as a young fighter who was clearly a new recruit that the nameless ronin instructs to go back home to his family farm.
A Fistful of Dollars likewise follows a nameless protagonist, a gunslinging opportunist who, when he hears about the dueling gangs, decides he can cash in by playing for both teams. At first, he is successful and the story hits many of the same plot points as Yojimbo. Eventually, the stranger is caught in his deception and forced to flee (also by being smuggled out in a coffin). While convalescing, he learns that townsfolk are being tortured for information on his whereabouts, so he heads back to clean up his mess.
This nameless protagonist is no stranger to violence and seems to actively seek out a fight. While both nameless protagonists are a little morally ambiguous, the cowboy version is considerably more so, as he is almost purely profit-driven, just not willing to let innocent bystanders get hurt in the process if he can help it.
Requiem for a Gringo and Harakiri
Harakiri takes place at the beginning of the Edo period when the Tokugawa shogunate had just come to power and Japan was finally free of an extended period of civil war. The film follows Hanshiro Tsugumo, a ronin (are you sensing a theme yet?) who wants to commit seppuku in the palace—a common practice for samurai who’ve lost their masters.
The palace officials, believing Hanshiro’s request is not in earnest—because it was also common practice for ronin to make the request, secretly hoping that the palace would refuse it and give them alms instead—are scornful toward the ronin, attempting to intimidate him with the story of another ronin, Motome, who they forced to go through with the suicide.
It’s eventually revealed that Hanshiro is here to seek justice for that very Motome, who he had been charged with protecting. After failing to do so, he sets out to atone for his failure by embarking on a violent vengeance quest that will end in his own ritual suicide.
The film is a clear criticism of the valorization of the samurai and the bushido code—ultimately revealing the code and the violence and death it incites to be worthless as vengeance and honor fail to provide sustenance or comfort to anyone involved.
Requiem for a Gringo follows Logan who is on a similar suicidal vengeance quest, though without the actual intent to commit suicide or the strict adherence to a warrior code. Instead of the ruling samurai order, Logan is battling the powerful gang that took over his hometown and killed his family.
Instead of a questionable warrior code, Logan is guided by an obsession with astronomy. The obsession adds some unusual mysticism and surrealism to the film as the astronomer gunslinger seems to have timed the final battle to coincide with a solar eclipse.
This surrealism and the changes made transform a futile vengeance quest meant to caution against violence and strict adherence to honor codes into the psychedelic journey of an almost god-like warrior that leaves you awestruck and wishing you, too, could show up your haters with a well-timed epic comeback during a solar eclipse.
Blindman and Adventures of Zatoichi
In Adventures of Zatoichi, a humble, blind masseur (not a ronin!) travels Japan during the late Edo period, giving massages and acupuncture treatments in exchange for money to fund his gambling addiction. Soon, of course, it is revealed that what seems like your everyday traveling masseuse is actually a highly skilled swordsman.
This film is technically the ninth in a 26-part film series starring Zatoichi, the blind masseuse who moonlights as an undefeatable swordsman. In this episode, Zatoichi heads to a new town in hopes of nonviolently ringing in the New Year. He’s soon roped into a quest to find a woman’s missing father, however. The quest uncovers a web of corruption in the town, forcing Zatoichi to spend his New Year’s in back-to-back swordfights, usually where he is far outnumbered.
Blindman reimagines Zatoichi as a gunslinger (of course). Other than being a cowboy version of the famous swordsman, the film is not a direct remake of any of the Zatoichi movies. In it, the blind gunslinger is hired to escort fifty mail-order brides to the miners who paid for them. In the process, he’s double-crossed and ends up having to go rescue the women, getting in a generous number of showdowns in the process.
Other Cool Mashups to Come Out of the Cross-Cultural Exchange of Cowboys and Samurais
While the following movies aren’t western remakes of samurai movies, they are evidence of the enduring bond between the genres.
After decades of remaking samurai sagas into cowboy chronicles, studios decided to team up to produce this 1971 Spaghetti Western. In Red Sun, the long-awaited collide between the two worlds finally happens as an outlaw from the Wild West (Charles Bronson) teams up with a samurai (Toshiro Mifune) to help a Japanese Ambassador recover stolen items from some bandits.
Unforgiven and Unforgiven
This pair proves that the love affair went both ways. In 2013, Lee Sung-il and Ken Watanabe turned the Clint Eastwood classic Unforgiven into a samurai-filled odyssey.
In the 1992 Clint Eastwood version, aging outlaw, William Munny has been enjoying a quiet life as a (not very successful) farmer until he’s called on to take one last job—a vigilante job to kill a pair of unruly cowboys who mutilated a sex worker in Big Whiskey, Wyoming.
An arrogant young kid, hoping to make a name for himself as an outlaw seeks out Munny to help him claim the reward. Initially refusing, Munny soon changes his mind after realizing that the money could help him save his failing farm.
By the time they arrive, a rival band of gunslingers is also there in pursuit of the same reward. Meanwhile, the local sheriff and his deputies are attempting to crack down on vigilante justice. The three opposing forces ensnare everyone in tragedy.
The samurai remake places the same story in the Hokkaido frontier of Japan during the early Meiji period (late 19th to early 20th century). In the 2013 version, William Munny is swapped for Jubei Kamata, a former samurai during the old Edo period who is now on the run from the new Imperial government that took over. While otherwise very similar, the remake ends notably different from the 1992 original. Watch them back-to-back to spot the differences for yourself.