It has been over a year since HBO Max made its debut to the competing world of streaming services. For better or worse, the world of cinema has changed, and there’s no going back. Though releasing films simultaneously in theaters and on HBO Max has been met with much criticism, and a financial loss for Warner Bros. Studios, it’s still an interesting time for cinema history.
Speaking of cinema history, what stands out to me in the HBO Max library of films is all the classic films of the 20th century to choose from. I finally got to experience Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris(1972). A beautiful science fiction film that was Tarkovsky’s attempt to bring emotional depth to the genre, as he felt Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey was “a lifeless schema with only pretensions to truth.” Talk about a burn. One could say Solaris is like a diss track to the work of Stanley Kubrick. Another film I got to see for the first time was Hollywood’s most financially successful epic, Victor Fleming’s Gone with the Wind (1939). It’s a beautiful film, but hasn’t stood the test of time in my eyes, and it’s kind of a downer that due to inflation, a film today has to exceed 3.5 billion dollars in box office revenue to overtake it’s number one spot. James Cameron’s Avatar (2009) is number 2.
One of the greatest gems to choose from on HBO Max for anyone who’s a cinematic fanatic is the many films directed by Akira Kurosawa. Without him there’d be no films like Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, Avengers, The Matrix, Zack Snyder’s Justice League etc. The list of films he influenced is long, not only in the science fiction action film genre, or comic book cinema, but those of the Spahetti-westerns, American Westerns, but also heist movies like Ocean’s Eleven (2001).
The first Akira Kurosawa I got to experience on HBO Max was Yojimbo (1961). The story involves a ronin wandering down a road in the Japanese countryside, not knowing which direction to go at a crossroads, he tosses up a stick that lands on the dirt and where it points he goes. He ends up in a town controlled by two warring bosses fighting over the gambling trade in the area. The ronin decides to toy with both sides, to hopefully get them to destroy themselves and bring peace back to the town. Does this sound at all familiar? Well, if you’re a Serfio Leone fan, it’s basically the exact same plot as A Fistful of Dollars (1964), which was about a wandering gunslinger arriving to a Mexican town in the midst of a power struggle between a gang, and a criminal Sheriff. Akira Kurosawa saw the movie, then said, “It’s a fine movie, but it [is] my movie.” The result was a lawsuit between Toho Studios and the producers of A Fistful of Dolloars. What’s kind of funny is that after winning the lawsuit, Akira Kurosawa made more money off of A Fistful of Dollars than all of his films combined.
The second Akira Kurosawa film I experienced on HBO Max was probably his most influential on all of cinema after it’s release: Seven Samurai (1954). I’ll put it this way for all the fans of Marvel’s The Avengers (2012), and Zack Snyder’s Justice League (2021: those films would not have been as good if Seven Samurai did not exist. The film has a brilliantly written screenplay where it takes it’s time to introduce each ronin as they form, and prepare to fight off bandits from raiding a village of peasant farmers and their harvest. The first ronin samurai introduced is an aging character named Kambei, where the audience first sees him getting his head shaved, pretends to be a senile peasant, and saves a child held at knife point by a mad thief. The scene is the first of it’s kind where there is a subplot to show off the skills and capabilities of a character like Kambei during the recruitment process of the story. Fun fact: George Lucas said Kambei inspired his most infamous character Yoda. The film The Magnificent Seven (1960), a classic American Western, was a remake, and unlike Sergio Leone, the producers of The Magnificent Seven paid Akira Kurosawa upfront for the story rights, and at a cheaper price than the lawsuit over A Fistful of Dollars.
The third Akira Kurosawa film I’d like to talk about has it’s title actually mentioned at a pivotal moment in Star Wars: A New Hope (1977), when Darth Vader shows off his force skills. “Don’t try to frighten us with your sorcerer’s ways, Lord Vader. Your sad devotion to that ancient religion has not helped you conjure up the stolen data tapes, or given you clairvoyance enough to find the Rebels’ hidden fort…“ And then Darth Vader uses the force to choke him. Well, the Admiral almost said: The Hidden Fortress (1958). While in film school, George Lucas was introduced to Akira Kurosawa films by his friend, filmmaker John Milius (the guy who wrote the infamous Dirty Harry (1971) line: “Do you feel lucky, punk?”). And without the film The Hidden Fortress, Star Wars probably would never have been conceived in Lucas’ imagination. He borrowed a lot of the story telling techniques from The Hidden Fortress for the first film in the Star Wars franchise, from the perspective of the story beginning with two seemingly small secondary characters: Tahei and Matashichi, who basically inspired R2-D2 and C-3PO, to a Princess hiding from an evil clan; Princess Yuki/Princess Leia. In the story Princess Yuki hides in plain sight like Padme did in The Phantom Menace (1999). Below is a great video created by Batteries4Holden showing the similarities between The Hidden Fortress and Star Wars: A New Hope, as well as some scenes in Return of the Jedi:
The fourth Kurosawa film I experienced on HBO Max is — in my mind — Akira Kurosawa’s most culturally significant film made in the 20th century: Rashomon (1950). It’s story was so original it created a term that was included in the Dictionary: Rashomon Effect. It’s described as a situation “in which an event is given contradictory interpretations or descriptions by the individuals involved.” The story in Rashomon is about the murder of a samurai, and the sexual assault of his wife by a bandit who is later found with the samurai’s possessions on a beach, and taken into custody. The story of the incident is told a total of four times: by the bandit; the wife; the dead samurai through a self-proclaimed medium; and finally the woodcutter who said he only found the samurai’s dead body, but later admits he lied to the court about not actually witnessing the incident. It’s a movie that questions how hard it is to trust anyone in an untrustworthy society. The movie inspired such great films like The Usual Suspects (1995), Hero (2002), Gone Girl (2014, and many more. Rashomon is my favorite of the Akira Kurosawa films I have seen available on HBO Max. The film’s story is more than relevant for any and every generation.
For any film lovers who have HBO Max, and hasn’t seen a classic, influential Akira Kurosawa movie, put it on your to-watch list this holiday season. You will not regret it.
“Someone once asked Mr. Kurosawa if his movie have a common theme, his answer was that they ask a common question: ‘Why can’t people be happier together?'” — George Lucas.