50 Years in Times Square: Kurosawa and his Western Remakes

8 Apr

On April 8, 1971, 50 years ago today, I made my first trip to see a Japanese movie on the big screen. It was Akira Kurosawa’s SEVEN SAMURAI (1954) and it may have been the first time the full three-and-a-half-hour cut of the film was shown on the big screen in New York. It was also the first fully foreign-language film with English subtitles that I would see in a theater. The theater was the tiny Bijou Cinema on West 45th Street, between Broadway and 8th Avenue in Times Square in Manhattan.  Interestingly, just over two months earlier, on January 28, 1971, I’d seen John Sturges’ THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (1960), a western remake of SEVEN SAMURAI, for the first time at a theater around the corner from the Bijou, the Victoria on Broadway and 46th Street. On May 20 of that year, I would see Sergio Leone’s A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS (1964), the first in the Italian director’s “Man with No Name” western trilogy starring Clint Eastwood, at the Astor Theater, adjacent to the Victoria on Broadway between 45th and 46th Streets. A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS was an Italian western remake of Kurosawa’s YOJIMBO (1961), which I would then see on July 17, 1971, at the Bijou Cinema around the corner. So I saw Kurosawa’s two greatest samurai films and their western remakes in a six-month time period on one strip of real estate in Times Square, all while I was still in high school. Where else and at what time period could that have happened? I was so lucky to be coming of age as a film buff at just that time.31337908446_1655225bc8

YOJIMBO had been shown on a double bill with an earlier Kurosawa film, DRUNKEN ANGEL (1948), also featuring the stars of SEVEN SAMURAI, Takashi Shimura and Toshiro Mifune, and these three Kurosawa films seen at the Bijou that season would be my introduction to the larger world of Japanese cinema beyond the Godzilla and giant monster films I’d been seeing on television. (The full cut of SEVEN SAMURAI would be broadcast on television in early 1972 on WNET, New York’s educational TV station, and I would watch that broadcast.) After this, I’d be attending many more Japanese films in theaters in Manhattan over the next five decades, the bulk of them in the 1970s. Here are an ad and flyer listing the schedule for these first trips to the Bijou in 1971.

Here are flyers for some of the other Japanese series I attended in the 1970s:

I should add here that I saw the entire Leone trilogy, A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS, FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE, THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY and a fourth Eastwood feature, his first starring American western, HANG ‘EM HIGH, as a quadruple bill at both the Astor and Victoria Theaters, once in 1970 and once in 1971. Nine blissful hours at the movies each time.

Three years earlier, in the summer of 1967, the billboard over the Astor and Victoria Theaters was used to advertise the fifth James Bond film, YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE, which was set and shot in Japan. I remember passing that billboard and being mesmerized. My viewing of that film in a Bronx theater later that year set me off on an interest in Japanese culture, history and cinema that hasn’t abated 54 years later.

This strip of real estate would have further significance in my engagement with Asian films. On March 20, 1973, two years after that historic screening of my first exposure to samurai films, I would attend a free screening across the street at the Loew’s State, on Broadway between 45th and 46th Streets, of a new film, FIVE FINGERS OF DEATH (an English-dubbed version of the Shaw Brothers film, KING BOXER, 1972), the first in a long line of kung fu films that would play in U.S. theaters over the next few years. It was my glorious introduction to Hong Kong films. (I’m seen on camera discussing what it was like at this screening in the Netflix documentary, “Iron Fists and Kung Fu Kicks.”)

On January 9, 1973, less than two years after seeing SEVEN SAMURAI, I would see the film, RED SUN (1972) at a neighborhood theater in the Bronx. It was the first film to co-star a cast member from SEVEN SAMURAI, Toshiro Mifune, with a cast member from THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, Charles Bronson.

RED SUN was a European western about a Japanese samurai (Mifune) and American outlaw (Bronson) teaming up to retrieve a valuable samurai sword stolen by the outlaw’s partners. The film co-starred Alain Delon, star of Jean-Pierre Melville’s LE SAMOURAI (1967), and Ursula Andress, the very first Bond girl in the very first James Bond movie, DR. NO (1962). The director of RED SUN, Terence Young, had also directed DR. NO. I’d seen DR. NO many times on the big screen and, coincidentally, one of those screenings was on June 21, 1971, during the same period I was seeing the Kurosawas and their western remakes in Times Square.

Mifune would make other Hollywood movies featuring cast members from THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN–MIDWAY, 1976, with James Coburn, and WINTER KILLS, 1979, with Brad Dexter–but Mifune doesn’t appear onscreen with either one of them, whereas he’s a full partner with Bronson in RED SUN.

The buildings housing the Victoria, Astor and Bijou theaters would eventually be demolished around 1984, along with other adjacent Broadway theaters on 46th Street, and the Marriott Marquis Hotel would rise in their place some time after that. In 2003, I attended the Big Apple Anime Festival at that hotel, a convention devoted to Japanese animation, where I got to meet and interview several directors of Japanese animation, including Satoshi Kon, director of the anime features PERFECT BLUE, MILLENNIUM ACTRESS, and TOKYO GODFATHERS. The latter film, set at Christmas time in modern-day Tokyo, was inspired by the John Ford western, THREE GODFATHERS (1948), continuing the ongoing cultural exchange between Hollywood westerns and Japan that have been a part of my life for so long.

And here are shots of how the Victoria and Astor Theaters looked long before the Marriott Marquis (above) went up on the site:

Getting back to SEVEN SAMURAI, it had played in New York in a subtitled version shortened by an hour under the title THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN back in 1956 and had been reviewed by The New York Times on November 20 of that year. The film played at the Apollo Theater on 42nd Street under that title 15 years before I saw it three blocks north at the Bijou. I know this because the theater marquee is visible in a scene shot on the Deuce for the 1957 made-in-New York TV series, Decoy, which I wrote about here.

In 1974, BABY CART TO HADES (1972), the third film in the “Lone Wolf and Cub” film series, was released theatrically in the U.S. in a slightly re-edited, English-dubbed version titled LIGHTNING SWORDS OF DEATH, making it, I believe, the first Japanese samurai film to get this treatment since THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, the shortened version of SEVEN SAMURAI, 18 years earlier, which I believe was also shown in some areas in an English-dubbed version. 

American viewers would get an even greater taste of the Lone Wolf and Cub series in 1980 when an edited combination of the first two films in the series would be released in an English-dubbed version titled SHOGUN ASSASSIN.

I’ve seen SEVEN SAMURAI many times over the years, although not since earlier this century. I’ve been waiting for just the right time to open my Criterion Blu-ray edition, purchased in 2015, and so I watched the Blu-ray for the first time for this piece. The disc looks fantastic and the film is as great as it’s ever been, arguably one of the five best movies ever made, if not the best. Aside from the spectacular action and epic plot about seven ronin (unemployed samurai) who are recruited to protect a poor farming village from a gang of roving bandits, 40-strong, in the tumultuous “Warring States” period before the Tokugawa Shogunate unified Japan under its rule early in the 17th century, the film offers a rich immersion into the life of the peasants of that period and how frightful it is for them to take a stand and risk their future rather than simply give in to the bandits on their next raid.

Although the samurai deserve ample credit for training and rallying the farmers to their own defense, encouraging them at every stage, it’s an extraordinary feat for the farmers to finally stand up for themselves and confront the ever-present threat and finally eliminate it. We watch them wrestle with all their fears, distrust and fierce disagreements with each other and the samurai before they finally prove themselves worthy of the samurai’s sacrifices. The acting is superb on all counts, right down to the extras playing the farmers, with Toshiro Mifune giving his wildest and most unrestrained performance and arguably the best of his career as Kikuchiyo, the unlettered, uncouth farm boy-turned-would-be-samurai, whose craziest impulses are channeled into a cause that he would die for and reveal a resourcefulness and wisdom about human nature that might never have been revealed had he not been welcomed into the group of seven.

Finally, I should add that I’ve seen all of the films covered here many times over the years and consider most of them among my all-time favorites.

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