A few months ago I wrote an article on remakes of Kurosawa films. Not famous Western efforts like The Magnificent Seven or The Outrage, but rather attempts by the Japanese themselves over the years. Well there was one project that I had no idea of at the time I wrote that piece, one so strange it deserves a little follow up article.
Hiroyuki Nakano is probably best known as the director of Samurai Fiction, Red Shadow and Stereo Future*. Red Shadow was a bit of a mess and Nakano deserved a rap on the knuckles, but Samurai Fiction and Stereo Future were both very good. It was clear from his films, Samurai Fiction in particular, that Nakano greatly admired the work of Akira Kurosawa and also, to a point, Seijun Suzuki. By Stereo Future, he seemed to be on a nice trajectory to cementing his own style and was certainly in the minds of all of those interested in modern Japanese cinema.
He then seemed to promptly disappear, filming a couple of shorts and returning to the world of music videos and advertisements from which he'd come. So perhaps, in a way, his new project is a summation of his feature film efforts, his Kurosawa worship and his commercial/marketing sensibilities. Because Nakano has directed a remake of Kurosawa's Seven Samurai. And it's going to be released on a pachinko machine!
For those of you not familiar with pachinko, it's a simple gambling game immensely popular in Japan, particularly with men, usually of a certain age. It's somewhat like pinball, if you removed most of the limited interaction that game provides. If you've been to a seaside town (certainly in Britain) you might have played something similar that involved dropping pennies into the top of a case, hoping they'll bounce off pegs and land in the winning slots. In more recent years, pachinko machines have become more and more fancy, involving slot machine elements and built in cartoons or sub-games that require your input at a certain time.
On this grand stage Nakano's Seven Samurai will be debuted, on a screen about four inches high and six inches long. I had to actually hunt out a picture of the machine itself before I'd believe it, but it didn't take me long to find it.
The film itself actually looks very close to the original. Nakano's own style only really seems to have manifested itself in his soundtrack selection, in this case it's all Rolling Stones hits all the time. Most of the shots you can see from the website trailers (of which the first and longest one is best) come from the original film, but not quite pulled off as well. Standing out in particular is Kanbei standing on the mound in the rain firing his arrows at the horsemen. Other moments you'll remember are Kikuchiyo and the banner or Heihachi chopping wood. There are a few small changes. The samurai test that Kikuchiyo fails (being hit on the head with a stick) takes place outside now entirely rather than in a doorway, and the banner the samurai use somewhat amusingly looks a little like a pachinko board now.
It's no wonder that so many of the shots seem so close to the original as the production uses a great number of staff that had previously worked with Kurosawa, people like famous Ran/Dreams costume designer Emi Wada and Masaharu Ueda, the cinematographer on Kurosawa's final five pictures. The movie stars Sonny Chiba as Kanbei, the Takashi Shimura role in the original, and Masatoshi Nagase as Kikuchiyo, Toshiro Mifune's part. A number of others such as Miike standby Yoji Tanaka fill out the samurai and annoyingly visaged Kumiko Aso plays the girl love interest to the youngest, Katsushiro.
What all of those people are doing in a movie to be played on a pachinko game, I have no idea, but there they are. Certainly some of them, such as Aso and Nagase, are being reigned in by virtue of having previously appeared in Nakano's films, for better or worse. Others must quite fancy the idea. Certainly it's an eyecatcher of a headlind. From the footage you can see the film does not look horrible, though it is simply a straight, totally unnecessary remake of Seven Samurai in color, with less charismatic actors and a Rolling Stones soundtrack.
But the whole method of release, while strange, is really quite canny. The project is well aimed at the age group who play pachinko. Most are men in their fifties, probably quite fond of 'chambara' samurai movies and hell, maybe even The Rolling Stones. Since pachinko parlours are so jam packed, there's probably no better way of getting a product in front of the faces of middle aged men. They can watch the pretty pictures as they play, but the deafening din of the parlour will mean they'll be unable to follow it all. Then, when the inevitable DVD release comes around, there is a much higher chance that they'll rent of buy it.
As a business plan, it's clever, but as an artistic effort, it's certainly a waste of time. If only Nakano had come back from obscurity with something amazing and original for all his old supporters to get behind, rather than a hilariously money-minded retreat such as this. Also, can the Japanese entertainment industry please stop funding these things? In the past 8 months we've this remake of Seven Samurai, the Yuji Oda remake of Tsubake Sanjuro and a soon to be released female take on Zatoichi. It's only a matter of months before a remake of Tokyo Story featuring some former bikini model in the Setsuko Hara part.
You can find the official website for this film/game and the trailers right here : http://www.7-samurai.jp/
*He's also directed the video for Deeelite's hit "Groove Is In The Heart", but that's not particularly well known.