Everyone in the world can be divided into two groups: ninja people and pirate people. I’m not sure if anyone knows how these seemingly unrelated cultural icons of East and West ever became archenemies. This awesome-compiler[i] likes to believe they’ve been locked in an epic struggle since the dawn of time,[ii] the outcome of which will ultimately decide the fate of butt-kickery and, some say, the cosmos. But there is one thing, and one thing only, that ninjas and pirates agree on: cowboys are lame.
In spite of their intrinsic lameness, cowboy movies and television shows dominated the movie screens, televisions and imaginations of Americans, young and old, for decades. For example, the cowboy show Gunsmoke was the longest running prime time drama in history.[iii] Even in the 1980s, when I grew up, my friends and I would play cowboys and Indians in the yard. Of course, being a ninja fan, I recognized from that young age that cowboys sucked[iv], so I made sure I was always the Indian.[v] In spite of the great popularity of the Western genre, the movies haven’t exactly had staying power. Americans have moved on to bigger, more explosive, more pirate and/or ninja-related things. Compared with the high-octane, high-speed, high-mortality action films of the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, Western movies feel bland in comparison, but they were the dominant action genre in America for forty years.
The formula for a good (read boring) Western movie is simple. One only needs four things: 1) a small village/trading post in the Old West on the brink of collapse, populated by plucky but destitute villagers at the end of their collective rope; 2) a band of ruthless and unscrupulous bandits on the edge of town who have made it their life mission to harass and oppress the villagers; 3) a house of incongruously virtuous strumpets; and 4) the hero: a mysterious, irascible and be-stubbled loner who wanders into town and brings justice to the troubled villagers with nothing but his six shooter and a gaze of steely determination.[vi]
In short: cowboy movies were formulaic. They needed an infusion of excitement and creativity. That’s where the Italians came in.
Riding high on their success with espresso, many Italians channeled their energies in a new direction: making cowboy movies set in America but filmed in Spain.[vii] Since these Westerns were Italian-made, they 1) became known as “Spaghetti Westerns” in the United States, and 2) imbued their cowboys with a laidback Mediterranean charm that belied the fiery Latin passion seething just beneath the surface; a charm their American counterparts seemed to lack due to an excess of unlikeability. Because the Italians were able to think outside the Hollywood box, they brought different film techniques and plot elements to Westerns. They even managed to elevate the genre in ways American directors hadn’t been able to in years. In particular, an Italian director named Sergio Leone made some excellent Spaghetti Westerns, many of which gained notoriety in the United States. Leone was also partly responsible for the rise of a young actor he used in some of his films: Clint Eastwood.
Meanwhile, these Italian cowboy movies made their way over to, of all places, Japan, where they were well-loved by a number of directors, especially Kurosawa Akira, easily one of the greatest film directors of all time. Influenced by these Italian movies, Kurosawa pondered how to incorporate elements of his own culture into the Spaghetti Western genre. Being Japanese, Kurosawa had but two choices before him: samurai and futuristic robots. For better or worse, he chose samurai (In spite of the rumours[viii] that he was working on a robot reboot of his own Seven Samurai, entitled Seven Robot Samurai, he died before anything came of it.).
Kurosawa made his own “Western” movies, but he set them in feudal Japan and he featured samurai instead of cowboys, thus these films became known as “Spaghetti Easterns.” If you don’t know what a samurai is, imagine a cowboy. Now, take away his gun, give him a razor-sharp sword, and make him a no-nonsense, fear-nothing, ninja-killing machine whose very existence is dedicated to the pursuit of maximum self-denial and butt-kickery. And in case this got lost in the list, allow me to reiterate: samurai killed ninjas. For a living.[ix]
Cowboys herded cows.
Kurosawa’s movies may have been set in Japan, but his samurai had a decidedly cowboy flavour. They were usually lone, bestubbled wanderers with a noticeably American swagger, a piece of straw dangling from their mouths. The plots roughly followed the cowboy formula above, but he added a creativity and style only a director so far out of the culture he mimicked could possibly contribute. Most importantly, his movies demonstrated another universally accepted truth: swords are cooler than guns.
Kurosawa’s movies made it back over to Italy where Sergio Leone became inspired by the movies he inspired. So Leone started modeling his Spaghetti Western movies off of the Japanese “Eastern” movies which were inspired by his Spaghetti Western movies which were inspired by American Western movies. Then some American directors were inspired by Leone’s inspiration of Kurosawa’s inspiration of Leone, who was himself inspired by American movies. So the Americans started making remakes of Kurosawa movies. Here’s a handy chart to demonstrate the sheer wackiness of this cultural exchange.
And so, for offsetting the lameness of cowboys with Italian charm and Japanese butt-kickery; for taking a stale genre and infusing it with new life; for giving this blog an opportunity to display a needlessly complicated chart; and for giving this awesome-compendist an opportunity to use “butt-kickery” several times in a single blog post, we salute Spaghetti Westerns and Spaghetti Easterns as awesome.
[i] Compendist? Compendaizer?
[ii] Much like the sperm whale and colossal squid.
[iii] Only now in 2010 is Law&Order hobbling to victory on the walker of geriatric TV longevity, and it may yet die of the TV equivalent of cardiac arrest before the race is over.
[iv] See paragraph 1, sentence 4.
[v] Or “the mostly-naked ninja of the Great Plains,” as Native American warriors were more commonly called in the 19th century. Pirate followers have tried to challenge the historicity of this claim, saying instead that Native American warriors were actually called “the mostly-naked swashbucklers of the Great Plains,” but this is patently absurd. Anyone with even a passing knowledge of American history knows there was nary a buckle to be swashed within two hundred leagues of the Great Plains.
[vi] The loner usually moseys into the local saloon to drown out whatever memories he’s running from, where he invariably butts heads with the bandits who retaliate by making the lives of the villagers more miserable. The townspeople appeal to the wandering hero to do something, but he protests for the length of the film about how he doesn’t want to get involved, because he is haunted by mysterious past actions. The bandits escalate the tension, ultimately setting a deadline for the hero to end the conflict in a showdown or clear out of town. In spite of his protests, the hero gets roped in and, not only does he fight back, he kills every last bandit in a bloody, show-stopping blowout in the last ten minutes of the film. And then, just as he came, he wanders out of town, ne’er to be seen again. Though the films never tell us what happens to the stranger, he most likely ends up in another town, haunted by the fact that he just killed 40 men in a shootout. He tries to drown his sorrows in the local saloon when in wander some bandits who don’t like his look. Our hero sighs, cocks his gun, and turns around…
[vii] For some reason.
[viii] I started those rumours.
[ix] Take that, pirates.