The Akira Kurosawa Movie Mystery


The Akira Kurosawa Movie Mystery
John Ford, Seven Samurai
The Rearmament of Japan

How Japanese cinema was used to manipulate
public opinion to support rearmament in 1954

© 1991 and 2014 by TG Rouse


Table of Contents:

Viewing Recommendations



Part I. Movies and Propaganda

a. Early Propaganda Films

b. World War II Propaganda

c.  Psychological Warfare

      i. Mass Communications

     ii. Social Psychology

    iii. Survey Research

Part II. Drums Along The Mohawk

a. Collective Self Defense

b. Production History

c. And Seven Samurai

Part III. My Darling Clementine

a. Guardians of Justice

b. Production History

c. And Seven Samurai

Part IV. Fort Apache

a. Class Consciousness

b. Production History

c. And Seven Samurai

Part V. John Ford - UNDERCOVER

a. OSS

b. The Battle of Midway


d. North Africa - Normandy

e. CBI – Japan

f. This Is Korea!

Part VI. Self-Defense

a. General MacArthur and The Occupation

b. The Constitution and Article 9

c. Saigunbi

d. Prime Minister Yoshida

e. The View From Washington

f.  Korean War

g. The Treaty of San Francisco

h. The Domino Theory and Dien Bien Phu

i.   Survey Research

Part VII. Seven Samurai

a. Production History

b. Screenplay

c. Filming

d. Post Production and Opening

e. Crowther

f.  Bazin

g. Richardson

h. Other Critical Responses

Part VIII. Wrap

a. Summary

b. Donald Richie

c. The Magnificent Seven

d. The Hidden Fortress


Selected Films for Analysis

Partial Ford/Kurosawa Filmography






Viewing recommendations:

The video discs used and referenced in this study are:

Seven Samurai published by The Criterion Collection in the U.S. The Blu-ray edition is the basis for this study. It can be viewed on a single disc, allowing sequential time read-out points referenced in this study. 207 minutes.

Drums Along The Mohawk Blu-ray, Twilight Time Limited Edition, Twentieth Century Fox. 104 minutes.

My Darling Clementine Blu-ray, The Criterion Collection 97 minutes

Fort Apache Blu-ray, Warner Brothers/Turner Entertainment 128 minutes

The Hidden Fortress Blu-ray, The Criterion Collection 139 minutes

3 Bad Men Blu-ray, KL Studio Classics 92 minutes

References to specific locations of shots are indicated by time readouts in a format of hour:minutes:seconds. For example: 1:22:30 refers to one hour, twenty two minutes and thirty seconds from the start of the film. The start point for each film is exactly at the beginning of the film, i.e., at the moment the studio or distributor logo appears.

Total reading time for all four; Seven Samurai, Drums Along The Mohawk, My Darling Clementine, Fort Apache is 536 minutes (8.91 hours).



"From the very beginning I respected John Ford.
I have always paid close attention to his films and they've influenced me, I think."

Akira Kurosawa said that John Ford was an influence on his work. How so? Why? Where in his oeuvre did this influence occur and what films reveal it? Kurosawa “paid close attention” to Ford’s films, as he said. How can this be seen and to what effect in Kurosawa’s masterpiece, Seven Samurai? Many studies, analyses and critiques have been written about Seven Samurai, but not one has investigated a political-historical reading of the film. When read through a political filter, Seven Samurai reveals additional contextual meanings that exist beyond the basic narrative: meanings that reveal surprising new political dimensions and historical understanding of this masterpiece.

Ford learned his craft from D.W. Griffith and his peers and colleagues in early Hollywood. He studied German Expressionism from F.W. Murnau and the Western paintings of Charles Schreyvogel and Frederick Remington. Such influences are readily visible in the composition of Ford’s pictures.

Original source material is what first influences most films; it usually starts with a writer. Ford’s films were frequently based on novels, short stories and plays. Likewise for Kurosawa who also had a penchant for classic works of western fiction from writers like Shakespeare (MacBeth : Throne Of Blood), Dostoevsky (The Idiot : Hakuchi), and Ed McBain (King's Ransom : High And Low) among others. Seven Samurai had its genesis as an original screenplay written exclusively for film production. There are many examples of original screenplays in filmdom: watch North By Northwest, an original screenplay by Ernest Lehman for example.

Most of all: filmmaking is a collaborative activity. No matter how strong the personality of the director or writer, a film is influenced or at least nuanced by all of the cast and crew, right down to the catering firm. Any number of unforeseen events could wreck a film production on location. Collaborative activity is arguably the basis for the extensive fame of Citizen Kane. Citizen Kane did not achieve renown because of any one participant such as Orson Welles. The reason Citizen Kane is considered the apex of great films is because of collaboration of great talent in every way. Kane was a phenomenon in a moment of time; a perfect confluence of talent, technique, creativity and everything else that makes a movie, one that pushed the art of film to its limits: a “phenom” in modern language. Citizen Kane is a phenom, pure and simple. Much the same can be said about Seven Samurai; it also is one of the greatest film phenoms ever, without doubt.

This political–historical reading seeks to uncover Ford's influence on Kurosawa as seen in the relationship of four films. It is not meant to diminish the work of great filmmakers. On the contrary, Kurosawa is a master of blending and integrating the diverse techniques and narratives of others with wholly original concepts to produce outstanding creative, unique and sublime work. Ford’s work influenced the entire world of filmmaking.

Beyond this framework lie more intriguing and difficult questions. Why did Kurosawa "respect" and "pay close attention to" Ford's films? Why Ford; instead of, say, Hawks or Hitchcock? What factors other than personal interest drove Kurosawa to study Ford's work? Were there any external motivators? What special meanings or messages are coded in Seven Samurai? Did political and historical circumstances drive these directors’ visions? Ford certainly did influence Kurosawa as we shall see. This was no ordinary admiration club, nor was it anything of a conventional mentor – protégé relationship. Ford and Kurosawa physically crossed paths within days of the surrender of Japan in World War II. Don’t think for one second that Akira went to some bombed-out rubble of a movie theater, got his popcorn and sat down to enjoy a Western feature with lots of cowboys made by one of the great American directors. It wasn’t like that.

A political filter illuminates the specific question: Why did Akira Kurosawa obviously model Seven Samurai (1954) based on syntactic and narrative elements clearly borrowed from three identifiable John Ford pictures; Drums Along The Mohawk (1939), My Darling Clementine (1946) and Fort Apache (1948)?

The story of agrarian settlers during the American Revolution in Drums Along The Mohawk is a shared syntactic and narrative structure with Seven Samurai. In both films a community of farmers must band together and defend themselves against outside aggressors.

The characterization of a united group of fighting men bonded together, who serve as guardians of justice in My Darling Clementine, is also a shared syntactic and thematic structure within Seven Samurai. The Earp brothers and Doc Holliday function not unlike the band of samurai, suggestive of gunbatsu, "military officer clique."

Fort Apache contains a sub-plot of young lovers separated by social class and caught in the web of war. So does Seven Samurai. Each film resolves the class consciousness issue in a different way.

Many critics and scholars have noted the obvious similarities between American Westerns and Japanese jidai geki (period films) – gunfighters and samurai swordsmen. Most studies are at the genre level but some call-out directors and a few point to specific filmmakers and films. David Desser’s seminal work: The Samurai Films of Akira Kurosawa (1983) analyzed the comparative values of George Stevens' Shane (1954) to Kurosawa's Sanjuro (1962).

However, with the notable exception of Desser's work, critics have glossed over the deeper structures that unite Kurosawa's work with American Westerns. It is not sufficient to compare the conventions of similar film genres. The dynamic interplay is far more subtle and powerful than props such as swords and six shooters, and narratives about socially isolated gun/sword fighters might suggest. Please: no more superficial allusions about horses. Most references to the topic generalize about masculine adventure, action, landscapes and codes: social and filmic. This is all very interesting and germane but the point of this book is to reveal a deep structure that justifies this film’s existence as a political statement.

John Ford was at the top of his game when World War II started. Within a three year period 1939 – 1941 he made; How Green Was My Valley, Stagecoach, The Grapes Of Wrath, Young Mr. Lincoln, Drums Along The Mohawk, The Long Voyage Home and the somewhat lesser Tobacco Road. Such a prodigious output made John Ford one of the dominant directors in Hollywood.

But John Ford led a semi-covert double life; first with the U. S. Navy and after Pearl Harbor as a top-level chief with the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the predecessor intelligence organization to the Central Intelligence Agency. He ran all photographic services for the OSS. Due to the covert nature of the OSS, Ford operated outside the normal chain of command and reported directly to OSS director William Donovan who was accountable only to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Ford’s power was such that he had virtual carte blanche to support any of his missions. He was also present and filming during some of the most important military engagements of the war. This was not by coincidence.

And deeper we go to find the great John Ford: acting no less (and likely directing), in UNDERCOVER, an uncredited (naturally) spy training film made by the OSS, part of Ford’s covert oeuvre during World War II. Ford’s general wartime activities can be sketched out from available biographies, he was too famous a man to operate covertly. However the details of his work and semi-covert operations remain little seen or known outside intelligence communities. New information has surfaced in recent years which offers a closer look at the secret life of John Ford during and after the war years. You can find UNDERCOVER on YouTube. Ford appears in a sequence at 5:23 and again at 11:22 in the film.

Ford mustered out of service at the end of the war but in 1950 he was called back to Navy duty to make a propaganda film called This Is Korea!, a combat documentary shot on location with a U. S. Marine Corps unit. When not on location at the battle front, he spent time in Tokyo again and met with Gen. Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers.

At the time, communist aggression was rampant throughout East Asia. The Soviet Union occupied and annexed the Kurile Islands of northern Japan at the end of the war. Soviet aircraft based on the seized Kurile Islands were overflying northern Japan, provoking tensions. China turned communist a year before war broke out in Korea. In French Indochina, the Viet Minh were fighting for freedom from French colonial oppressors. In Washington D.C. high level talk about a “domino theory” anticipated a sequential national capitulation to communist regimes throughout East Asia. During the Occupation of Japan, the U.S. effort to demilitarize and democratize the nation had in some ways worked too well. Strong pacifist beliefs were instilled in the public and former military men were purged and stigmatized from society in a variety of ways. Having suffered the devastation of war, most Japanese were not eager to remilitarize. Nevertheless, Washington conveyed to Tokyo the need to establish at least a “self-defense” capability, especially if Japan intended to regain her sovereignty. After all, the U.S. could not afford to protect Japan in perpetuity. The issue became acute during the Korean War when American troops left occupation duty in Japan for combat in Korea.

Public opinion against remilitarization was one thing, but the situation was infinitely more complicated because of a certain provision, Article 9, in the Japanese Constitution. Article 9 was written by General MacArthur’s staff and accepted by the new Japanese government in 1947. The provision of Article 9 forever renounced war as a sovereign right of the nation and also prohibited the maintenance of any armed forces. Article 9, which seemed like a good idea in 1946, had become a clear obstacle to national remilitarization in the face of communist aggression.

Either Article 9 had to be amended; not too likely a prospect given public sentiment, or redefined in a way to accomplish the objective. The latter seemed a more pragmatic approach but in any case, the people of Japan had to accept a new military order, so few years after the last military catastrophe.

Japan faced a political crisis regarding the issue of self-defense. Japan was without any military capability other than American occupiers and a nominal "National Police Reserve." Japan was completely defenseless in the face of communist expansion in East Asia. Something had to be done.

Washington was pushing for Japan to assume a large measure of the cost and burden for remilitarization. The situation was not only exacerbated by the Korean War, but further south in East Asia, communist guerillas under revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh were fighting for Vietnamese independence. The Viet Minh, under General Giap routed French forces at Dien Bien Phu – within days of the premier of Seven Samurai.

What to do?

Public opinion had to change if any kind of Japanese remilitarization could occur. Public opinion was not likely to change without a sophisticated mass communications campaign. The challenge to American policy makers and the Japanese political establishment that did support remilitarization was how to manipulate public opinion, how to change it in favor of remilitarization.

Simple propaganda techniques were not likely to have the desired effect. The Japanese had plenty of that during both the Imperial regime and the American occupation. A large, sophisticated communications campaign was needed. What kind of media could best reach the population? Only 1000 television sets existed in 1953 Japan, mostly a novelty in large restaurants. This was not a useful venue for mass communications. Radio ownership was limited and reputed for propaganda broadcasting during the war and occupation. The Tokyo Telecommunications Engineering Corporation had just acquired a technology license from the U.S. for something called a “transistor” and was trying to develop it for radio use. (A few years later the company would change its name to Sony.) Newspapers were a good medium for mass communication due to a highly literate Japanese population. But the press, like radio was newly liberated from the old Imperial regime censors and was heavily censored by the American occupiers, tarnishing the credibility of the medium.

Cinema was a more attractive mass communication venue. In 1954 there were 4,707 movie theaters in Japan. Cinema could spread social concepts rapidly to large audiences, impart a complex idea and just maybe change peoples’ perceptions about controversial topics like remilitarization and national self-defense. If it was done the right way.

Cinema was used for propaganda purposes almost from the beginning of the technology. In 1898, J. Stuart Blackton, a founder of Vitagraph Studios made the first political propaganda film, Tearing Down The Spanish Flag in response to the Spanish-American War declaration. As primitive a film as you can imagine, it nevertheless ignited passion and patriotic fervor in audiences. As the technology of cinema progressed so did the applications for propaganda films. During World War I, Britain, France, Germany, U.S. and many other countries made films designed to stir patriotism and manipulate public opinion.

Between the wars propaganda film techniques increased in sophistication as social sciences like social psychology and survey research flourished; in academic institutions, commercial industries and were readily absorbed by propagandists. Soon the U.S. government was producing various kinds of propaganda films for domestic popular consumption. Today we look back on the anti-cannabis propaganda films of the 1930s like Reefer Madness and Assassin Of Youth with much amusement and derision. But they were effective in their time.

During World War II American and Allied sides rapidly advanced the study and application of three academic disciplines; mass communications, social psychology and survey research. Their efforts and products culminated in what the wartime environment called “Psychological Warfare” (PW). PW was used against the enemy to demoralize and destroy their will to fight. It was also widely deployed in U.S. domestic media (including cinema) to manipulate public opinion and consequent behavior to ends that supported the government’s war effort on the “home front.” Much of the discourse of this effort was published in the journal The Public Opinion Quarterly during the decade of the 1940s. In Hollywood, much of the film product of this effort was made by directors like John Ford, Frank Capra, Walt Disney and other motion picture professionals.

As one can read in the articles of The Public Opinion Quarterly, PW became a highly refined and sophisticated propaganda tool by the end of World War II. During the Cold War era, PW evolved as a disciplinary science and today presents a paradigm of Orwellian advertising, political campaigns, public relations and propaganda in all its modern guises, including the Internet.

Consider this scenario:

It is 1952; communism is taking over East Asia. Japan has no military force with which to defend herself. An entertainment movie about self-defense is slated to be filmed. It will impart to the Japanese why they must support the remilitarization of their country. It will be directed by a talented young filmmaker who won an international prize for a film called Rashomon. Kurosawa is his name and he knows how to co-operate with Americans. The film will be modeled on some John Ford pictures that reinforce the concept of collaborative self-defense. It will help manipulate public opinion in favor of the new Self Defense Forces.

Can it be true? Seven Samurai as propaganda?

The Akira Kurosawa Movie Mystery is not apocryphal. Kurosawa himself tells us the story that begins in the final days of World War II. The first encounter between John Ford and Akira Kurosawa was on the set of Those Who Step on the Tiger’s Tail at Toho Studios in late August 1945. Emperor Hirohito had announced a halt to the hostilities and bade his countrymen to “endure the unendurable.” Before the official surrender was signed on the battleship USS Missouri, September 2, 1945, Commander John Ford and other OSS personnel were already in Tokyo to evaluate what remained of the Japanese film industry and how it could be employed for the objectives of the Occupation.

To begin our mystery, let’s start with Akira Kurosawa’s own words:

"On another occasion I was up on top of the soundstage setting up an overhead shot when a group of (American) admirals and high-ranking commissioned officers came onto the set. They were remarkably quiet as they observed the shooting and departed, and later I found out that the movie director John Ford had been among them. It was he himself who told me this year s later when I met him in London, and I was amazed. Apparently he had asked my name at the time and left a message of greeting for me. "Didn't you receive it?" he asked. But I had of course not received it, nor did I have any idea that John Ford had ever visited a movie set of mine until that day I met him in England,"

You don’t say?



"From the very beginning I respected John Ford. I have always paid close attention to his films and they've influenced me, I think." --- Akira Kurosawa

"The first run of Seven Samurai was in 1954. This film was a warfare story, when during an invasion, farmers employed seven samurai to work as soldiers and protect a small village from a group of outlaws. I had the feeling that this story was propaganda of a necessary nature and affirmed the existence of the Self Defense Forces, which had become a serious political problem at the time." -- Tadao Sato, film critic, 1969

"The easiest way to inject a propaganda idea into most people's minds is to let it go in through the medium of an entertainment picture when they do not realize that they are being propagandized." -- Elmer Davis, chief of the Office of War Information (OWI) in a letter to Byron Price, chief of the Office of Censorship, 1943

"I'm sure that my films do show some influence from John Ford, whose work I like very much, but I'm certainly not conscious of doing anything to imitate him." -- Akira Kurosawa, 1980


Selected Bibliography

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