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On baseball, A Bug’s Life, and Seven Samurai

July 30, 2011

The Yankee game tonight is a bit of a laugher. It’s 17-2 as I sit here on the couch to begin this post. Although, in the portion of the game I’ve watched it’s only 5-2. I missed the entire 12 run outburst that the Yankees had in the 1st inning because I was watching A Bug’s Life with my daughter. It’s a fun movie, but as I was watching it I realized that I’d actually already seen it before. Except then it was called Seven Samurai.

Here’s the story. A gang of baddies threatens a peaceful village and plans to take the village’s harvest, by force if necessary. The villagers decide they need to go off and find some others to protect them. They do so, but the others they find turn out not to be exactly what they had hoped for. A plan is hatched to defend the village from the baddies. Along the way, the villagers lose faith; but when the time comes, they realize their true strength, defend their village, and turn away the baddies for good.

That paragraph is literally the exact plot of both movies, although the details of each story are about as different as can be. One is a Pixar created cartoon about anthropomorphic bugs, the other is a masterpiece of mid 20th-century Japanese cinema by Akira Kurosawa. It’s important to note that I really enjoyed both movies, though for widely different reasons.

A Bug’s Life succeeds in simplicity. It takes the plot I outlined, adds some great characters for kids, enough humor for adults, and wraps it up in a typical happy ending that leaves everyone feeling great. In contrast, Seven Samurai uses vivid imagery and camera work along with strong performances to convey essential and perhaps irreconcilable difference between the warrior and farming classes in feudal Japan. It does not have a happy ending in the classical sense, though it is infused with a particular kind of hope.

The differences in the two movies show themselves in the specific uses of all the other tools a storyteller has in their arsenal besides the plot. In fact, I think having seen both of them I’ve realized that the plot itself is one of the least important parts of any story in some very important ways. There are after all, only so many basic plots that can be used. Kurt Vonnegut demonstrates this in a really great article I share from time to time. So to really tell a great story one has to add in all the little details that will actually make people care.

The same thing, by the way, goes for baseball. A really compelling game has a lot of important details. Little plays all throughout the game that can make a big difference in the end. So while I’m glad the Yankees won tonight, I didn’t really pay attention much to what they were doing. All the important stuff happened early, and after that they were just playing out the rest of a pretty predictable plot.

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