Genre writing is formulaic. That’s not a judgment. It’s sort of the point.
A genre is a loose collection of recognizable tropes and themes that serve to anchor your story. It provides a backdrop that can be taken in at a glance, processed just as quickly.
That backdrop can then be built on, subverted, or even largely ignored, and the last is a strength. Sergio Leone doesn’t need to tell us that the American West is a dangerous frontier where a lone man with a gun and the willingness to use it can shape the lives of hardscrabble pioneers. We get all of that information the moment a tumbleweed rolls across the camera.
Genre trappings, used correctly, are the proverbial finger pointing at the moon, the chewy Barney-Rubble-shaped candy shell that makes a vitamin that much easier to swallow.
Sanjuro is a terse, angry man wrapped around a desire for justice, a man whose pretense to mercenary ideals isn’t all show. He has no qualms about using methods he disdains to protect the weak (even as he tells them off for relying on him). He’s a Japanese pastiche of American western tropes, the standard lone not-quite-as-anti-as-you-think-hero riding into town. We very quickly get a sense of who he is and what he wants, partly through his own words and actions and partly through our understanding of genre. Kurosawa played it pretty straight (he did of course adapt for a Japanese audience), and ended up with a fantastic story of ends and means, of a dying way of life, of the petty cowardice of crime.
The Magnificent Seven, like the Kurosawa samurai on which they were based, were with a few exceptions not terribly interesting. M7 was a large ensemble cast, of course, and one has only so much time to build that sort of thing up. So we had the big city dandy, the killing machine, the young tough out to prove himself, and a number of other cardboard cutouts that could walk onto the set of any other western. This was done with purpose, however, because M7 – again, like Seven Samurai – was a deconstruction. As the film went on, it subverted these genre tropes to tell a story of the emptiness of the mercenary life, and to make the famous point that the winners were never the broken people at the business end of a rifle, but the simple folk they protected.
Genre made these stories stronger, because they were written by people who understood that genre was a means, and not an end in itself. You can’t use it simply as a flat checklist of elements – got my vampires, got my teen girl, got my romance subplot, got my parents who must never learn what I do at night. But if you approach those tropes with a purpose, you can end up with a neat semi-feminist bildungsroman in which the supernatural is a stand-in for the problems young people face.
No, the other one. With the cheerleader. Damn kids these days, with their vampire sex and their chemical romances.