by Patrick Crogan
Seven Samurai (Shichinin no samurai, 1954 Japan 200mins)
Winner of the 1954 Venice Film Festival's Silver Lion and nominated in subsequent years for 2 Oscars-Best Art Direction/Set Decoration (Takashi Matsuyama) and Best Costume Design (Kôhei Ezaki)-as well as for 2 British Academy of Film and Television Awards-Best Film and Best Foreign Actor (2 nominations, Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura)--Seven Samurai is widely acknowledged as one of Kurosawa's, and indeed Japan's and World cinema's, greatest films. Kurosawa directed and edited the film and also worked on the script with long-time collaborators Shinobu Hashimoto and Hideo Oguni. As with so many of his projects, his involvement in Seven Samurai was extensive and indicates his powerful commitment to exploration of the issues the film broaches and to achieving the widest possible audience for that exploration. Kurosawa's recipe for this task was to make an action film that engaged the emotions and the intellect in equal and extraordinary measures.
Seven Samurai is a story about a poor farming village community in the sixteenth century Sengoku jidai [lterally, "Warring States" during the 1500s] era of civil strife and feuding samurai clans. Without the protection of a strong feudal warlord's samurai in these strife torn times, the village is repeatedly raided by a band of outlaws. Its crops are pillaged, its men killed and women abducted. The villagers decide to hire wandering, masterless samurai (ronin) to protect themselves from the bandits (many of whom are themselves ronin), offering only board and three meals a day as their payment. The first half of the film depicts the plight of the farmers and their difficult search in the nearby provincial town for samurai who are willing to stoop to working for their social inferiors. 'Find hungry samurai!' is the wise advice of the village elder, played by Kokuten Kodo. They eventually find one ronin, Kambei, played by the wonderful Takeshi Shimura-whose performance in this film is only bettered by his starring role in Kurosawa's Living [To Live] (Ikiru, 1952). Kambei is able to recruit a team from among the ronin passing through the town.
The latter half of Seven Samurai concerns the preparations of the samurai in the village, their efforts to win the trust of the initially fearful farmers, and the final battle of the samurai-led villagers with the bandits. In thematic terms, the central hypothesis being 'tested' in this social experiment between the samurai and the peasant class is the question of the possibility of class cooperation and harmony. The stakes are not only survival, but also social and, by extension, national peace and prosperity. These stakes have as much to do with the historical era in which the film is set as they have with the post-war era of 1950s Japan. The film must be seen as an effort to address pressing questions around the nature of Japanese identity, culture, class structure and nationhood that Kurosawa and all Japanese people confronted in the wake of the Pacific war, foreign occupation and the subsequent 'reinvention' of Japan.
In typical Kurosawa fashion, these stakes are brought to life for the spectator through the dynamic and highly charged emotional conflicts of individual characters in the film. Toshiro Mifune's Kikuchiyo is a central figure in this regard. He is an orphaned farmer's son who aspires to become a samurai (a not unrealistic goal in the turbulent social mobility of the Sengoku jidai). Rejected initially by Kambei as a member of the force he assembles to protect the village, Kikuchiyo pursues the samurai relentlessly and comically until he is finally accepted as the seventh of their group. Having done so, he performs a crucial pivotal role between the farmers and the samurai, overcoming some of the fears and suspicions that keep them dangerously disunited. But this go-between role means he exists at the site of the well-worn conflict that threatens to break up the alliance, a conflict between arrogant, dominating samurai and suspicious, resentful farmers.
In fact, this conflict is at the heart of Kikuchiyo's character. In the film's most crucial scene, Kikuchiyo presents to the other samurai armour and weaponry that the farmers had kept hidden in a secret cache, expecting them to be pleased at the discovery of these new resources. Instead they are disgusted, knowing that the material would have been stripped from the bodies of dead or murdered samurai after battle. Their anger grows and they even contemplate slaughtering the villagers. In a performance of overwhelming emotional intensity, Mifune's hitherto clownish Kikuchiyo lambasts the samurai for their ignorance and hypocrisy, explaining that while the farmers are dull, wicked, murderous and cowardly, it is the samurai who have made them so, by plundering, burning, raping, and oppressing the peasants on behalf of their warlords. As a victim of that oppression, and one who now aspires to the role of samurai, that is, the role of warrior but in principle also the role of servant and protector of the people, Kikuchiyo's passion arises from his tragic embodiment of these hierarchical differences between Japan's people, and by the same token their potential synthesis.
Space is too short to do justice to all the complexities of the film's story, or to the amazing performances of Shimura, Mifune and many of the other cast members who were part of Kurosawa's troupe of trusted actors in the 1950s and 1960s (including Minoru Chiaki who plays the samurai Heihachi and Bokuzen Hidari whose face radiates the affects of peasant fear and powerlessness as Yohei). Furthermore, the film's stunning formal and stylistic features-the influential slow motion death scenes, the reinvigoration of silent cinema narrational techniques, the dynamic spatial compositions-have hardly been mentioned. If anything can be said about these here, it should be insisted that Kurosawa's formal experimentation and choices as director and editor are an integral part of the film's exploration of these themes of social conflict and group versus individual ethics. At the same time they maximise the film's brilliant portrayal of action and dramatic events in order to make the film as enjoyable and moving as possible.
While mention is frequently made of the influence of John Ford's wide-screen cinematography and large scale mise en scène on Kurosawa's depiction of action sequences, the importance of Eisenstein's notion of a montage of oppositions is equally significant in considering the look of Seven Samurai. (1) Kurosawa's dynamic camera, tracking fast-moving warriors and sweeping across battle scenes, is counter posed with static and close-up shots. Long takes are opposed to rapidly cut sequences from a number of camera angles. Like Eisenstein (another great action filmmaker), Kurosawa's editing and camera direction work together to create spectacular visual impacts and elicit complex combinations of emotions and thoughts in the spectator.
The opening of the film provides an apt example. After one farmer overhears the brigands planning to raid the village in the near future, all the villagers gather to discuss the situation. This sequence is handled by a combination of long shots of the whole group and closer shots of 2 or 3 individuals arguing about what to do. Then there is a surprising, big close-up of the face of one of the peasants, Rikichi, as he proposes to kill all the bandits as a solution to the problem. Rikichi's proposal is rejected by others as impossible and too dangerous. His hatred for the bandits is motivated by their abduction of his wife during the last raid. As he ridicules the counter proposition of begging for mercy from the bandits, Kurosawa cuts to a high angle long shot of the group with Rikichi at their centre. Rikichi then leaves the tightly formed circle of the farmers, walking outside of its bounds toward the top of screen. The following shot is a devastating recuperation of Rikichi's rebellious gesture: Kurosawa frames Rikichi, now squatting down in his misery, at a straight angle with the sitting villagers behind him. As Stephen Prince points out in The Warrior's Camera, the angle and the flattened out plane of the long shot has the effect of reuniting Rikichi with the village group he seeks to escape (2). As the farmers decide to consult the village elder, one of them goes out and brings Rikichi back to the group.
This is just one early example of Seven Samurai's masterful employment of combinations of camera and character movement in a dialectical and dynamic dialogue with the spectator. A film of immense emotional impact and one that as Eisenstein would have it, 'thinks in images' (and sounds I would add), its pleasures seem inexhaustible to this indefinitely repeating reviewer.
© Patrick Crogan 2000. Dr Patrick Crogan is a Lecturer in Screen Studies at the Australian Film, Television and Radio School, Sydney.
(1) While Kurosawa's work has been considered in the light of the influence of Western film and culture, the reverse has also been significant. One of the real treasures exhibited by Kurosawa's oeuvre, his ability to embrace popular forms such as the action-packed chambara genre and interpret them with intelligence, subtlety and thematic sophistication has been an undoubted inspiration of many non-Japanese filmmakers. Sadly, some of the most well known Western films that have been influenced by Kurosawa, most notably in the case of Seven Samurai John Sturge's The Magnificent Seven (1960), but also George Lucas's Star Wars films (Lucas cites Hidden Fortress as a major inspiration), lack this sophisticated engagement of their viewers and underachieve on action cinema's real potential. On the other hand, Sergio Leone's adaptation of Kurosawa's Yojimbo (1961) in Fistful of Dollars (1964) and its sequels certainly does explore new dimensions of action film in a fashion worthy of their source.
(2) Stephen Prince's The Warrior's Camera: The Cinema of Akira Kurosawa, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1991
In 1954 enough famous and influential titles came out to make one wonder if the planets had wandered into some celestial alignment that delivered cosmological inspiration to moviemakers everywhere. That twelve-month span saw the release of such enduring pop favorites as Sabrina, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and The Wild One, of Carmen Jones and the Cukor-Garland version of A Star Is Born, of Richard III and Johnny Guitar, of the international classics La Strada and Sansho the Bailiff; and of two towering Hollywood monuments, On the Waterfront and Rear Window. But as good—or as great—as any of those movies may be, all of them are overshadowed (and most of them are dwarfed) by Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. Kurosawa’s martial epic remains one of the two or three great action films of all time. With its massive emotional range, dazzling technical virtuosity, and sensitivity to the natural universe, it remains after nearly fifty years a supreme example of cinema’s power to arouse and astound us.
In 16th Century Japan, an isolated farming hamlet is threatened by a large company of bandits that is pillaging the countryside. In desperation the farmers decide to recruit samurai warriors to defend their village, and though the poverty-stricken peasants can only offer food as compensation, they attract an eclectic band of seven men who accept the challenge for a variety of personal reasons. For all of their virtue and prowess, the samurai make for strange heroes by our lights: all of their actions are undercut by a whiff of futility, and their only sense of belonging comes from the temporary alliances they form in battle. Kurosawa also upends the stereotype of the farmer as a simple tiller of the earth: his peasants are psychologically stifled, secretly murderous creatures.
The story’s complications arise from the social and class differences between samurai and farmer, and these tensions play themselves out over the course of Seven Samurai’s 208-minute running time. As the samurai turn the village into a fortress and form its denizens into an army, it’s left to Kambei (Takashi Shimura), the samurais’ leader, to maintain order between the two clans as they (and we) await the return of the brigands. Kambei’s task is made no easier by the volatile personalities surrounding him. Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune), a besotted pretender to samurai status, is secretly goaded by the rage and shame of being a farmer’s son. The farmer Rikichi (Yoshio Tsuchiya) is a young firebrand whose temper is constantly stoked by the memory of a wife snatched away from him by the bandits. Katsushiro (Isao Kimura), the youngest of the samurai, is tentatively accepted into the group as Kambei’s apprentice, but his rawness leads him into an affair with one of the village’s girls that threatens the group’s stability.
There are other characters and subplots, equally simple in conception, that are saved from cliche by the compassion that Kurosawa sheds on them. The most distrustful and pigheaded of the farmers is allowed the dignity of his pain when his greatest fear—having his daughter seduced by a samurai—becomes a reality. (Seven Samurai has a modern—and surprisingly bitter—sexual edge, most vividly expressed in the languorously extended shot of a woman driven half-mad by brutality as she seizes the chance to avenge herself on her captors.) Even the bandits’ deaths are made into ghastly, appalling affairs by the villagers’ ravenous appetite for revenge.
Seven Samurai contains some of the most dazzling battles ever put on film. The movie’s action scenes cover the spectrum of moral and physical complexity, from the waste of life that occurs when samurai’s pride goads him into fighting a suicidal duel, to the climactic battle staged in a freezing rainstorm as the combatants flounder at each other amidst buckets of mud. The movie breathes with alternating energies, from explosive outbursts to supple silences, from scenes of intense grief (some of the deaths in Seven Samurai don’t bear thinking about) to the vision of a higher community that appears when the samurai share their rice with village’s children.
Shot in nearly every type of weather and at all times of day, Seven Samurai is alive to the elements of nature—to cold and rain and dust and flowers. As much as through dialogue, the movie communicates through the sight of a barley field tossing in the wind, slats of firelight playing across the bodies of entwined lovers, a mountain fog through which our eyes strain to discern the shape of a samurai who’s gone missing in action. Seven Samurai is smitten with topography, and its otherworldly settings—a hillside blanketed in luminous flowers, a canyon that looks like it was carved by the hand of God just the day before yesterday—speak with an emotional clarity that erases the distance between movie and viewer.
Kurosawa’s multifaceted story is matched by his complex visual style. Seven Samurai uses deep focus in ways that make Citizen Kane look dramatically inert, with up to three and four layers of equally emphasized activity receding into the frame, and sometimes even jutting out in front of it. (The foreground is often perforated by the tips of bamboo spears, captured in such sharp focus that they look ready to poke us in the eye.) The movie’s group compositions throw character information like confetti at the viewer, with the samurai and farmers responding to events, not in generalized expressions of emotion, but as individuals. Most of all, Seven Samurai is a movie that moves. Kurosawa whisks from scene to scene with a series of elegant wipes, and the script’s ruthless excision of expository dialogue never lets us get impatient. The movie contains so many visual riches that Kurosawa can afford to gloss over some of them: at the climax of a raid on the bandits’ hideout, he cuts away from three eye-popping shots of the burning cabins so quickly that their effect is nearly subliminal.
Only two years earlier Takashi Shimura had starred in Kurosawa’s Ikiru, and it speaks volumes about his range that he could bring to life both the cowed, mortally ill bureaucrat of that film and the strong and vital Kambei. Yet there’s something withheld and self-effacing in his performance here, and most of the other actors follow suit, perhaps out of deference to Kurosawa’s pyrotechnics. The one exception to this, Toshiro Mifune, has been criticized over the years for overplaying with his nose-rubbing and head-scratching and voice like a cat’s angry yowl. But Kikuchiyo serves a firm comic purpose with his Caliban-like volatility, and Mifune has many fine quiet moments, as in Kikuchiyo’s hillside encounter with an unsuspecting bandit. Seven Samurai’s most perfect performance is Seiji Miyaguchi’s as the master swordsman. Miyaguchi’s gaunt cheeks and deadened eyes are perfect attributes for the ascetic Kyuzo, and he delivers a performance as pure as Kurosawa’s conception of the character. One of the film’s most abiding images is that of Kyuzo apparently dozing under a tree moments before he must uncoil himself for battle.
In 1969’s The Wild Bunch Sam Peckinpah would extend Kurosawa’s use of slow-motion, rapid cutting, and telephoto lenses to develop a type of battle scene that not only drew viewers into the action but made them aware of the emotions being released in them by the violence. Beyond that, though, action film directors have shied away from the example of Seven Samurai, as if they think it gauche or dangerous to inflame audiences to a state of such sensuous excitation. A clean, well-lit American remake of Seven Samurai was released in 1960 as The Magnificent Seven, and a comparison of no two other films could be more revealing of the difference between greatness and mediocrity. But John Sturges, who directed The Magnificent Seven, was no guiltier of ignoring the possibilities of the action film than any of today’s filmmakers are. As we face another summer of motion pictures promising us nothing more than those disposable responses known as “thrills,” it’s worth remembering that Akira Kurosawa once captured the convulsive feeling of being alive and crammed it inside of a movie. Seven Samurai is The Portable World.