A Time of Honor: Seven Samurai and Sixteenth-Century Japan
by Philip Kemp
There’s an old Chinese curse that runs, “May you live in interesting times.” And sixteenth-century Japan was certainly an interesting time, from a dramatic point of view—which is undoubtedly why Akira Kurosawa chose it as Seven Samurai’s setting. But those who lived in that period might well have considered themselves peculiarly accursed, especially if they were unlucky enough to be farmers. “Land tax, forced labor, war, drought . . . The gods want us farmers dead!” lament the villagers in Kurosawa’s film.
From the late twelfth century onwards, Japan was ruled by a shogunate—the shogun being the commander of the Imperial Army—with the emperor reduced to a puppet figure lacking all power or influence. (One emperor became so impoverished that he could survive only by selling samples of his calligraphy.) From time to time, the ruling shogunate clan would be overthrown by another. The Ashikaga shogunate gained power in 1338, but over the next two hundred years, its control steadily dwindled. By the early sixteenth century, the country was racked by incessant civil war, as rival daimyo (local warlords) struggled for supremacy.
Each warlord had his own personal army, drawn from the samurai caste. A samurai, as a feudal retainer, owed personal loyalty to his lord, and if his lord was killed or defeated (which, given the constant battles, happened quite often), the samurai was out of a job. If he couldn’t find employment with another lord, he became a ronin, or masterless samurai. The ronin is a frequent figure in jidai-geki (period) movies, a loner with something of the dangerous, romantic aura of a solitary gunfighter in a western. All the samurai hired by the villagers in Seven Samurai are ronin.
Despite the breakdown in civil order, the rigid caste divisions that governed Japanese society largely held firm. A man born into the samurai, peasant, artisan, or merchant class was ordained to stay in it (though it was rare, women could marry into another caste), and caste conventions dictated what he could wear, what weapons he could carry, what kind of house he could live in. Since a samurai’s code forbade him from earning his keep through menial labor, many ronin became bandits, turning their fighting skills to outlaw ends. To the farmers whose crops were pillaged, houses burned, womenfolk raped or abducted, the distinction between samurai warriors and bandit troupes became all but meaningless.
Hence the fear and mistrust in Seven Samurai between the villagers and the warriors they’ve hired to protect them, most vividly expressed in the passionate outburst by Kikuchiyo. A farmer’s son who wants to become a samurai, he can see both sides: yes, he rages, the farmers are cowardly, mean, treacherous, quite capable of robbing and killing a wounded samurai—but it’s the samurai, with their looting and brutality, who have made the farmers that way. And the shamefaced reaction of his comrades makes it clear that they can’t dispute the charge.
Kurosawa, himself descended from a samurai clan, makes no bones about this dark side of the samurai tradition. And there’s an implicit side-glance at more recent history, the period preceding and during the Second World War, when Japan’s militaristic government perpetrated a still crueler distortion of the samurai code of Bushido (the way of the warrior). But as a counterbalance, Kurosawa offers the selfless and altruistic figure of Kambei, the leader of the seven, who personifies the Bushido code at its purest and most Zen-based.
We’re given the measure of Kambei in his very first scene, when he has his head shaved to impersonate a priest, in order to rescue a kidnapped child. The amazement and horror of the onlookers conveys the enormity of what he’s doing: he’s cutting off his own topknot, a key signifier of his samurai status. (In Masaki Kobayashi’s Harakiri, from 1962, the hero defeats a whole band of samurai sent against him and, rather than kill them, merely cuts off their topknots. The disgrace of this loss, he knows, will drive them to kill themselves.) But to Kambei, such an outward display is unimportant compared with his duty as a samurai to help the helpless.
With Seven Samurai, Kurosawa also set out to debunk some of the more inflated myths that had attached themselves to the samurai. In jidai-geki films—especially those made under the military government—samurai had become kamikaze warriors, motivated solely by honor and blind loyalty, fighting doggedly to the death rather than admit defeat. Kurosawa undermines such false heroics in the exchange between Kambei and his old friend Shichiroji, who last he heard was on the losing side in a great battle. When Kambei asks him how he escaped, his friend replies, “I hid among the grasses in the moat until dark,” and the two men laugh. Later, Shichiroji asks another of the samurai, Heihachi, how he deals with his opponents. “There’s no cutting me off when I start cutting, so I make it a point to run away first,” responds Heihachi. “A most excellent approach,” says Shichiroji approvingly.
Though the warriors in Seven Samurai fight valiantly and represent the highest ideals of the samurai code, Kurosawa never presents them as enviable figures. “I may have seen my share of battle, but always on the losing side,” says Kambei. “That about sums me up.” And in the final scene, with the bandits routed and killed, the three surviving samurai watch the peasants joyfully singing as they plant their rice. “In the end, we’ve lost this battle too,” Kambei muses. “I mean, the victory belongs to those peasants, not to us.”
At the end of the strife-torn sixteenth century, soon after the period of Seven Samurai, the Tokugawa clan gained power and reestablished shogunate rule over the whole of Japan—a rule that endured for the next two hundred and fifty years. Foreigners were expelled; Japan became a closed country, cut off from the outside world. In many ways, it was an intolerant, rigid society, with little room for dissent. But trade and the arts flourished—and given the turbulence and slaughter of the preceding period, it’s understandable that most Japanese would have preferred the “great peace” of the Tokugawa shogunate.
Philip Kemp is a freelance critic and film historian and a contributor to Sight and Sound, Film Comment, International Film Guide, and various other publications and reference works. He teaches film journalism at the University of Leicester.
The Seven Samurai (1954)
August 19, 200
Akira Kurosawa's "The Seven Samurai" (1954) is not only a great film in its own right, but the source of a genre that would flow through the rest of the century. The critic Michael Jeck suggests that this was the first film in which a team is assembled to carry out a mission--an idea which gave birth to its direct Hollywood remake, "The Magnificent Seven," as well as "The Guns of Navarone," "The Dirty Dozen" and countless later war, heist and caper movies. Since Kurosawa's samurai adventure "Yojimbo" (1960) was remade as "A Fistful of Dollars" and essentially created the spaghetti Western, and since this movie and Kurosawa's "The Hidden Fortress" inspired George Lucas' "Star Wars" series, it could be argued that this greatest of filmmakers gave employment to action heroes for the next 50 years, just as a fallout from his primary purpose.
That purpose was to make a samurai movie that was anchored in ancient Japanese culture and yet argued for a flexible humanism in place of rigid traditions. One of the central truths of "The Seven Samurai" is that the samurai and the villagers who hire them are of different castes and must never mix. Indeed, we learn that these villagers had earlier been hostile to samurai--and one of them, even now, hysterically fears that a samurai will make off with his daughter. Yet the bandits represent a greater threat, and so the samurai are hired, valued and resented in about equal measure.
Why do they take the job? Why, for a handful of rice every day, do they risk their lives? Because that is the job and the nature of the samurai. Both sides are bound by the roles imposed on them by society, and in To the Distant Observer, his study of Japanese films, Noel Burch observes: "masochistic perseverance in the fulfillment of complex social obligations is a basic cultural trait of Japan." Not only do the samurai persevere, but so do the bandits, who continue their series of raids even though it is clear the village is well-defended, that they are sustaining heavy losses, and that there must be unprotected villages somewhere close around. Like characters in a Greek tragedy, they perform the roles they have been assigned.
Two of the movie's significant subplots deal with rebellion against social tradition. Kikuchiyo, the high-spirited samurai played by Toshiro Mifune as a rambunctious showoff, was not born a samurai but has jumped caste to become one. And there is a forbidden romance between the samurai Katsushiro (Isao Kimura) and a village girl (ironically, the very daughter whose father was so worried). They love each other, but a farmer's daughter cannot dream of marrying a ronin; when they are found together on the eve of the final battle, however, there are arguments in the village to "understand the young people,'' and an appeal to romance--an appeal designed for modern audiences and unlikely to have carried much weight in the 1600s when the movie is set.
Kurosawa was considered the most Western of great Japanese directors (too Western, some of his Japanese critics sniffed). "The Seven Samurai" represents a great divide in his work; most of his earlier films, Jeck observes, subscribe to the Japanese virtues of teamwork, fitting in, going along, conforming. All his later films are about misfits, noncomformists and rebels. The turning point can be seen in his greatest film, "Ikiru" (1952), in which a bureaucrat spends his days in the rote performance of meaningless duties but decides when he is dying to break loose and achieve at least one meaningful thing.
That bureaucrat was played by Takashi Shimura--who, incredibly, also plays Kambei, the leader of the seven samurai. He looks old and withered in the 1952 picture, tough and weathered in this one. Kurosawa was loyal to his longtime collaborators, and used either Shimura, Mifune, or often both of them, in every movie he made for 18 years.
In "The Seven Samurai," both actors are essential. Shimura's Kambei is the veteran warrior, who in an early scene shaves his head to disguise himself as a priest in order to enter a house where a hostage is being held. (Did this scene create the long action-movie tradition of opening sequences in which the hero wades into a dangerous situation unrelated to the later plot?) He spends the rest of the movie distractedly rubbing his bristling head during moments of puzzlement. He is a calm, wise leader and a good strategian, and we follow the battles partly because he (and Kurosawa) map them out for us, walk us through the village's defenses and keep count as the 40 bandits are whittled down one by one. Mifune's character, Kikuchiyo, is an overcompensator. He arrives equipped with a sword longer than anyone else's and swaggers around holding it over his shoulder like a rifleman. He is impulsive, brave, a showoff who quickly assembles a fan club of local kids who follow him around. Mifune was himself a superb athlete and does some difficult jumps and stunts in the movie, but his character is shown to be a hopeless horseman. (As a farmer's son, Kikuchiyo would not have had an opportunity as a youth to learn to ride.) One running gag involves Kikuchiyo's inability to master an unruly local horse; there is a delightful moment where horse and rider disappear behind a barrier together, and emerge separately. The movie is long (207 minutes), with an intermission, and yet it moves quickly because the storytelling is so clear, there are so many sharply defined characters, and the action scenes have a thrilling sweep. Nobody could photograph men in action better than Kurosawa. One of his particular trademarks is the use of human tides, sweeping down from higher places to lower ones, and he loves to devise shots in which the camera follows the rush and flow of an action, instead of cutting it up into separate shots. His use of closeups in some of the late battle scenes perhaps was noticed Orson Welles, who in "Falstaff'' conceals a shortage of extras by burying the camera in a Kurosawian tangle of horses, legs, and swords.
Repeated viewings of "The Seven Samurai" reveal visual patterns. Consider the irony, for example, in two sequences that bookend the first battle with the bandits. In the first, the villagers have heard the bandits are coming, and rush around in panic. Kambei orders his samurai to calm and contain them, and the ronin run from one group to the next (the villagers always run in groups, not individually) to herd them into cover. Later, after the bandits have been repulsed, a wounded bandit falls in the village square, and now the villagers rush forward with delayed bravery to kill him. This time, the samurai hurry about pushing them back. Mirrored scenes like that can be found throughout the movie.
There is also an instinctive feeling for composition. Kurosawa constantly uses deep focus to follow simultaneous actions in the foreground, middle and background. Often he delineates the distance with barriers. Consider a shot where the samurai, in the foreground, peer out through the slats of a building and across an empty ground to the sight of the bandits, peering in through the slats of a barrier erected against them. Kurosawa's moving camera often avoids cuts in order to make comparisons, as when he will begin on dialogue in a closeup, sweep through a room or a clearing, and end on a closeup of another character who is the point of the dialogue.
Many characters die in "The Seven Samurai," but violence and action are not the point of the movie. It is more about duty and social roles. The samurai at the end have lost four of their seven, yet there are no complaints, because that is the samurai's lot. The villagers do not much want the samurai around once the bandits are gone, because armed men are a threat to order. That is the nature of society. The samurai who fell in love with the local girl is used significantly in the composition of the final shots. First he is seen with his colleagues. Then with the girl. Then in an uncommitted place not with the samurai, but somehow of them. Here you can see two genres at war: The samurai movie and the Western with which Kurosawa was quite familiar. Should the hero get the girl? Japanese audiences in 1954 would have said no. Kurosawa spent the next 40 years arguing against the theory that the individual should be the instrument of society.
This film is so brilliant on so many levels I'm really unsure where to begin
this review. I suppose I should say that this is the best movie I have ever
seen in my life. Really, only Sergio Leone's Once Upon A Time In The West
comes close to affecting my senses as much as this does, and that film is fundamentally
weaker in every respect to the one I am now about to review. Basically, this
movie, the pride and joy of Japanese filmmaking, is the best 19th century Russian
novel I've ever witnessed on film. By that I mean that this film affects me
in exactly the same way a great Russian novel does. And, believe me, that's
awful high praise coming from me. At three hours and a half long, this is surely
an epic of great magnitude - so much so that when it was first released in America
in 1956 it was cruelly butchered and reduced by an hour and a half. What a shameful
bastardation! The fact that such drastic editorial cuts are considered so commonplace
in the movie industry is proof that Hollywood wants nothing at all to do with
Perhaps Kurosawa did not mind so much as his primary audience was in Japan,
where the full version was of course seen...but artists such as Orson Welles
had no appreciative native audience to fall back on, and the cuts made by undiscerning
editors were permanent. A grave loss for art indeed! What I will say is that
I cannot imagine this film being any shorter than it is. Every minute - every
second - every bit of this movie matters. I've now watched it twice over the
past few days, and both times all my senses were engrossed from start to finish.
Even if this movie was nine hours long I would not have taken a break from it...nay,
taking a break from it would be nigh unthinkable. The only other works of art
that I can think of that have so engrossed me are...you guessed it: Russian
novels! Once several years ago I began to read Tolstoy's War and Peace roundabout
midnight. I did not stop reading till seven in the morning. That's the level
of devotion that this film inspired in me, too. Aside from the intesity and
engrossing/engulfing qualities of the movie, the other thing about this that
really reminds me of the 19th century Russian novel is Kurosawa's inclusion
of numerous subplots within his larger story - there are so many stories-within-stories-within
stories. Just like a Dostoyevsky or Tolstoy novel. The primary story this movie
is telling is the struggle of a poor farming village against cruel and merciless
bandits in 16th century Japan. The village hires the seven samurai mentioned
in the title to defeat the bandits. But, alas! What infinite riches lay buried
inside this plot. It might take a lifetime even to begin to grasp it all!
Strangely, the other thing I thought of upon witnessing this movie was Homer's
epics The Iliad and The Odyssey. This film encompasses the spirit of both. The
first section follows several heroes as they experience setbacks and tribulations
before eventually emerging triumphant in each case. It is a story of extraordinary
humans fighting against the odds, winning small battles through the force of
their strength and ingenuity in preperation for a coming, larger battle. The
second part of this film which tells the story of the "larger" battle
reminds me very much of the Iliad. Combat - death - individual heroism. Unrelenting
action. As with the Greek tales, the first section of the film is essentially
a tale of heroic bravery resulting in eventual success against all encountered
obstacles; the second section is a tragedy, pure and simple, the story of successes
being counteracted by equal defeats... a rich illustration of the moral stalemate
which is warfare. In the first part of the film, the characters of the characters(you
see, I even have room for puns in a Kurosawa review) take center stage. Again,
the acting in this film astonishes me - I do not get the feeling that I am watching
actors playing a role, but instead I only see the characters in the film. The
performances are so realistic that I have difficulty imagining the people in
this film as being anything other than the characters they played. In other
words, simply brilliant. And the characters are rich, indeed. The poor wandering
ronin who we first see aiding the villagers with a clever combination of strategem
and brawn is slowly revealed to be a character we can all respect, if not adore:
a brilliant general and tactician yet a fundamentally decent, caring, and good
humored human being. He is to be the leader of the seven samurai, and who could
fill the role better? Toshiro Mifune, one of Kurosawa's favorite actors, plays the role of the inexperienced Katushiro, a young samurai still learning his place in life and the position in society he was born into. [Actually, the enthusiastic reviewer has this wrong. Mifune, of course, plays his "favorite character," Kikuchiyo--see the next sentence]. But my favorite character is Kikuchiyo, a drunken, hairy, rough-mannered son of a farmer who fancies himself a samurai, and ultimately proves himself to be as worthy of the honor as anyone even born into the class. He knows no other way to communicate but by shouting, yet he is easily the most eloquent(not in style, but in content) character in this film..
Magnificent. Though I forget his name[Kyuzo], the samurai who is dedicated only
to improving his own craft was also an extremely well developed character played
to perfection by whatever actor played him. This samurai is all about honor
and duty - practice and perfection. Whatever he does, he does with a clear mind
and a dedicated heart.
But it is with the smaller characters that we find some of the most interesting
subplots. One villager is obsessed throughout the film with keeping his young
daughter's virginity safe and secure, protected from the grasp of wicked samurai,
and he goes to great lengths for her, yet this very daughter throws herself
not once, but twice at Katsushiro before succeeding in ridding herself of her
honor. Her father is crushed and shamed - he imagines that she has been seduced,
when she was the seductress! An even more interesting subplot occurs when the
samurai launch an attack on the bandits' outpost.
They set fire to the outpost and kill the bandits as they rush out for their
lives. Another person who rushes out of the fire is a woman, who is eventually
revealed to be the wife of one of the peasants, Rikichi. Rikichi, who served
as guide whilst accompaning the samurai, rushes to his wife.
Upon seeing her husband, the wife assumes a pitiful and resigned countenance,
and rushes back into the flames. Why this is so is not explained in the story,
but my guess is that she was so scandalized and tortured by her conquerors that
she could not bear to return to her husband feeling "defiled."
There is also a great number of philosophical/moral themes at play throughout
the film, but, as in a Dostoyevsky novel, these themes will only be acknowledged
and understood if the viewer chooses to realize their existence. They are not
forced on the viewer - he or she must recognize them for themselves. This movie
could change your life, I'd say - influence your whole outlook and personal
philosophy. But only if you want it to, of course.
I could write about this film till I am blue in the face(or the fingers, more
likely), but all I hope to be expressing here is the idea that this movie is
the most detailed, the most brilliant, and most complex I have ever witnessed.
I don't know if it is possible to make a better movie than this anymore than
it is possible to write a better novel than Crime and Punishment. Everything
is perfect. The expressions on the actors' faces - the words that they speak
with just the right conviction or emphasis - the story itself and its many subplots
- the historical accuracy of the film, even down to the costume designs and
the military strategies - everything! This is the way movies should be, but
so rarely are. Yes, this film is most known for the fury of its violent sections,
and deservedly so. Battle scenes have never been better developed or choreographed
than these, and the influence of this film's realistic depiction of violence
and warfare was widely felt everywhere. Kurosawa definitely took a few chances
during the course of making this film - for example, the scenes of tens of Japanese
folk moving their little legs as fast as they can while moving to different
battle locations border on the absurd when witnessed apart from the rest of
the picture by cynical twentieth century Western eyes. But taken in the context
of the film, with the reality of the approaching bandits so embued in our craniums,
this frantic action is not the least bit absurd, but is instead natural. I also
found the military strategems used by the samurai to be very interesting...very
orderly and scientific. Japan didn't produce The Art of War for nothing!
[Or was that Sun Tzu??] As of December 17th, 1999, I have to say there's no
question in my mind that Akira Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai is the greatest
film ever made. This, my friends, is the summit of filmmaking.
As a final subnote to this review, I should say that I tend to be a very ethical
reviewer of albums, but not of books and movies and everything else. By that
I mean that I never judge albums based on a first impression - generally speaking,
I listen to an album 3-4 times within the course of a couple days, and then
I listen to it again as I write my review of the album. But I often judge books
and movies on first impressions because by their very nature they are not easily
experienced twice in too short a period of time. The fact that I could watch
this film twice within a week and experience a completely different torrent
of emotions each time seems remarkable to me. Remarkable is what this film is,
10 stars(out of 10)