The major films that take the past as their subject....shift their focus away from the modern world in an urgent search for affirmation, for a self that is not badly torn and splintered, and for a social world that does not grind its members to bits. This is a search for the continued viability of the poject initially announced by the early postwar films, and the stakes are high. For Kurosawa's ethical project to persist, the past must disclose possibilities of freedom and humane action not immediately accessible to the present. Kurosawa's period films announce a series of investigations into the meaning of the past, its structure and texture, and its relevance to the modern era. . .
What is always impressive about Seven Samurai is its boundless energy, the speed of its tracking shots, the aggressiveness of its wipe-lined transitions, and the dazzling use of multicamera perspectives. The film is an exercise in kinesis, in the realization of a cinema defined as pure motion. As Richie points out, Kurosawa "insisted that the motion-picture be composed entirely of motion."...Relations among the classes and the permeability of class lines are central to Seven Samurai....The work may be regarded as an inquiry into the social preconditions and political foundations underlying the contemporary films. Seven Samurai is a film about the modern works, an attempt by moving further back into history, to uncover the dialectic between class and the individual, an effort to confront the social construction of self and to see whether this annihilates the basis for individual heroism. (202-206)
[Clearly, the solidarity of the group is important]....Kambei tells the others that evertyone must work together as a group and that those who think only of themselves will destroy themselves and all others...In war, it is cooperation that counts, Freedom thus becomes the prerogative of the group, as a new ethical model emerges in the film. "Loyalty towards the group forms the basis on which individual activity is carried out."(Quote is from Chie Nakane, Japanese Society)....[Kurosawa insists that] true human action must carry a socially benefical aim, that heroism is measured by the rectification of social oppression. The fight against the bandits is a struggle to keep evil out, to eradicate class itself, to prevent the transformed relations of samurai and farmer from relapsing into the former condition of hatred and schism...Heihachi's flag becomes the emblem of these new relations. On it, samurai and village are represnted as graphic symbols, and the flag infuses the groups with its symbolic meaning during their moment of deepest despair. (217)
Stephen Prince, The Warrior's Camera, pp. 202-206.
The impetus for the production of Seven Samurai (Shichinin no samurai, 1954) came from Kurosawa's interest in making a new type of jidaigeki film. Kurosawa's intention was to destroy cliches and dead formulas to renew jidaigeki as a film genre that could show the past more accurately and at the same time appeal to the contemporary sensibility of the audience. (205)
What is jidaigeki?
To understand the specificity of jidaigeki, we must examine two developments in popular culture in the early 1920s: the rise of popular literature (taishu bungaku) and the emergence of Shinkokugeki (New National Theater) as dominant cultural forces. Shinkokugeki was best know for its realistic sword fights (tate) or swordplay (kengeki). And it is this tate that jidaigeki avidly appropriated and further refined...In the mid-1920s, taishu bungaku and jidaigeki film mutually stimulated each other's development. Jidaigeki relied on the mass appeal of taishu bungaku as its raw material, and taishu bungaku expanded its sphere of influence as jidaigeki transformed its heroes into cultural icons....The dichotomy of jidaigeki and gendaigeki can be read as a symbolic translation of the larger historical framework within which the the issues of modernity, imperialism, and colonialism intersect....The emergence of jidaigeki as a new genre had little to do with a return to tradition and more to do with with a rebellion against the old forms and conventions of Kabuki and kyugeki....[W]hat compelled innovators of jidaigeki to push their experiement to the limits was the impact of Hollywood cinema, particularly action movies...exemplified by Douglas Fairbank's swashbuckling films and Wiliam S. Hart's Westerns....Particular kinds of shot compositions, camera movement, editing techniques, narrative motifs, and characterization in Hollywood cinema were thoroughly assimilated as semiotic codes to such an extent that where those formal devices and thematic motifs originated became irrelevant...(213-217)
In the original pamphlet for Seven Samurai Kurosawa says: "An action film is often an action film only for the sake of action. But what a wonderful thing if one can construct a grand action film without sacrificing the portrayal of humans. This has been my dream since I was an assistant director. For the last ten years I have also been wanting to to reexamine jidaigeki from a completely new angle. Seven Samurai has started with these two ambitions of mine." To realize this first objective, he constructs the narrative of Seven Samurai around delicately balanced depictions of distinctly individual characters and the group to which they belong. There are three major groups in the film: seven masterless samurai, peasants and bandits. Each of these groups has its own identity and particular way of establishing relationships among its members. Each member of the samurai's group has his own clear individual identity, whereas only some members of the peasants' group are portrayed as individauls. The least individuated group is the the bandits, who more or less appear as one undifferentiated mass. One of the focal points of the film is the formation and eventual dissolution of an alliance betwwen the first two groups samurai and peasants. (240)
Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto, Kurosawa: Film Studies and Japanese Cinema
On a more universal level, the heroic efforts of the samurai, like those of the bureaucrat in Ikiru, remain unsung. Kurosawa's existentialists must accept the fact that there is no reward for their good deeds, and that human nature will not change because of their self-sacrifice. Yet he has them decide that the little bit of good they can do, so that ordinary people can live in peace and with a modicum of comfort, is worth doing to the utmost, even to the point of death. . .
Another firmly entrenched genre concept Kurosawa cast aside in Seven Samurai is the clean-cut gentility of the warrior. The masterless swordsmen who go to work for ther farmers are all relatively unwashed and unkempt and poor--one has even been reduced to chopping wood for his dinner.
Audie Bock, Japanese Film Directors, pp. 176-179.
Set in the social chaos of 16th century Japan, the story (co-written by Kurosawa) tells of a poor farming village besieged yearly by bandits, who steal their women and raid their precious rice crop. As harvest time nears, the bandits begin to appear and in desperation, the farmers solicit the services of a group of samurai once noble warriors who can now be had for as little as the price of a meal.
In the midst of this epic sweep are small personal stories and incidents, always staged for maximum emotional effect. Typical is a scene where Kurosawa shows us the frozen face of one of the villagers in close-up. Approached by the samurai, the camera glides back to show the villager holding an enormous pole on which one of the bandits is impaled, the villager too shocked by what he's done to let go. In another scene, a villager fails to prevent the theft of some rice, and Kurosawa shows him miserably picking up the few remaining grains, gleaming white on a black table.
Seven Samurai: Male friendship is another of the abiding themes of Seven Samurai. The friendship which develops between Gorobei and Kambei reflects the balm which renders life endurable. It is, like many, a friendship which arises spontaneously. Yet, as the film develops, it becomes a profound connection. Gorobei's decision to help save the village is not motivated by compassion, or pity for the farmers. He joins the expedition because, as he tells Kambei, 'your character fascinates me'. 'The deepest friendship often comes through a chance meeting,' Gorobei believes. Kambei had spotted Gorobei as a kindred spirit even before Gorobei revealed his acute intellect, and before, despite his disclaimer, his sweetness emerges when, casually, he stops to observe a group of street urchins playing. 'Try him!' Kambei tells Katsushiro.
It is a version of love at first sight. Gorobei and Kambei will remain inseparable as long as both are alive in this paean to male friendship. 'Oh, Gorobei, Gorobei, Gorobei, Gorobei,' Kambei cries when he sees that his friend has been shot. It is Kambei's moment of deepest pain in the film. Kambei and Shichiroji are renewing an old friendship during which, in many wars, Shichiroji served as Kambei's 'right-hand man'. It is a connection leavened by their
respective survivals, against all odds. Shichiroji remained alive, even after a burning castle tumbled down on him. Between such old friends few words are necessary.
Among samurai, words are particularly superfluous. 'Were you terrified?' Kambei enquires. 'Not particularly,' Shichiroji answers. 'Maybe we die this time,' Kambei notes. At this, Shichiroji just smiles. They are, after all, samurai. In this unique 'home drama' the samurai immediately develop loyalty, admiration and love, each for the other, acknowledging and accepting each other's powers and foibles. Seven Samurai chronicles the consolations of male friendship, a theme which touched Kurosawa when, as a child, he saw the Westerns of William S. Hart. 'What remains of these films in my heart,' he would write in his 1982 Autobiography, 'is that reliable manly spirit and the smell of male sweat.'
It would seem that a friendship is developing between Rikichi, tormented by the loss of his wife, and Heihachi, the kindest and most open-hearted of the samurai. It is Heihachi who tries to draw Rikichi out and break down the barrier. 'You're a man of few words,' he begins. After this scene, Kurosawa includes Rikichi and Heihachi in the same shot, revealing that Rikichi has attached himself to this mildest of the samurai.
But any real friendship between these two, Kurosawa makes clear, is not possible. The film does not assess blame, but it is Heihachi who tries to stop Rikichi from rushing into the bandits' burning fort, and Rikichi who, thinking only of himself, at least in part contributes to Heihachi's being shot. Kyuzo had tried to hold Heihachi back, but in the chaos and because of Heihachi's concern, he failed.
The persistent metaphor of Kurosawa's work is that of wind, the winds of change, of fortune and of adversity. In his Autobiography, speaking of his brother's failure in the exam which would have led to his acceptance to Tokyo Imperial University, at that time ensuring a distinguished career, he writes that 'just as this desolating wind overtook my home, yet another cold gust of change began to blow'. He uses the phrase 'the winds of life' and, from the time he began to direct, the wind blows hard in his films. Gale-force winds rage in the climactic scene even of his very first film, Sanshiro Sugata (1943). The wind blows mightily in Yojimbo as well. In Seven
Samurai, in one of many techniques which lift this film beyond its apparent naturalism, transcending realism as well, a driving wind surges through the action. It is a wind heralding the loss of samurai culture and the endurance of the peasantry.
In the town early in the film, Kambei states that selflessness is both pragmatic and the highest good. As the time for the battle with the bandits approaches, Gorobei, who is Kambei's alter-ego, offers a traditional Japanese perspective, contending that the individual must give way to the group. In the conflict between giri (duty) and ninjo (personal inclination), giri must prevail. 'We'll harvest in groups, not as individuals,' Gorobei explains. 'From tomorrow, you will live in groups. You move as a group, not as individuals.' The selflessness which permitted these samurai to agree to help a peasant village must now be inculcated in the farmers themselves.
Suddenly, Mosuke and a group of others rebel. Theirs are the three houses which will be flooded after the harvest and they are horrified. 'Let's not risk ourselves to protect others!' Mosuke yells. They break away from the group and rush off. They are only six, however, and Kambei, sword drawn to reveal the urgency of this moment, drives them back to be reincorporated into their units.