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.

 

SEVEN SAMURAI

A Review by GARY MORRIS

See: http://www.brightlightsfilm.com/17/10_samurai.html

 


Many official "classics" have a faintly musty aura, particularly historical epics, which are rarely revived. It's as if the distance between modern audiences and the culture of the 1950s, the golden age of the epic, has become too daunting. Add another distancing layer, a foreign culture like Japan with its very different historical traditions, and the gap would seem unbridgeable for American audiences. And, for the final overwhelming touch, throw in a three and a half hour running time. It's more than surprising, given these conditions, that Kurosawa's Seven Samurai (1954) is as riveting today as it was when it was released, an annihilating melodrama that works equally well on the epic and the
intimate scale.

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.


Kanbei (Takashi Shimura) is the leader, and he recruits five others. The seventh is Kikuchiyo (Mifune), a buffoonish, drunken samurai wannabe, who follows the men and eventually endears himself to them. The first half of the film details the bonding of this group, their uneasy relations with the villagers, and the strategies they formulate for fighting the bandits. The remainder of the film is a series of stunningly visualized skirmishes that lead to the final battle.

Kurosawa was well aware of the limitations of the genre he was working in, and Seven Samurai is in part a record of his strategies in overcoming them. He said of the film, "I think we ought to have richer foods, richer films. And so I thought I would make this kind of film, entertaining enough to eat as it were." This "richness" comes from many sources: dynamic framing, editing, and camera movements; authentic historical detail; a "tapestry" plot that weaves together many strands; and a range of performance styles from mute-stylized (Seiji Miyaguchi as Kyuzo the swordsman) to operatically intense (Toshiro Mifune as Kikuchiyo). From his early training as a painter comes the film's strong pictorialism, reminiscent of both western (John Ford) and eastern models (Eisenstein). In particular, the small, struggling community whose village he often shows in long shot, is reminiscent of John Ford's motley band of settlers in films like The Searchers. Also like Ford (much admired by Kurosawa) is Kurosawa's powerful sense of moral outrage at human exploitation, seen especially in lingering close-ups of the miserable masklike faces of the villagers and in Mifune's long speech in which he indicts all samurai for having robbed and killed villagers throughout the country. Unlike Ford, Kurosawa was a leftist, both men arriving at the same conclusion from different directions.

Kurosawa's desire to entertain pushed him to experiment. To bring to viewers the immediacy of the final rain-soaked battle, the director employed a device rare in films of the time, the telephoto lens. This is extremely effective in the three-shot technique seen throughout the battles: a bandit enters the village on a horse; one of the samurai attacks him; in close-up the horse's feet dance in frantic entrapment through the mud as the bandit falls and is set upon by the villagers.

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.

 

Mifune as the exuberant but doomed Kikuchiyo brilliantly embodies the
very different aspirations of the two groups. He exists precariously
between them — a farmer's son who hates the samurai for having
destroyed his village during his youth, but now a man who's drawn to
their honor code, camaraderie, and lust for adventure.


The homoerotic undertones, inevitable in such a masculine world,
ripple through the story and add weight to it. The young samurai's
devotion to both Kanbei and Kyuzo skirts the masochistic, as he
repeatedly kneels before both in praise and supplication. Kurosawa is
well aware of this, as he focuses repeatedly on the boy's intense,
transported smile and burning eyes. Mifune, always praised as an actor
but vastly underrated as a hunk, is a vision of butch bravado. In one
scene, he entertains his fellow samurai by stripping to a g-string to catch
a fish. In the whole last sequence, he wears a sort of abbreviated chain
mail vest that shows his smooth muscular arms and exposed ass — one
of cinema's finest — to great advantage.


A few critics have carped that Kurosawa sublimated character to
historical sweep, that the samurai and the villagers are not flesh and
blood men but "types," lost in the director's elaborate epic canvas. But
the director's masterful manipulations never confuse the parts each
person plays in the story, and he does indeed bring life to those we need
to know intimately — the swordsman Kyuzo, the novice Katsushiro (Ko
Kimura), the leader Kanbei, and, supremely, Mifune as Kikuchiyo. If
other characters seem less defined, this is absolutely right — an
indictment of the destruction of individual identity that's perhaps the
most devastating effect of war.


September 1996 | Issue 17 Copyright © 1996 by Gary Morris

 

What makes The Seven Samurai such a great film? (Dan Jardine)


It's not just that the characters are complex or interesting: they are complete. Each person you meet is intelligent, serious, funny, melancholy, nostalgic, bitter, strong. Each character is as real as your best friend or worst enemy. Just try to forget the sage, sedate Kambei (Shimura is excellent) or the impulsive, ambitious and undisciplined Kikuchiyo (a bravura performance by Mifune) or the sweet innocence of Katsushiro (Kimura).


It's not just that the story has a canny sense of setting: it becomes the place. After about fifteen minutes you forget that we are travelling through 16th century Japan, and that director Kurosawa had to meticulously recreate this reality. The film transports you back four centuries and several thousand miles, and never allows you to leave.


And it's not just that the story is compelling. It is unforgettable. The premise is simple: an embattled, impoverished village of farmers hires a similarly afflicted set of seven samurai to protect them from an impending invasion by a thieving pack of brigands. The execution is brilliant. Kurosawa allows the story to unfold quietly and calmly in three distinct acts. Act one: the villagers seek out the samurai. Act two: the samurai arrive, train the villagers and prepare for battle. Act three: the battle itself. He also gives us time to understand the conflict between farmer and samurai, and to give it a face (Kikuchiyo's to be precise). Finally, he develops an hour-long battle scene full of passion, tension, exultation and tragedy that is the rival of any constructed by the greatest action directors. The Seven Samurai has no special effects, only a few rudimentary firearms and a less than all-out victory for the heroes. But it manages to stand at the forefront of all the films ever made in the action genre.


From review by Dan Jardine at: http://apolloguide.com/mov_print.asp?CID=552&RID

Excerpt from Roger Ebert's review August 19, 2001:

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.

See the complete review at: http://www.suntimes.com/ebert/greatmovies/sho-sunday-ebert19.html

 

Other Reviews and Links:

http://www.freehost.nu/members/reviewz/sevensam.html


http://www.culturevulture.net/Movies/SevenSamurai.htm

/http://sensesofcinema.com/2000/cteq/seven/

http://www.hoboes.com/html/FireBlade/Movies/sevensamurai.shtml

 



See excerpts below from Joan Mellen's book on the Seven Samurai:


In Seven Samurai (1954) a whole society is on the verge of irrevocable change. Akira Kurosawa's celebrated film, regarded by many to be the major achievement of Japanese cinema, is an epic that evokes the cultural upheaval brought on by the collapse of Japanese militarism in the 16th century, echoing also the sweeping cultural changes occurring in the aftermath of the American Occupation. The plot is deceptively simple. A village of farmers is beleaguered by a horde of bandits. In desperation the farmers decide to hire itinerant samurai to protect their crops and people and see off the bandits. There had never been a Japanese film in which peasants hired samurai, or an evocation of the social transformation that made such an idea credible. There are six samurai and one who is accepted as such. Together they reflect the ideals and values of a noble class near the point of extinction.


In the following extract from Joan Mellen's bfi Film Classic, Seven Samurai, Mellen discusses friendship among the Samurai as a theme in the Seven Samurai.


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.

http://www.bfi.org.uk/features/kurosawa/sevensamurai/