Criterion Challenge #02
Seven Samurai (1954)
1954 // Japan // Akira Kurosawa
Rewatching SEVEN SAMURAI is like a trip to the memory lane, back to the good old days of being a novice. It bought back the incredible wonderment in exploration of a new terrain in the sensibility of cinema. SEVEN SAMURAI is the one of the two monumental films (the other is THE 400 BLOWS) that literally broadened my vision, remodeled my acknowledgment of cinema as pure entertainment into an inherent appreciation of arts and life itself. Fundamentally, SEVEN SAMURAI is an entertainment that, like the silent films, embodies a universal language. By and large, it’s a reification of “good versus evil”. So one could say SEVEN SAMURAI is the most accessible films in Kurosawa’s exquisite oeuvre, probably followed closely by HIGH AND LOW (1963) and YOJIMBO (1961).
SEVEN SAMURAI has been highly praised and regularly topped some of the “greatest films of all time” poll. In the most recent Sight and Sound critics poll in 2012, SEVEN SAMURAI is ranked No.17, a comparatively good spot. However, it is surpassed by two Yasujiro Ozu films, TOKYO STORY (1953) and LATE SPRING (1949). Ozu being “the most Japanese” director in Japan while Kurosawa as “the most western” (though I consider these labels are over-simplified in the way of dualism), it’s intriguing to note the first Japanese film to catch the international spotlight and critical acclaim was Kurosawa’s RASHOMON (1950), and subsequent works like IKIRU (1952) and SEVEN SAMURAI.
It maybe bitter to say that the attention to Kurosawa has been diminished over the years, and even renounced by those who favored the more radical Japanese New Wave or the more artistic-tasted Ozu and Mizoguchi. One need not to belittle Kurosawa in order to praise their own works, yes I mean Nagisa Oshima and Masahiro Shinoda. However, I have to admit I “prefer” Oshima’s view and works in cinema, at the same time I still enjoy Kurosawa very much no matter how simplistic his humanism was. Nonetheless, it’s an arduous task to write how exceptional and imperative the film was, and still is, without going through the story shot-by-shot, which I eagerly avoid in this blog post. Therefore I would present some general thoughts alone, with the hope that once you read it, you may seek to watch/rewatch the film too.
SEVEN SAMURAI is not the first period film Kurosawa directed, though it was his first “samurai” film. Set in the late sixteenth century, the “Sengoku” peroid (the age of the country at war), an epoch that had clanless samurai (ronins) wandering for master, fame and food, while bandits ravaging villages. Social structure, especially the class differentiation and conflicts, is the central motif of the film, there are lower labouring classes like the bandits and farmers, or samurai the “middle” class whom worked for the Shoguen. An alliance is formed between the villagers and the samurai communally, in defense of the village from the depredation of the bandits. The first one hour is the story of “hire”-and-seek, the recruitment of the, as the title clearly stated, seven samurai. Seemingly a fertile task at first, but the emergence of a highly tactical skilled samurai Kambei (Takashi Shimura) provided a moral center and, possibly some vagueness within the rigid classes structure. It is symbolized by Kambei’s action of cutting his hair topknot and disguise as a priest in order to save a defenseless child from a bandit. By destroying the emblem of his social status as a samurai, the film shows Kambei as the man whose action speaks louder than words, and clearly states his Bushido for protecting the powerless.
The heroic adventure structure, readily adaptable to western and sci-fi films (like STAR WARS), is not keen on promoting individual heroism. The samurai and the farmers are often framed within the same shot, showing them as a group rather than individually, or else the individual shots are used to emphasis the isolation. The gesture of samurai helping the farmers in exchange of meals is arguably selfless and heroic. As Kambei said in the famous ending scene, the only winners in this fight are the farmers themselves. With four out of seven are sacrificed in the battles, and the eventual fertile love between the apprentice samurai Katsushiro (Isao Kimura) and the farmer’s daughter Shino (Keiko Tsushima), there is apparently not much winning on the samurai side. The humanistic vision of Kurosawa sometimes could be naive and optimistic, like the death wish of the civil servant for building a child park in IKIRU, or the young apprentice learning the true meaning of being a doctor in RED BEARD, but there is always a sign of fatalism that lingers after the ending.
So much so that in SEVEN SAMURAI, the indestructible social class structure foreshadows the fate of Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune), a out-of-nowhere “stray dog” samurai who holds a secret of his origin. As a matter of fact, he acts as a bridge between the farmers and the samurai: by “breaking the ice” when the farmers are so afraid of the samurai that they hide when the samurai arrive, or stating that samurai should be partly blamed for the villagers behaviour in stealing goods from the dead samurai. Toshiro Mifune’s tour-de-force performance deepen the humanity as well as absurdity of the human life, while Kikuchiyo embodies the triumph (a self-made “samurai”) as well as victim (an orphan) of the action of cross-hierarchy; on the other hand the bandits, being the antagonists, may represent the banality of evil that is innate and inescapable, but not invincible.
The screenplay by Kurosawa and his long-term collaborators Shinobu Hashimoto and Hideo Oguni is epic in its own sense. The three and a half hours running time may sound unbearable, but the plot runs so smoothly and fast paced that the passing of time is unnoticeable. The multi-camera technique is a luxury but rightly used for the epic battle scene. Asakazu Nakai’s camera moment created a dynamic tension that keeping the three acts drama tightly together, thus grabbing our attention span beyond the “normalized” two hours time. The framing and composition are masterfully executed, just the ending scene with the four swords on the dunes of grave and the remaining three survivors at the bottom of the frame is pictorial. Fumio Hayasaka’s score enhance the visuality, the drum-beat heard in the opening credits and the playful samurai theme of Kikuchiyo are two of the outstanding examples that, once you heard, you never forget.
Akira Kurosawa won the Silver Lion in 1954 Venice Film Festival for SEVEN SAMURAI, while the film got Oscar nomination for “Best Art Direction-Set Decoration” and “Best Costume Design” in 1957. The film was both widely received internationally and locally in Japan (it was ranked No.3 in the annual Kinema Junpo top 10 list). Even viewing the film today in contemporary perspective, the dynamic of the cinematography and the depth of characters are still exceedingly excellent. Its influence can be easily spotted in later westerns made by Sam Peckinpah or Sergio Leone, and of course the remake version “The Magnificent Seven”. I cannot praise the film enough in this short review, at the end, SEVEN SAMURAI is the heir of Eisenstein theory of montage and the exemplary masterpiece of cinema in classical form.
SEVEN SAMURAI holds another personal meaning as it is the first Criterion release that I ever bought. And I just realize I still haven’t gone through every supplements yet, the two commentaries alone already occupy six more hours, let alone the two-hour conversation between Kurosawa and Oshima. There’s no reason that the Criterion version not having the full marks it deserved.