Akira Kurosawa: Seven Samurai (1954) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Akira Kurosawa: Seven Samurai (1954)

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We could probably start a business as a couple of traveling magical tricksters with Seven Samurai.  "Watch in amazement as three and a half hours is transformed into barely five minutes."  Parents call us up at the special 888-AKI-SAMU hotline and we'd arrive in our custom converted Dodge Caravan with samurai blazing in kickin' decals on each side to the birthday party of little Bobby Smith to kick start the magic time.  After the stage is set we descend from the ceiling, press Play, throw down a couple of smoke bombs and enjoy the profits.

It's been years since I watched what is arguably Akira Kurosawa's best film, and certainly his most influential and well-known.  Sitting down and watching those confident titles come rocking through at different angles really does make me feel like a kid, or at least an adolescent, rediscovering just how magical and profoundly awesome films can be.  Seven Samurai sells itself with a seemingly simple plot and then Kurosawa makes the whole thing work like gangbusters.

Kurosawa shows how little he is going to waste our time early on.  A group of bandits decided to pass up the opportunity to raid a struggling village not out of the kindness of their hearts, but so that their harvest has time to grow and make it worth the struggle.  The stakes are clear immediately as the village, only aware of their plans because one of their own was amongst the kindling when the bandits arrive, weep openly about how they are going to be killed.  These moments are handled with skill and the shot of the terrified villager with the huge bundle of sticks rising from the pile always makes me laugh, but the real passion starts with the next scene.

The villagers seek guidance from their elder, a man who looks to be older than time, and describe their plight.  Instead of shriveling even further or cowering under the weight of what is to come Kurosawa shares the whole frame with the old man's face and body.  He appears incapable of opening his eyes and his face is lit as such, heavy with the sun and drooped over years of endless toil.  His eyes open suddenly, dark beads against his seemingly frail frame, with the tiniest bit of fire in the center of each pupil.  He growls, "We fight."

"We'll hire samurai."With that one moment Kurosawa's method becomes clear.  He is going to ask for, but not waste, our patience and time as he details this struggle in amazing depth.  This is the sign of a supremely confident filmmaker, and coming after the despairing cry of Ikiru it makes perfect sense.  Kurosawa has finally tasted international success with Rashomon and tried to exorcise his demons, now he can stretch with the backing of a full studio system and really let loose with the kind of grand scale film he's hinted at wanting to make since Sanshiro Sugata.

Note that this is not an epic.  There are no myths to be made in Seven Samurai, but that does not curtail Kurosawa from treating every one of his characters with immense respect and humor.  The saddest of the samurai, perpetually drunk Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune,) is slowly given reasons for his bumbling alcoholism and chance to gain respect.  But it doesn’t come at the cost of Kurosawa’s trademark humor, such as when Kikuchiyo’s horse throws him off and he runs after it yelling “I’m sorry!” repeatedly.  Even heroic awe is weighed appropriately, such as when the villagers watch Kyuzo in action (Seiji Miyaguchi).  His swordsmanship so outplays an arrogant samurai’s that we see how slowly other warriors move to him, while the crowd is stuck with sparkling eyes in real time.

Every scene flows with such emotional and technical precision to storytelling that in the hands of a less talented director the screenplay would carry most of the film.  However, this being a Kurosawa film, he crams every frame with an endless number of amazing shots.  When those bandits ride in at the beginning they are seen as the perfect harbingers of death, dark and faceless warriors against a grey sky.  Ingmar Bergman would take direct inspiration from this scene years later when leading the Dance of Death in The Seventh Seal.  There are the figures of strength, such as the old man, but there are also figures of love reflected in nature.  Katsushiro, the youngest of the samurai (Isao Kimura), falls for Shino (Keiko Tsushima) in an impossibly perfect grove of flowers positioned in such a way that the forest seems to be providing a bed for the two of them.

Before I stumble too much further into nature, why don’t you weigh in on what I feel is the near-perfection of Seven Samurai…or is our own quiet duel going to begin now?

No quiet duel—only absolute agreement, support of the term “gangbusters,” and slight concern over the Dodge Caravan.

It's interesting that you mention the length, as the thing that amazes me is how I'm continually conscious of just how long I've been watching throughout, but no less invested than before. The way Kurosawa gives each act—the recruiting and introduction of the samurai, the planning and training of the villagers, and the climactic battle—all the development and breathing room it needs without it ever (EVER) being boring creates an experience where the action works not only as a payoff, but as a conflict we're emotionally invested in.

With his technical mastery and almost miraculously clear editing, Kurosawa could have easily thrown together some scenes of exposition about the villagers' plight, briefly introduced each samurai with some distinct trait to make him stand out just enough to seem like a unique character, and spent the last major part of the film in exhilarating action. To his credit as a director here, that would likely have still been a wonderful, exciting, colorful movie. That he instead takes the time to create fully developed characters with genuine relationships and their own distinct forces driving them—and, even more so, that he doesn't limit these full and engaging characterizations to the samurai alone—is nothing short of amazing.It's not easy for any work of extended storytelling to make you forget about the passing of time while you're consuming it, but for me it's even more rare to find one that makes me actively want more. If ever the thought pops into my mind while I'm watching Seven Samurai that it's been going on for awhile, it's only because I'm amazed at just how much of these characters' lives I feel like I've been witness to in such a short time—the movie could be double its length and I'd be fine with it.

Kurosawa also finds an ingenious method to propel us through the final battle scene, using a map of the town with empty circles for each one of the attacking bandits, which Kanbei (Takashi Shimura in yet another excellent performance as the samurai's leader) crosses off as kills are reported. It helps us understand with complete clarity just what the scenes of action are representing, and it's an inspired way to show the chaos of battle without alienating the viewer—I can think of few modern movies that can claim the same.

That may be at the heart of what I love so much and find so perplexing about  Seven Samurai—the way it combines every element of good storytelling into a package so obviously overflowing with goals, and pulls it off in a way that could never be improved upon. No amount of today's advanced film-making technology could add anything beneficial to even a single frame. None of the editing techniques or acting styles seem dated or distant. There isn't a point in the entire movie where you can sense a compromise was made due to lack of cinematic capabilities of the time. I'm going to break the rule here, but you can't say that of all sweeping adventure movie classics—not even Star Wars. Sorry.You came very close to breaking the only rule that we have regarding our Kurosawa analysis.  Consider this a partial-pass, but if we run into the same issue when The Hidden Fortress comes around in a few weeks there will be no coming back.

Touching on your last point there, I don’t think that the quality of Seven Samurai is so perplexing.  It’s essentially a straight-ahead accumulation of everything that he has learned as a director applied with full studio backing.  What’s funny there, and doubly depressing for the dozens of action films that have been inspired by Seven Samurai, is that the film cost roughly $500,000 when it was made.  Even when the studio started freaking out about the length of the shoot he let their worries roll right off him.  He knew exactly how the film had to be made and didn’t deviate from that in the slightest.

Now, my only gripe regarding the film is in that final act.  Kurosawa did such a good job cutting between the tactical, battle, and interpersonal portions of the prolonged battle that I did start to feel the time weigh in on me during that final rainstorm.  The culmination of all the drama, especially in the showdown between the bandit leader and Kikuchiyo, is powerful but after so much time watching the groups run around I start to feel the battle as less a tiring struggle and more a padded fight sequence, though barely.  Apparently Kurosawa’s earlier cut was roughly seventeen minutes shorter and, while I don’t think the film needs nearly that much trimming, this would have been the best place to apply it.

That shortcoming addressed, despite the tremendous craft on display part of why Seven Samurai feels so timeless is the pragmatism that Kurosawa instills in the plot.  As I said, this is not a myth, but a straightforward story of people doing exactly what they need to survive.  The villagers do not want to die but also don’t know how to fight, so they hire samurai.  The samurai need to eat, so they go along.  A father fears for his daughter, so he tries to hide her.  Passionate love blossoms, but since it was born in the threat of battle the love dies along with the last bandit.This is the sort of story that can take place at any time in history and with the right amount of adaptation can fit in with any culture.  That’s why I’m so happy Kurosawa acknowledges that this struggle, as important as it is for everyone involved, is not unique but no less vital for any of the participants.   It makes the story universal but still very specific.  The story propels along with much the same velocity and focus in America’s The Magnificent Seven, and the most recent spiritual remake 13 Assassins adapts the story some 300 years later while still bringing a unique touch.  It plays on so many common drives – hunger, love, greed, lust, hope – that the story brings something for everyone while still telling a rip-roaring story.

I do not feel the same sense of cynicism throughout Seven Samurai as I did through his previous films.  Even when Kambei remarks at the end, “Again we are defeated,” it feels more like he is wearily acknowledging his role in the big picture.  The warriors of any society have to do something the majority will never be able to approach, and for that they will always be revered and looked at in fear.  The peasants live on because of the samurai’s sacrifice and this is how it must be.

Maybe you could look at that as cynical but the fact is that it never stopped Kambei from continuing to reach out to people, just look at his heroic rescue of the child in the beginning.  I also doubt it will keep Katsushiro, regardless of his broken heart, from reaching out to others in the future.  The battle should not be necessary, but it is, and they do what they must because they are the only ones capable.  I suppose if we find a way to live in a classless society with no need for warriors and plentiful food to go around Seven Samurai will start to feel dated, but not even I can be that optimistic.I think my perplexed reaction comes more from the fact that he made an ambitious action film—the only genre, one may argue, that can truly benefit from our onslaught of film technology advances—that almost 60 years later still doesn't feel technically lacking, and I think that is primarily due to a combination of incredibly economic editing and the substantial emotional investment built up in the first 2/3 of the movie.

I'm glad you mentioned 13 Assassins, as I kept thinking back to that while rewatching Seven Samurai. The former plays as a less complex, totally exhilarating homage to the latter—a technically amazing sustained action sequence of which probably couldn't exist as it does without Kurosawa's film—and yet aside from the fact that that movie is made entirely of blood, I can't honestly say that the battle scenes were any more effective for all our fancy new movie magic. Kurosawa proves that when we care about the characters and the stakes of a particular bit of action, it is every bit as effective as—if not more than—all the technical proficiency in the world. James Cameron should have watched it before he spent the GDP of a small nation making Avatar.

The performances here also offer some of the best we've seen — Mifune takes what could simply have been a theatrical court jester character and adds surprising extra dimensions when we least expect it, and for Shimura to follow up Ikiru with this is incredible. From the desperation and despair of that movie to the quite strength and weary resolve here, he continues to demonstrate a range that makes it clear why Kurosawa chose to utilize him so often. Seiji Miyaguchi's Kyuzo is a great example of a less-is-more style of acting working to perfection (maybe they could remake it with modern day Bill Murray playing a samurai?).

All said, it feels like one of those movies that everything has already been said about, so I'm at a bit of a loss on anything else to add. You summarized it best, and maybe that's why I remain so in awe of the film—I feel like there has to be some explanation that stops just shy of “miracle” as to why it is so incredibly good, and yet it really is just the perfect embodiment of craft all around, from the screenplay and acting to the direction and technical elements. I'll take it.

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Next week: Kurosawa tackles the bomb in earnest with I Live in Fear.

Posted by Andrew

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