FILM NOTES INDEX
NYS WRITERS INSTITUTE
(Japan, 1954, 207 minutes, b&w, DVD)
(In Japanese w/English subtitles)
Directed by Akira Kurosawa
Toshiro Mifune . . . . . . . . . . Kikuchiyo
Takashi Shimura . . . . . . . . . . Kambei
Keiko Tsushima . . . . . . . . . . Shino
Yukiko Shimazaki . . . . . . . . . . Wife
Kamatari Fujiwara . . . . . . . . . . Farmer Manzo
Daisuke Kato . . . . . . . . . . Shichiroji
Chris Hedges has famously written, "war is the force that gives our life meaning." Akira Kurosawa's the Seven Samurai is a paean to that force, and to the tremendous price it exacts. Gary Morris once called the Seven Samurai "an annihilating melodrama." In sixteenth century Japan, a motley band of samurai warriors finds itself defending a village against an army of bandits who steal crops and abduct the women of the village. The film is violent, even gory, but in the end, what is annihilated is not only the threat to the village, but, in some ways the heart of the samurai force itself, for Kurosawa warns us that war breeds itself again and again, and the samurai, like all warriors, are doomed to a world in which survival is a kind of death, and death itself is their highest aspiration. If the samurai succeed in routing the bandits and saving the village, they will have made themselves obsolete.
The Seven Samurai was a high point of the director's most critically revered period. It also renewed the collaboration of Kurosawa with Toshiro Mifune, and was the first of ten consecutive films the director-actor duo made together from 1954 to 1965. The films the two created together (Rashomon, Throne of Blood, Red Beard, etc.) make up much of the catalog of the greatest films ever made, but Mifune's performance in the Seven Samurai is canonical. Its success would anchor Mifune's career in the samurai genre; almost all of Mifune's roles would express the samurai mentality he originates in this film, a violent, lonely man, proud, tough, and lonesome, regretful of many things that can never be changed and working to lose that regret in swordplay and bluster. Legend has it that Mifune, raised in Manchuria and a veteran of the Japanese air force in World War II, came to Kurosawa as a prospective camera operator, and was mistakenly been asked to audition as an actor. His frustration at the confusion resulted in a performance of hauteur and instantly changing moods, a style which would become Mifune's trademark. Although he is often remembered as the leader of the samurai band in the Seven Samurai, he is not. (That role goes to another stalwart of Kurosawa's films, Takashi Shimura, who worked with Kurosawa in 20 films.) But Mifune is so riveting that our attention, like that of his fellow warriors and the townspeople they are bound to protect, always turns toward him.
Kurosawa has simplistically been called "the most western of Japanese directors." In fact, the relation between the Japanese and American cinemas has been a strong and reciprocating one, and no film exemplifies this more than the Seven Samurai. Influenced by John Ford and the great westerns of the classical Hollywood cinema, Kurosawa honors that tradition with sweeping landscape shots, and with an analysis of duty and camaraderie among professional soldiers that is as subtle, humorous, and finally moving as Ford's great cavalry epics of the late 1940's, Rio Grande, Fort Apache, and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. In turn, the Seven Samurai's own influence has been wide and deep.
This influence extends far beyond the American remake of the film, John Sturges' respectful but hollow The Magnificent Seven, or even warm-hearted homages like Jim Jarmusch's hip-hop samurai gangster film Ghost Dog or the Dogma pastiche Mifune in 1999. The weary, death-haunted gunmen of Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah are also the legacy of the Seven Samurai. ("I want to make Westerns the way Kurosawa makes Westerns," Peckinpah was reputed to have said.) But so are the motley collections of ne'er do wells and criminals director Robert Aldrich assembles for hopeless tasks in The Dirty Dozen and The Flight of the Phoenix, and the recent Three Kings shows the Seven Samurai's influence is evergreen. Whenever an action film's violence becomes poetry, or its mercenary characters become genuinely tragic, the ghostly figures of the Seven Samurai are walking again, their hands on their sword hilts, restlessly looking for another hapless foe, their appetite for war never sated.
— Kevin Hagopian, Penn State University
The following is taken from a Chicago Sun-Times review by Roger Ebert that appeared Aug. 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.
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 (Ko 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 movie… 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…. 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.
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