by Vennie Anderson
Long before I saw Seven Samurai I had heard it described as a "classic" film. I knew it was in black and white, in Japanese with English subtitles, and directed by the famous Akira Kurasawa. Being aware of all this, it was my uninformed opinion that Seven Samurai was probably an artsy-fartsy movie, which could only be truly enjoyed by movie critics and people who frequent "art film" showings. I figured I wouldn't like it.
Eventually, however, my fascination with daikaiju eiga movies led to an evolving interest in other types of Japanese films. I decided it was time I watch this "classic," even if it bored me to tears. I mean, the movie is nearly three and a half hours long! How could I possibly stay even a little bit interested for that long a time?
Well, hand over that humble pie, my friends, because I could not have been more wrong. Released in 1954, the same year as Ishiro Honda's masterpiece Gojira (a.k.a., Godzilla, King of the Monsters), which we all know and love, Seven Samurai deserves all the praise heaped upon it and more.
A little background info might be helpful here. In 1952 Akira Kurasawa, a huge fan of John Ford's American Westerns, envisioned making a film with plenty of action and a great storyline in which he could show off many of his groundbreaking film techniques. Kurasawa and two other writers - Shinobu Hashimoto and Hideo Oguni - spent months kicking around and rejecting various ideas until Kurasawa hit on a samurai theme. They initially considered doing a film based on a day in the life of a samurai, but this wasn't quite what Kurasawa had in mind. Ultimately, determined to hash out a script, he and his two colleagues holed up for 45 days in an isolated inn-no visitors, no phone calls. Ideas began to take shape, and the concept emerged of a group of ronin - essentially, unemployed samurai - who come to the aid of a small village ravaged by bandits. Even before the script was written, Kurasawa created his samurai and developed detailed individual outlines and sketches, fleshing out the appearance and personality of each titular character. This meticulous planning extended to the lighting, special effects, close-ups, long shots, and other camera work. Some of these techniques, including slow motion, were introduced by Kurasawa in this perfect diamond of a film. Scenes in which the actors' eyes glisten with light are no accident, but rather the result of creative and careful lighting and camera placement. Kurasawa is well known for his use of weather in film, and Seven Samurai is no exception. Sunshine, dust, wind, rain, fog, and mud create moods and compliment the dialog and action.
Seven Samurai is set in 16th century Japan. The time period is significant, since a series of major civil wars in Japan had recently ended. Numerous skilled, proud samurai, formerly esteemed by all, were out of a job, either released by their victorious overlords or stranded when their overlords were conquered. Unable to find any cause to serve, many wandered the countryside, homeless and hungry. Despite their code of honor, some turned to menial labor, and some turned to a life of crime. Seven Samurai tells the tale of a village of poor peasant farmers, barely able to scrape out a living and periodically set upon by a group of hungry ronin turned bandits, led by a particularly vicious villain. The villagers have reached the end of their collective ropes and decide to attempt recruiting unemployed samurai to protect them from the inevitable attack of the bandits after the next harvest. The desperate villagers have high hopes that in a town nearby they will be able to find hungry samurai willing to act as protectors in exchange for rice to fill their empty bellies.
Rich as this plotline is, there's much more going on in this incredible movie. Multiple storylines intertwine throughout the film as the characters interact, and we learn more about them. While three hours and twenty-seven minutes seems a long time to tell a story on film, Seven Samurai's length allowed Kurasawa and his actors to be as creative as their talents allowed. Caught up in the various stories, I have a difficult time imagining what could be removed to shorten the film without doing significant damage. It seems to me as if every frame is exactly as it should be, every mood is properly set, and every effect enhances the overall experience. In the fascinating booklet that accompanies the Criterion Collection Blu-ray version of the film, Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan compares Kurasawa to "a master chef, allowing his ingredients to simmer and become tastier, tastier, and tastier still."
Two main characters deserve a bit of special mention: Kambei, portrayed by the inestimable Takashi Shimura; and Kikuchiyo, played by Toshiro Mifune, who was then 33 years old and at the height of his talent and popularity. Both actors were favorites of Kurasawa's, and he used them in many of his finest films. Truly, 1954 was a busy year for versatile veteran actor Shimura, who also had a major role in Gojira. As leader of the samurai, Kambei demonstrated a quiet dignity and an intelligent mind, as well as a very capable sword hand. Kambei's sense of humor also shined through, especially as he observes the antics of Mifune's samurai wannabe, the buffoonish Kikuchiyo. Kurasawa knew Mifune's abilities well and gave him very little direction, instead allowing this amazing actor complete freedom to do what he liked with the character who provides most of the comic relief to an otherwise somber tale. Mifune's scenery-chewing shenanigans range from strutting his stuff for the village children to sobbing over a child orphaned by a fire… and just about everything you can imagine in between.
In one of the articles in the Criterion booklet, Mifune recalled that he spent most of the film half naked and suffered considerably during the scenes filmed in cold weather, including the final battle scene, in which "…they kept showering us with that damned rain. I would run and fall, run and fall, my whole body shivering." (It's truly regretful that Mifune never appeared in any G-films, although he did do kaiju-films for Toho, including The Three Treasures.) Also noteworthy is the film's distinctive score, written by Fumio Hayasaka. Various themes accompany the action, and the use of drums is nothing short of magnificent.
Originally scheduled to be completed in just over three months, actual filming took an entire year. To say that Kurasawa was a perfectionist is probably accurate, in the same sense that Monet, Michelangelo, and Beethoven were perfectionists. Seven Samurai is indeed a work of art, but it's also a rollicking, swashbuckling adventure, complete with a love story and poignant death scenes. A quick word about the 2010 Criterion Collection edition: A high definition digital transfer using advanced techniques to clean up a half century of flicker, dirt, instability, and scratches. To top it off, the audio was re-mastered from the original soundtrack to eliminate clicks, thumps, hiss, hum, and crackle. A class act all the way.
P.S. Just for fun, after you watch Seven Samurai, rent and watch The Magnificent Seven, an American Western which is a retelling of Kurasawa's masterpiece.
Get the 2010 Criterion Collection Blu-Ray of Seven Samurai here.
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