Thursday 28 January 2010

The Seven Samurai (1954)

Director: Akira Kurosawa
Stars: Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura
I'm climbing the stairway to Cinematic Heaven in 2010 to post five reviews a week of films from the IMDb Top 250 List, supposedly the greatest motion pictures of all time. Are they really? Find out here.

I'd waited for so long to see this movie, possibly more so than any other film in the entire IMDb Top 250 list and I caught up with it in 2004 courtesy of the Independent Film Channel. I'd seen so many clips from Kurosawa films, but only a couple of complete movies, Yojimbo many years earlier and its sequel Sanjuro much more recently. Even those who have only dipped into classic film tend to have at least heard of Kurosawa and realise how important he and his films are. This one tends to stand above all of them in the regard of critics, one of the most influential films ever made, most obviously but not restricted to the American remake, The Magnificent Seven. It's the first place to go to begin to understand why Kurosawa is so important and the taiko drums that back the rakishly angled kanji credits are only the beginning.

We're in the late 16th century, when Japan was torn by almost constant civil war, known as the Warring States Period, and as the introduction tells us, farmers were frequently crushed by cruel bandits. We soon see a pack of the latter about to crush a village of the former, riding up like a whirlwind to charge down on it from the mountains, only to surprisingly leave it alone. They realise that they looted this particular village the year before so decide to wait a few months until the harvest is in before doing so again. That leaves the villagers, who notice their arrival and prompt departure, at least a little while to work out what to do about it. They're a pitiful bunch to say the least, suggesting everything from outright capitulation to mass suicide. Where's God, they ask. Land tax, forced labour, war, drought and now bandits. Where's God, indeed.

Only one man seems to want to fight, the rest merely lamenting that it's the lot of farmers to suffer. To highlight his importance, he's the only one we see in real close-up, amongst an expansive village population. Watching the number of people in frame here is a real eye opener. Kurosawa finding innovative ways to move and position crowds into and within the frame. The choreography here is magnificent and it's impossible to ignore, especially as Kurosawa only had a 4:3 aspect ratio to work with, an epic of this scale screaming for widescreen. Fortunately for this lone villager, the patriarch of the village backs him, decreeing that they'll fight but to do so they'll need help. They'll need to hire samurai, but hungry ones who will work for what they have to offer in payment, nothing but three square meals a day. Gisaku, this grandfather of the village, is old and infirm but he's a savvy soul.

The four men that head out to find these hungry samurai don't have any luck and end up crouching in a building to shelter from the rain. They're out of rice, out of hope and aware of their failure to the point of tears. It's only when they argue about going home empty handed that they luck into being in the right place at the right time, to witness what Roger Ebert has suggested may well be the origin of the sequence now routine in action movies to establish the credentials of the hero through a feat unrelated to the main story at large. This one establishes an aging ronin called Kambei Shimada, who shaves off his topknot, symbolic of the honour of a samurai, and dresses as a priest in an effort to save a boy who is being held hostage by a thief who has taken refuge in a barn.

Of course it works, because he's played by no less a name than Takashi Shimura, already on his eleventh Kurosawa movie, with Stray Dog, Rashomon and an astounding performance in Ikiru behind him, all three films undeniable classics. The same year he made this film, the largest production ever mounted in Japan up until that time, he made no less than eight other films too including another massively influential movie, the original Gojira. Incidentally filming these two movies in the same year nearly bankrupted Toho Studios, but in the end both films made them famous far beyond Japanese borders. Naturally our four villagers promptly beg his favour and he accepts, to lead what will become the seven samurai of the title. The second gets to him before even the villagers do, an idealistic young samurai from an aristocratic family called Katsushiro Okamoto who is so impressed by his act that he begs to be his disciple. Actor Isao Kimura had debuted five years earlier in Kurosawa's Stray Dog and also appeared in Ikiru, but this was perhaps his most prominent and memorable role.
Just as we got the potential origin of the establishing sequence for the hero with Kambei's saving of the child hostage, we also get what may be the origin of the team recruitment sequences so reminiscent of American action movies of the seventies like The Dirty Dozen and The Guns of Navarone, as Kambei recruits another five ronin to meet the quota he feels is required. Okamoto has already been counted, though he doesn't become official until later, and the rest arrive gradually. They're a varied bunch, highly memorable and distinctive. We certainly spend more time with some than others but each of them gets his moment in the spotlight and the opportunity to develop his character within a wider story.

Gorobei Katayama is a careful cherub of a man, looking more like a Buddha than a samurai, who finds Kambei himself even more interesting than the concept of the work. He's seeking in friendship morethan anything else and his loyalty is fierce. A skilled archer, he backs up Kambei in building the team and in planning the defence of the village. He finds the next recruit, Heihachi Hayashida, in a back yard chopping firewood because he's hungry and has no money. Then comes Kyuzo, the unflappable epitome of the samurai spirit, a master swordsman who they witness winning a duel almost like it's a textbook. He's played by Seiji Miyaguchi, who is highly recognisable to anyone with a background in Japanese films, not least because of his highly distinctive face. The sixth samurai is Shimada's former right hand man Shichiroji, found completely by accident.

The last of the group is Kikuchiyo, not really a samurai at all, who arrives drunk as a skunk with false credentials which if they were to be trusted suggest that he's thirteen years old. He's a wonder to behold, a bundle of energy fighting everyone and everything including the instinct to fall asleep and sober up. We've already met him, as he was hanging around during the hostage incident, and so we already know that he's played by Toshiro Mifune in full on wild man mode. He's a monkey, a pirate and a jester all wrapped up in one package and he has a sword taller than my wife in an obvious statement of machismo, possibly because his name translates roughly to One Thousand Generations of Chrysanthemums. I can't quite bring myself to call this okatana a penis extension given that this is Toshiro Mifune we're talking about but that's basically what it is.

He joins them but only in a way, initially rejected as a member of the group but following them anyway, initially apart from the others not just figuratively but literally. He's the wildcard for sure, but he proves his worth on a number of occasions, not least immediately after arriving in the village, as they're welcomed rather akin to the plague, due to the fear of the farmers. It's Kikuchiyo who comes up with an imaginative solution to the problem and breaks the ice in no uncertain terms. He's good at that, certainly the comedic element in the story, and I get the impression that the laughter he tended to elicit, especially from the children of the village, wasn't acting in the slightest. Certainly he was allowed a lot of freedom to improvise.

Like many of Kurosawa's films, The Seven Samurai is at heart a western, only where westerns tend to feature gunslingers in the Wild West, Kurosawa's easterns feature men with swords in feudal Japan. The story comes straight from the western tradition, but it's full of quintessential Japanese history and culture, reevaluating to a wide audience just what being a samurai meant. Many of these ronin exhibit strange behaviour to anyone used to merely the traditional viewpoint of their code but that's very deliberate on Kurosawa's part. The film is also so much more than just a western (or eastern). One of the reasons it's such a powerful success is that it really is many things, all fully formed and explored in the nearly three and a half hour running time. Despite such length and the fact that it's a black and white film in a foreign language, it isn't boring in the slightest, from the initial scenes with the pitiful villagers to the full fledged battle in the rain.
There are so many story arcs involved here that it's impossible to really explore them all in a single viewing. Even twice through I'm sure that there's plenty more depth for me to find in the future. As a friend and Kurosawa fan has suggested, it's a film to grow with. I don't know how many times you've worked through it thus far, Robert, but I know there are more to come. Most obviously it's an action film, a samurai movie, but that's merely scratching at the surface. While there are no armies involved, it has enough military strategy to effectively count as a war film. It's even a romance, between young Katsushiro and a paranoid villager's daughter called Shino, the one whose father cut her hair and disguised her as a boy just so he can keep her safe from the samurai who he fears are about to ravage his village.

Most of all though it's a character study. What seems like every character here learns and grows and evolves, not just the seven samurai of the title. Most obviously Katsuhiro comes of age, as a warrior and a man, experiencing both love and death at around the same time, but he's far from the only one. Gorobei seeks friendship, Kikuchiyo action and Katsuhiro learning. Kyuzo merely seeks a closer perfection of his art. Yet all of them seek something and all of them find something in the time they share in the village, though not always what they expected. They learn a good deal about what farmers are and why they are why they are. Their eyes are opened.

The villagers evolve too, even more palpably than the samurai, both as individuals and as a group. These farmers, who had previously killed fleeing samurai and saved their armour and weapons, find a respect for these seven men who put their lives on the line to save their village. They learn through association as much as through direct training, the whole timbre of the place altering completely as they come to trust their saviours and then themselves. Kikuchiyo is the link between the two, helping each side to gain insight and to come to terms with each other. It's heavily suggested that he's a former farmer's son who escaped the death of his family to become who he is.

The Seven Samurai is undoubtedly the most characterful and well defined jidaigeki or Japanese period movie ever made, not to mention the most influential. While spaghetti westerns most obviously sprung from another Kurosawa film, Yojimbo, this had an influence too. It could be seen as the first Japanese blockbuster but there are too many negative connotations to that word to really allow it. As I've already mentioned, it did a good deal to define the format of action movies generally. Most obviously it's been remade in what seems like every other genre. The Magnificent Seven took it to the west, Battle Beyond the Stars took it into space and Sholay took to to India, apparently the highest grossing Indian film of all time. A fresh American remake is in the planning stages, set in the modern day with paramilitary mercenaries defending a Thai village.

As soon as I saw one Kurosawa I wanted to see another. When I first saw this in 2004 it was the second I could remember and it left me eager to see more. It overwhelmed me to quite some degree but left me in no doubt of its importance and I certainly felt enriched for the privilege of having seen it. Now, watching again, I have much more of a background in jidaigeki and in Kurosawa's films too, with a even dozen under my belt from Sanshiro Sugata in 1943 to Rhapsody in August in 1991. Kurosawa is justly known for his samurai films but he made much more, including notable films noir like Stray Dog and The Bad Sleep Well.

It's hard to argue against this as his masterpiece, but with so many masterpieces to choose from there's room for a few others too. There were four others in the IMDb Top 250 when I grabbed it in late 2004: Ikiru, Yojimbo, Ran and 1950's Rashomon, which might just be as influential a film as this one. Three more have made the list since: Throne of Blood, The Hidden Fortress and High and Low. I could make a solid claim for a few others too and compared to many other directors, Kurosawa wasn't that prolific, especially late on in his career. He's a director of world cinema who can simply not be ignored. What George Lucas has stolen from him, albeit with much acknowledgement, is only the top of the barrel. Everyone else has copied him too and they're still doing it. That's patently obvious when watching The Seven Samurai.

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