Lit React ~ Analysis & reactions on works of fiction.

07 Oct 2011

(1954 Movie) Seven Samurai (Shichinin no samurai) directed by: Akira Kurosawa

(Reaction) Going Down in a Blaze of Glory by: Jose Angelo Singson

The film Seven Samurai by Akira Kurosawa has long been lauded as one of the finest films ever made. It is one of a handful of Japanese films that has gained popularity in the West and has sustained that popularity over the years. It has even given rise to adaptations by western directors, most notably The Magnificent Seven, an almost scene per scene translation of Seven Samurai.

Although Kurosawa's film revolves around the titular Seven Samurai it took a number of well established samurai mythos and flipped it on its head. In fact, the film is all about de-mystifying and taking out the gloss from war and human conflict. That is core of it all, a beautifully rendered, well crafted anti-war sentiment.

The samurai was the parallel of the European knight of the middle-ages under Japan's own feudal government. He was born into his caste and was provided a stipend of money (a handsome amount usually if not totally decadent) and land by the feudal lord that he served. The samurai was trained at an early age to fight using all manner of weapons and was taught battlefield tactics. Very often a samurai learned to do little apart from fighting and serving as his feudal lords general during times of war and as a glorified bodyguard during rare times of peace. Much like the European knights of old, the samurai were elevated to mythical status. Their exploits became the stuff of legends and even now a certain mystique still surrounds them.

Some samurai maintained their code of ethics (bushido) as best they could, even after they had lost their lord, but many others just ran with the times and became every bit as brutal as the era they lived in and opted to live as bandits and raiders rather than starve and Kurosawa-sensei showed this aspect of the samurai as well.

Kurosawa-sensei really broke the mold with this film. He used ronin or master-less samurai as his lead characters rather than the customary lordly retainers. Crassly put, when a samurai loses his feudal lord, either through the many wars that were prevalent in that era or through clan politics, he loses his employer. A samurai without an employer would then find himself without a job, his lordly stipend and land. This would be most unfortunate for the samurai typically has known no other trade other than fighting. Having said all that no one is more fit to carry out the role of removing the gloss from the samurai mystique and warfare than the ronin.

I remember a scene in the film that really drove this point home. The villagers were out in the city looking for samurai to hire and they came across a pathetic character dressed in rags much like them. The only difference was that he was carrying a katana (a Japanese long sword) which also served as the badge of office for a samurai. This slovenly samurai had heard that they were looking to hire a samurai but could only pay them with meals. When his capabilities as a warrior were questioned he gave them a pathetic excuse: I was defeated because I was hungry proving that his samurai heritage was just that, dumb luck and nothing more.

Another bold move Kurosawa-sensei made in this film is the decision to set the story during Japan's dark Sengoku-jidai period, a time marked by terrible civil war, famine, disease and general unrest in the populace. Many Japanese film makers shied away from making films set in this era because the film was released in a time when Japan was still trying to come out of the shadow of World War II and there were still many raw nerves. Many people, but most especially the Japanese audience were initially put off by the bleakness of the scenery. The bleakness was heightened to even more uncomfortable degrees because it was shot in black and white using poor-grade film.

Another interesting tidbit is that Seven Samurai is also the first movie to make use of the now popular plot device of gathering members of team to achieve a certain goal. We've all seen this being used in films like, Ocean's Eleven, The Guns of Navarrone, Fast and The Furious 5, and even in the CGI kid's movie, A Bug's Life.

Although the movie is essentially a war movie, much of the film's battle scenes only happen during the second half of the film. These scenes are composed of several small encounters leading up to a single messy free-for-all battle. Even during these battle sequences Kurosawa-sensei defies convention by presenting people who are really fighting for their lives rather than the choreographed, too-good-to-be-true swordplay scenes so often depicted in their day. The battles were not pretty and not heroic; often you'd see mobs of peasants swarming a single bandit and vice-versa. Kurosawa-sensei didn't want to show these scenes to entertain the viewers with glorified, drawn out almost ballet-like sword fights featuring nigh-immortal warriors but rather, to show the gristly reality that death comes all too easily on the battlefield and the atrocities human beings are capable of doing during times of war.

Most of these battle scenes seem to be sped up to comical effect but it is really more because the cameras used during those days had difficulty keeping up with the actual speed of movement of the actors. The action in Seven Samurai is short and comes in bursts. The only action sequence that was given a lot of film time were the skirmishes and the final battle with the bandits. This again, is done in the interest of keeping things as real as possible, avoiding glamorizing battle.

Interestingly even in massed conflict, samurai would often call for single combat; a duel between leaders. Often these duels consisted of drawn out moments of staring each other down and reading each other's moves, much like chess players would try to figure out what piece their opponent would move first. The actual fight would probably only be less than a second. Despite the long wait times, I can imagine that this makes for quite an exciting spectacle weather viewed on celluloid or on the actual battlefield. In retrospect, I guess such a scene is very similar to cowboys facing off in a gunfight, hence the easy transition from samurai to gunslinger genre. A sustained interlude of contemplation followed by an explosion of gunpowder and blood.

In terms of the story, the script is excellent; truly forward thinking on part of the writer but it would not have become the cinematic masterpiece it is now without the skilled hand of Kurosawa-sensei coordinating it all. Kurosawa-sensei utilizes a number of field and spatial relations in a truly impressive manner. He gave many scenes a multi-dimensional feel. He would often shoot a scene with some action happening in the foreground, but there would also be something happening deep in the background. All this skillfully done so that the actions happening simultaneously do not compete but rather complement each other. The duel scene where they recruit the samurai Kyuzo is an excellent example of this.

If one pays careful attention to the techniques that Kurosawa-sensei uses throughout the film one will see the amazing amount of technical skill he had displayed which is even more amazing considering how limited technology was back then. This is especially true during crowd scenes where other actors cut across the foreground in front of the principle actors, adding another dimension of space without becoming distracting. If they shot scenes like that using today's technology they might have to blur out the crowd or edit the scene but Kurosawa-sensei is able to make use of this to the film's advantage. Every element of every scene has been carefully timed, rigorously controlled and meticulously planned, from the lighting to the expressions on the faces of the actors.

The film ends with the death of four of the eponymous seven samurai, including everybody's favorite goofball, the gung-ho, nodachi-weilding Kikuchiyo. Once more the director is able to take a poke at the audience with his anti-war sentiments, taking time to speak through the characters in the film about the futility of war. Worn from fighting, Kambei and Shichiroji sadly observe "...we've survived once again..." Although this can be read as the samurai ethos of desiring to die in battle, I see this as the sentiments of a man that is just plain tired of seeing friends and people he's shared his life with being taken from him by violence. The battle has been won, but not for the samurai. Ultimately it is the villagers that benefit from all this loss. Though the samurai have won the battle for the farmers, they have lost their friends with little to show for it. They cannot become farmers themselves and neither can they demand tribute from them. A terrible catch-22. "...Again we are defeated..." the character Kambei muses. "The farmers have won. Not us." The last shot of the film is a shot of the graveyard on a hill overlooking the village.

Review:

The film is spectacular on many levels. From the script to the acting to the editing, it is truly all good. Do yourself a favor: spend for a decent copy of this film in its digitally re-mastered format with all the extra documentary and scholarly reviews in it. It is worth every cent.

Seven Samurai is a masterpiece that has spawned many, many copycats. Most of them, well, poor. The American western The Magnificent Seven has thus far been the only movie to come close to Seven's magnitude, and only because it had all but transplanting the samurai, scene per scene to the next closest lawless period of time the Western world had: Wild West of the frontier days. The change of scenery worked. Others have tried and have left many wanting.

You want to see this with all the terrible grainy-ness edited out and the sound digitally restored, unless that is, you enjoy the monoaural tin-y quality of the original.

Share
This reaction is covered by a Creative Commons Attribution - NonCommercial - ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. All that legal mumbo jumbo just means you're free to use any part or entirety of this reaction for any non-commercial purpose as long as you cite the author. Creative Commons License