Kurosawa 101: Day Five, 'Seven Samurai' (1954)

Today's Kurosawa 101 focuses exclusively on what is generally regarded as not only the greatest Japanese film ever made, but perhaps the greatest in world cinema.

“This has been called the greatest Japanese film ever made, and so it is....It is one of the most influential films ever. From any angle you choose -- scripting, storytelling, acting, directing, camerawork, editing -- this film is a masterpiece. Every element in it is superlative.... You could take any four minutes of this film, anywhere in the picture, and find more concentrated filmmaking than you'll find anywhere else in cinema."

-- Stephen Prince, from the Commentary on the Criterion edition of Seven Samurai

Seven Samurai is a film that exhausts superlatives. The consensus among film scholars is that it is not only the greatest Japanese movie ever made, but belongs on the shortest of short lists of the greatest films ever made. Donald Richie, the dean of Japanese film studies in English, has called it the greatest Japanese film, while David Desser, author of numerous books on Japanese cinema, says that it is “One of the greatest, if not the greatest film of all time.” Joan Mellen agrees, adding, “There’s no question but that Seven Samurai is not only a classic but a masterpiece, perhaps the greatest Japanese film ever made. Certainly it’s a member of anyone’s Top Ten list of the best films in the history of cinema. Seven Samurai is Akira Kurosawa’s finest film.” It routinely tops lists of the greatest Japanese films, whether lists by critics and scholars or more by popular publications like Kinema Jumpo.

What is perhaps most astonishing about Seven Samurai is that this is one of those rare -- indeed, unique -- films that not only obsesses critics, scholars, and directors, but delights fans, whether they normally watch foreign films or not. It is a film that serves as a gateway drug not only to Japanese but to world cinema. I once showed this film to a group of junior high and high school students, all of whom protested beforehand about being forced to watch a film that was not only in B&W, but one that was subtitled. Afterwards virtually all had enjoyed the film, and several stated that it was one of the best films they’d ever seen. Seven Samurai may be technically breathtaking, but it is also enormously entertaining. This is seen most clearly in the fact that although the film is three and a half hours long, it feels much shorter, and the pacing is that of a briefer film. At the last scene one feels that it has ended too soon.

It is also a film that one can never come entirely to the end of. One can watch it once just for the thrill of the story, another time to notice what Kurosawa has done to move the narrative forward; another time to notice details of character development; another time to analyze how he uses diegetic and nondiegetic sound and music; another time to marvel over the breathtaking cinematography and editing; and then one more time just to get a blast out of it. It is also a film that gets better every time you see it (I personally have now seen it around twenty-five times, and eagerly look forward to seeing it next week when it comes out on Blu-ray).

Seven Samurai, in short, just might be the greatest film ever made.

During the American Occupation of Japan after WW II, those Americans overseeing the Japanese film industry discouraged the production of films set during feudal Japan. The fear was that the values reflected in that historical period would inhibit the move towards democratization and hearken back to the militaristic values that had made possible Japan’s involvement in WW II to begin with. (To be fair, and as Kurosawa himself frequently noted, the censorship exercised by the Americans was much preferable to censorship by the Japanese military, which Kurosawa regarded as psychotic.) Although several excellent historical films (or jidaigeki) were made in the years prior to Seven Samurai, including such superb movies as Life of Oharu, Ugetsu, and Kurosawa’s own Rashomon, none had been chambara or sword films featuring samurai. During the days of the late occupation Kurosawa had been contemplating doing a jidaigeki that would revolutionize the samurai film in Japan. Seven Samurai certainly did that and more.

Instead of the ritualized and artificial fighting that characterized most previous chambara, the fight scenes in Seven Samurai were messy and exceptionally realistic. Farmers trying to kill a bandit who has fallen off his horse and is trying to escape on foot might be thrust at a couple of dozen times before someone finally lands a crippling or lethal blow. In the climactic battle scene in the mud and rain, samurai and farmers fall repeatedly, slipping and struggling to keep their balance in the slush. This was without question the most realistic depiction of battle ever portrayed up to that point in the history of cinema. But Seven Samurai did more than bring realism to action scenes and sword fights: it brought to the sword film the same kind of realism of character development found in the best of contemporary dramas.

The plot of Seven Samurai is deceptively simple: peasant villagers hire seven samurai to defend them from attack by a large gang of bandits. But that does as much justice to the film as saying that The Brothers Karamazov is about a murder. Kurosawa uses this simple plot as a means of embarking on a complex exploration of class at a pivotal period in Japanese history and by implication asking what that meant for Japanese in the early 1950s, a similar period of social upheaval.

Most jidaigeki films (a term that refers to films set in the Tokugawa period and earlier, so that Kurosawa’s first directorial effort, Sanshiro Sugata, set in the 1870s and 1880s, is not considered a jidaigeki) had been set in the Tokugawa period, i.e., in the period after the unification of Japan by the military leaders Oda Nobunaga (1534-82) Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536-98), and Tokugawa Ieyasu (1542-1616) (all three of whom would appear as characters in Kurosaswa’s 1980 film Kagemusha). The terminal point for the jidaigeki was 1868, when by legal decree Japan began the process of modernization and democracy, which entailed all rigid classes, including the samurai class. But Kurosawa preferred instead the Segoku era, or the period of civil war in the late 16th Century in which Nobunaga and his successors defeated local daimyō, bringing more and more areas of Japan under their control, while leaving thousands of samurai masterless, or ronin. Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood, The Hidden Fortress, Kagemusha, and Ran were all set in the Segoku era. The ronin in Seven Samurai were certainly among those defeated by Nobunaga or Hideyoshi.

After unification in the early 17th century samurai were no longer warriors, but instead served as administrators and bureaucrats. Thus Kurosawa chronicles in his film the twilight of the samurai as a warrior class. This is hinted at in several ways in the film, most obviously in the coda to the film following the final battle, when the leader of the samurai, Kambei, tells his fellow survivor, with whom he has fought and survived battles before, that “Once more we have lost,” and explains that it is the farmers who have won. The impending demise of the samurai class is also foreshadowed by the fact that all four of the samurai who die are killed by firearms.

The film hints also at the great change in class implemented in the Tokugawa period, in which it would be impossible for anyone to move from one class to another. In Seven Samurai we see the interplay between the samurai and the farmers, groups strictly separated by class, but not yet to the degree they soon would be. Kurosawa shows throughout the stupidity, in his opinion, of such class division (just as he would later often lament the economic inequality that increased following the embrace by Japan of free market capitalism). We see it as tragic that the young samurai Katsushirô and the farmer’s daughter Shino, clearly in love with one another, are forbidden from being together by class distinctions that are unnatural constructions. We see it also in the film’s most popular character, the faux samurai Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune), who though born a farmer and completely lacking in the manners or self-discipline of a samurai, is a fearless soldier and is, in death, acknowledged as a samurai by being buried beside the other three dead samurai.

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