While the quick census nature of the World Wired Web might beg to differ (or better yet, endlessly rant against anything outside their blogpshere of influence), the considered ‘best’ in any artform do come from decades of discerning perspective. Just because you felt a twinge of emotional nostalgia the last time TCM showed Jackie Gleason’s silent pathos homage Gigot doesn’t mean in belongs in the pantheon of cinema’s greats. The current nu-media loves to play contrarian, attempting to knock several established classics – The Beatles, the works of Charles Dickens, etc. – with confused generation buzzwords like “overrated.” Unfortunately, it is usually the judgment of said voice that is mistakenly glorified. As the cream of the crop continues to rise, those struggling against it tend to give up, focusing their already amped up ADD on some other unwarranted target.
So for a film – no matter the era – to survive such a reactionary onslaught is quite amazing. Nay, not just survive, but thrive. To become its own cult, a religion of Asian monochrome majesty from a filmmaker whose only grown in appreciation and acceptance. Such is the case with Akira Kurosawa’s Sengoku period masterpiece Seven Samurai. As influential as any movie made in the West and the blueprint for much of the action genre beats we bow to in post-modern entertainment, it stands the test of time because, at its core, Kurosawa has crafted something eternal , universal in its themes and yet very much a byproduct of a post-WWII mentality. As a member of the losing side in THE international conflict which shaped the 20th Century, the director had to go back the 16th Century to help Japan find a new, if still noble, identity.
He succeeded by focusing on the nation’s famed warriors, the pre-Industrial icons to duty, honor, discipline – and when need be – death. While researching stories about samurai for his next project, Kurosawa stumbled upon a story involving a group of samurai and their defense of a group of farmers. Abandoning his original ideas, the director dived into pre-production, transferring the tale into a symbolic statement of juxtaposed morality and mission. Good and evil, rationale vs. anger and volatility became part of the mix, as did a desire to showcase some of the more arcane customs of the time. The final story focused on a small village being attacked by roving bandits. Desperate, the elders agree to hire samurais to protect them.
Eventually, a reluctant group of seven ronin step up to play guardian, unaware of the town’s treacherous past, the scope of the job, and the various unstable personalities within the group. We are introduced to leader Kambei Shimada (Takashi Shimura) as he rescues a young child and takes on an apprentice named Katsushirō (Isao Kimura). The rest of the ranks are filled out with a skilled archer Gorōbei (Yoshio Inaba), his amiable associate Heihachi (Minoru Chiaki), Kambei’s former friend Shichirōji (Daisuke Katō), exceptional swordsman Kyūzō (Seiji Miyaguchi), and a temperamental ticking time bomb named Kikuchiyo (Toshirō Mifune). Together, they train the locals, fortify the town, and forge a bond that would literally redefine Japanese (and world) cinema forever.
It is indeed a strong relationship. From the direct copies (The Magnificent Seven) to the unusual adaptations (Battle Beyond the Stars???), Kurosawa combined history and art to manufacture mythology, to determine the dialogue that would explain the action adventure for decades to come. All technical achievements aside – Kurosawa used multiple cameras during the fight sequences to aid in editing and maintain the “flow” of the performances as well as using slow motion to accentuate and underscore the drama – the main influence Seven Samurai had now seems quite obvious. The reluctant hero, the many against the mob conceit, the hot-tempered impulsive player, and the coming together of interconnecting archetypes was first formulated by Kurosawa, given weight and import by his undeniable skill behind the lens. While other films had fooled around with similar ideas, Samurai was the first to force them all together into a fresh folklore. It’s lasted ever since (The Expendables being one of the most recent examples).
Indeed, without it we wouldn’t have the black suited swells of Reservoir Dogs, the light saber wielding Jedi of Star Wars. Every post-modern western would pale in comparison to the past while the jokey heist film would be hampered by a lack of crucial component power. Kurosawa and Seven Samurai illustrated that champion narratives didn’t have to be solely about the one – it could be about the whole as well. Something like the just-announced Avengers would never have the kind of kinetic potential geek nation is gnashing over without this stunning ‘origin story’. Certainly there are aspects of the film that fail to resonate with a jaded, cynical audience and the period piece concept can throw viewers off. But perhaps the biggest hurdle facing anyone experiencing Seven Samurai for the first time is how wholly familiar it feels – if only because how pervasive its sway has been within the medium.
Divorced from such overriding concerns, this is the very definition of an epic, a movie that manufactures easy emotions only to see them swell and consume the entire substrata. It’s a clear cautionary tale, a defeatist proposal on the price of playing protector. It’s a lesson in never judging people by their personalities but a warning to still watch for obvious character flaws. It’s elemental, foundational, introductory, a first among firsts and a faultless entertainment as well. In many ways, it plays like Jean Renoir’s equally brilliant Rules of the Game, an equally important film that laid the groundwork for the modern motion picture parable – in its case, the corruptibility of the idle rich. If the famed Frenchman’s savage social satire was indicative of how wars begin (in the ballroom, not on the battlefield) Kurosawa’s epitaph was the postscript on such pointless conflicts.
Yet for all its meaning, for what it stands for and what it started, there is always more to Seven Samurai. It’s an engaging and involving work, a film that, even at three hours and twenty-seven minutes, seems to fly by. For the true film fan, for someone who has moved beyond the basics of Hollywood and its mainstream machine, it’s instructive and eye-opening (so is the new Criterion Blu-ray – it’s a must-own). While other members of its elite league get by on prestige and pomp, Seven Samurai continues to read from the rulebook it forged…and languishes over every new and exciting chapter. Even today, filmmakers are still discovering the benchmarks forged by Kurosawa and his against the odds triumph, which is perhaps why, unlike other icons from the celluloid’s ancient history, Seven Samurai endures. It’s so much more than a great film – and then again, that’s exactly what it is.