Film

'Seven Samurai' Spawned a Subgenre All of Its Own

Celebrating its 60th birthday this year, Akira Kurosawa's superb and influential Japanese adventure film is still as impressive as ever.


Seven Samurai

Director: Akira Kurosawa
Cast: Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura
Distributor: BFI
UK Release date: 2014-04-21
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It’s hard to overstate the global impact of Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 film Seven Samurai, a sublime Japanese export that had, and still has, great influence over the international filmmaking community. Critics rave about the film, and it frequently features in lists of the best films ever made, often occupying prime position. Filmmakers as generically diverse as Ingmar Bergman and Steven Spielberg have tripped over themselves to convey just how important Kurosawa’s vision was in shaping their own cinematic minds.

Seven Samurai even spawned an American re-make of sorts: 1960’s excellent The Magnificent Seven, a western revision so successful that a thoroughly impressed Kurosawa presented The Magnificent Seven’s director John Sturges with a ceremonial Samurai sword, a token that represented a cross-cultural nod of professional, mutual respect.

Seven Samurai is a period action drama par excellence. Set in 16th century Japan, it tells the story of a poor village of farmers, subjected to an annual rampage by marauding bandits. Vulnerable, and lacking the constitution to endure another attack during next year’s harvest, the villagers decide to enlist the help of fighting men – the iconic Samurai -- to fend off the next inevitable onslaught.

With little to offer in monetary terms, the call goes out that payment for services rendered will be by food only, so the village’s scouts are instructed to find “hungry Samurai”. This attracts a rather rag-tag bunch of warriors, who are initially treated with suspicion by the village’s peasants. In time, however, they come to unify, all prepared to fight valiantly to repel the savage thieves and bandits.

Despite the inherent heroism displayed by the Samurai, Kurosawa (himself descended from a Samurai clan) is nevertheless prepared to show the fallibility of the brave fighters; for whilst order, normality and stability may be restored to the farmers and their families should victory be forthcoming, the Samurai are conversely portrayed as rather lonely and melancholic wanderers, with no roots, and no sense of settlement or true contentment. For all their flaws, though, they are most definitely a force for good.

So what gives Seven Samurai such enduring appeal? Perhaps it’s a combination of the timeless nature of battle, and the film’s tendency to polarise each group in the narrative into good and evil, despite Kurosawa’s aforementioned examination of the flaws of the Samurai, and their brutal tendencies. With the film’s lines of sympathy so clearly defined, its function is essentially to deconstruct human conflict – which is always more multifaceted and complicated than cinema usually portrays -- in order to allow the audience the simple pleasure of rooting for the heroes over the villains. In this context, “simple” isn’t meant in a pejorative sense either; The Magnificent Seven is exactly the same in this regard, and is all the more thrilling for it.

Seven Samurai is also the proto men-on-a-mission movie, creating a blueprint that has become so recognised that it spawned a subgenre all of its own. Perhaps it’s hard to believe, but iconic war films such as Where Eagles Dare and The Dirty Dozen may not have existed in their final form without the trailblazing narrative innovation of Seven Samurai. (Despite the fact that Kurosawa has occasionally been called an “un-Japanese director” – in relation to appearing to have a Western approach to filmmaking – I’d argue that the themes in Seven Samurai speak a universal cinematic language, regardless of cultural differences between countries).

Visually, the film is wonderful. Asakazu Nakai’s extraordinarily atmospheric black and white photography leaves an indelible mark. The climactic mud-sodden battle sequences are breathtakingly rendered, and it wasn’t until Conrad Hall’s terrific cinematography in Road to Perdition almost 50years later that another film used torrential backlit rain so artfully.

Kurosawa’s technical proficiency is both impeccable and hugely influential: one inventive action sequence features some beautiful slow-motion, a visual rarity in 1954; it’s no surprise, therefore, to hear that Sam Peckinpah had Kurosawa in mind when the former shot his balletic and violent western The Wild Bunch in 1969. Kurosawa’s quick sense of pace is unusual for the time, too; coupled with his fluid camera movement (all the more impressive seeing as Seven Samurai was shot almost entirely on location), the action scenes are wonderfully choreographed and effective.

Overall, the film has lost little of its impressive power. Despite its age, it’s still as entertaining and exciting as ever. Like Spielberg and his epic-length Schindler’s List, Kurosawa doesn’t allow the drama to sag, so Seven Samurai’s long running time (a whopping 198 minutes) never seems an issue -- the film flies by, in fact. Perhaps it's testament to Kurosawa’s skill that even in today’s climate of ever-more excessive cinematic spectacle, few contemporary adventure and action films surpass Seven Samurai for quality and technique.

This 60th Anniversary Edition from the BFI has been digitally re-mastered in HD, and the result is terrific, with the film now looking clean and sharp. Extras include The Art of Kurosawa (2013, 47 minutes), a documentary about the master filmmaker; the film’s original Japanese trailer; the option to include the intermission period from the film’s initial theatrical release, and a generous and glossy 16-page accompanying booklet containing essays, biographies, cast, full credits and an original review.

10

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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