No one should need my encouragement to see this masterpiece. It is four years older than I am and it is widely recognized as one of the greatest films ever made, in any language. In preparation for an extensive discussion on the new “Magnificent Seven” remake and it’s progenitors, I went to the library and checked out the Criterion version of this classic. I will probably never do that again because after watching it, I am simply waiting for my cash flow to be sufficient to obtain the bluray for myself. This movie is simply wonderful.
Set four hundred years ago, the well known story concerns a village of farmers under the threat of bandits raiding and stealing their crops, choosing to go in search of Samurai to help defend them. This three and a half hour film predates the epics of the 60s and was only challenged in the scale of the story telling by “Gone With the Wind”. From the village to a large city and back to a countryside with farms, mountains, temples and hidden forts of bandits, Seven Samurai is full of adventure, drama, humor and tragedy. It feels deep in many places without wallowing in self importance or histrionics. The characters are memorable and the film making will impress.
If I have any criticism at all, it concerns the opening section of the film where the villagers discover they will soon be targets of another raid. The wailing and hair pulling that goes on is loud and prolonged. One could almost lose sympathy for the downtrodden peasants who are on the brink of starvation in spite of how hard they work. Once they decide on their plan however, the story calms down and follows a well worn path of a group seeking a champion. Their attempts to find heroes are limited by the fact that all they have to offer by way of payment is food and shelter. Fortunately they come across an aging warrior who seems to fit their needs perfectly.
In an act of compassion, Kambei, shaves his head and dons the robes of a poor monk, to get close to a thief who has taken a child as hostage when trapped. He quickly resolves the problem which earns him the admiration of a young nobleman who is pursuing life as a samurai himself. Katsushiro wants to follow as an apprentice but Kambei has no need for such assistance, that is until he is approached by the emissaries of the village. The mocking the farmers have received from occupants of the inn they stay at, for trying to hire a drunken samurai, evokes enough sympathy to get the old man to reconsider. One of the lessons of the film is compassion for those who are suffering. When someone makes a mistake, or is exploited, the samurai code seems to be strength thru unity. Kambei proceeds to recruit several more warriors to assist him.
The recruiting sequence takes a while but it helps reveal the character of the various soldiers about to join this army. Some are wily, some cautious, and some are brash. The details of the process are one of the small joys that the film provides and it would be wrong to spoil it for anyone who has not yet seen the film. Toshiro Mifune arrives in the film in the form of a man claiming to be samurai but revealed to be a fraud. That discovery fails to discourage him and he worms his way into the group and ultimately commands their respect and friendship despite some of his eccentricities. As Kikuchiyo, Mifune prances and struts and generally tries to B.S. his way to status. While there are six other stories of the samurai, his is the one that commands center stage. Mifune is magnetic to watch and the character draws us in even as he seems to be a bit big for his britches, and that I mean literally. Kikuchiyo wears a dead warriors vestments and they are brief in the modesty department.
I will be doing a post on the 1960 “Magnificent Seven” and there are comparisons in story points everywhere. Kyuzo, the taciturn master swordsman, proves himself in a match that is repeated beat for beat by James Coburn six years later. Kambei”s act of chivalry is mirrored with Yul Bryner’s defiance of the racist cowboys when burying a dead Indian. Horst Bucholz catches fish in the same manner as Mifune, by hand. The depth of Seven Samurai involves a more elaborate set of back stories for each of the samurai, and the villagers also have more character traits and histories. “Magnificent Seven” also condenses two characters into one by making the romance happen to the young outsider instead of tho another character.
The battle sequences in Seven Samurai are all easy to follow as is the tactic that Kambei is employing. The goal is to take out as many of the bandits, one by one as they can. Two of the Samurai go outside of the village to accomplish some of this but mostly, the plot involves allowing only one or two of the raiders to enter the village at a time. The time setting does allow for muskets but they are not plentiful and they become the first targets of the Seven since they represent an nearly invisible threat. Of course in the Western version, nearly everyone is armed with guns. The confrontations take place less frequently and the shootouts are not always as interesting as swordplay, especially when it starts raining. The photography in Kurosawa’s film is in glorious black and white and the scenes with rain and fire jump out dramatically in this medium. Faces, especially Mifune’s are lit with dramatic shadowing and the intensity of the characters can be see, even when there are not close ups, but when there are, it is even better.
The samurai traditions of honor hang over the choices these characters make. They may be mercenaries but they are not likely to cut and run or be bought off. In the Western version, it would be expected that some of these characters would be less committed. The family traditions and cultural expectations in feudal Japan seem to preclude such treachery, at least as far as the peasants are concerned. In fact, one element this film contains is a sacrifice make by a woman. This is a moment and a motivation that did not make it into the Americanized version, the wife of one of the villagers, who has been taken as a “comfort” prisoner, allows the marauding samurai to gain access to the bandits hideout without tipping them off. She also accepts a death that would cleanse the unclean last weeks of her life with fire. It was a haunting image.
Kurosawa has filled the movie with images that will inspire and haunt us for years. Mifune stomping around the village, cursing the peasants and being bolder than is appropriate for samurai is one example. When he raises the emblematic flag of the village defenders, it is a moment of chivalry that will bring a lump to your throat.
He defies the enemy and inspires his companions and the villagers with that one bold statement. The other image that visually tells the story is the tally parchment on which Kambei keeps track of how many of the enemy have fallen.
This is a glorious classic that deserves to be seen by everyone. The black and white photography and subtitles are a barrier to some, but five minutes in, no one will notice that they are watching a film set four hundred years ago, shot almost seventy years ago, and in a language that they don’t speak. Instead they will marvel at the accomplished direction and look of the film. They will have their eyes drawn to one of the great actors of the last century and they will be sucked in by an oft told tale that still works.