Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Seven Samurai

Yes, it's long (207 minutes), yes it's old, and subtitled. You should still watch it though, and give it your full attention. There are wonderful things inside.

Seven Samurai, 1954. Directed by Akira Kurosawa.
Starring: Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura, Keiko Tsushima.

"A poor village under attack by bandits recruits seven unemployed samurai to help them defend themselves." (IMDB).

This is a story from another time, but one I think Americans owe it to themselves to see. It's not a preachy film, it's not horribly graphic (especially by today's standards) but it is violent; it's about war and the effects of war, I suppose honor and commitment, too.

Everything that happens is pretty much a struggle for these farmers. Their food keeps getting ripped off by a group of bandits, so the village elder (no doubt Lucas' inspiration for what would later become Yoda) suggests they hire samurais to ward off the thieves. A group of them go to the village to find some, but have only rice for payment, which unfortunately also gets stolen. One samurai agrees to help them and rounds up four other true samurai, an eager would-be Padawan, and an obnoxious buffoon (Mifune) to make seven warriors---together they lay down some plans but the farmers and their families are just as terrified of their saviors as they are their tormentors. When the bandits finally return, the only option is to pick them off either one or two at a time as the farmers (even with the samurais' help) are outnumbered and out skilled. It's tedious and tiring watching them do this, but somehow it all feels very genuine, how a real situation like this would feel.

It's not all completely negative, there are quite a few moments of comedy mostly from Kikuchiyo (Mifune) as the outlandish prankster (my favorite is actually one of his most toned-down moments as the young guy is gushing with admiration for one of the other samurai----Kikuchiyo looks away and yawns with, "I'm not bored at all. Honestly.") And while he's extremely funny with all the yelling and jumping around and snarling at the village children, calling them brats or piss-pants, he's also responsible for the film's most emotional moment, which also concerns a child, when he admits tearfully to the other warriors that the child he's just saved represents the exact same events from his own life; "this child is me!" Heavy.

It's almost as if the technique lends a hand in accomplishing the varying moods of the film as well---the undercranked camera gives the illusion of super speed and chaos as they're all running and charging each other; over cranking it during a slain man's fall to the ground (together with the absence of sound) creates slowness, drawing it out to the very last breath. I remember one of my professors contrasting Kurosawa's killing method to Sam Peckinpah's, but I suppose virtually any other director of a war film will apply in that a single death (even of an enemy) often doesn't carry much weight, normally, but each death seems to matter in this---no one just gets smoked, they're having to run for their lives, escape swords, hide, and beg before the deed is finally done, with the camera often times lingering on their lifeless bodies for moments afterwards. These are some of the greatest battle scenes ever filmed, some of the most meaningful, and it was only 1954!

Can I help you?
Also, it's impossible to not be on the side of the samurai, from the first moment we meet their leader, Kanbe Shimada (Takashi Shimura) who pretty much shines with Morgan Freeman-calibre charm throughout the the film, we immediately put our faith and trust in him to guide the farmers to victory (which he mostly does at the expense of his brethren). After he's shaved his head, rescued the child, and is walking down the road, there's a great shot of the back of his head (as seen by the younger man who asks to be taken on as his disciple) and it's a simple thing but very powerful. He's constantly running his hand over his head as he thinks, considers, or even laughs at things, so it's a clever kind of attention given to the item that in the end, gets the job done (for the most part).

During a senior film seminar my last semester at the U, we were made to attend The Last Samurai (the one starring Tom Cruise). Largely due to the strength of this film, Seven Samurai (Seven *believable* Samurai) I was not able to stomach it and left just before the ending, honestly considering asking for my money back.


Justin Garrett Blum said...

You know, I didn't love this movie when I saw it. I've never felt too compelled to watch it again. I think I liked the idea of it better than I liked the actual film. But I probably owe it another try someday.

Donald said...

Maybe you'd prefer the American remake, The Magnificent Seven. It transposes the story from feudal Japan to the American west. It's pretty great.

Anna said...

i won't lie----it took like 4 attempts to finally get in the proper mood to watch this again. it is really long in parts, and easy to get distracted. I'll definitely check out The Magnificent Seven, I'm sure I'll love it.