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Jason Toews and fifi (the band)

Seven Samurai

Director: Akira Kurosawa
Country: Japan
Year: 1954

“…it could be argued that this greatest of filmmakers gave employment to action heroes for the next 50 years, just as a fallout from his primary purpose. That purpose was to make a samurai movie that was anchored in ancient Japanese culture and yet argued for a flexible humanism in place of rigid traditions.”
Roger Ebert

“Seven Samurai joins technical bravado (slow-motion, multiple-camera shooting, lightning-quick pans, kinetic editing) with a human – not superhuman – portrait of the samurai class: greedy, charitable, vainglorious, honorable, contemptuous.”
Janus essay

“…from a simple story (in 16th-century Japan, seven out-of-work samurai defend a farming village from bandits without reward and at the cost of four of their lives) of immense resonance (the samurai stand for a fading tradition of personal honor; the farmers will survive into a diminished future), Kurosawa has crafted a highly legible entertainment.”
Chris Fujiwara

“Japanese films all tend to be rather bland in flavor, like green tea over rice. I think we ought to have richer foods, and richer films. So I thought I would make this kind of film entertaining enough to eat.”
Akira Kurosawa

“…it is much too long for comfort or for the story it has to tell.”
Bosley Crowther

Background

HISTORY

Seven Samurai takes place in Japan, near the end of the sixteenth century, during what historians call the Sengoku (or “Warring States”) Period. According to Wikipedia, this was a “time of social upheaval, political intrigue, and nearly constant military conflict.”

During the four centuries preceding this period, the emperor had been reduced to a figurehead and Japan was ruled by a succession of shogun (commanders of the Imperial Army). Periodically, an ascendant shogunate clan would attempt to overthrow the existing shogunate clan, and the country would again be plunged into violence. By the sixteenth century, Japan was in a more or less perpetual state of civil war.

Most of the hand-to-hand combat was handled by members of the samurai caste, highly-skilled warriors, who owed fealty to the daimyo (warlords). When a daimyo was killed (or, less frequently, overthrown via some method that did not involve beheading), the samurai found themselves unemployed. Masterless samurai, or ronin, wandered the country, offering their killing services for whatever local conflict happened to be brewing. Some ronin became bandits. From the Criterion essay by Philip Kemp: “To the farmers whose crops were pillaged, houses burned, womenfolk raped or abducted, the distinction between samurai warriors and bandit troupes became all but meaningless.”

Farmers, as usual, got the shit end of the deal. As one character exclaims in this week’s film: “Land tax, forced labor, war, drought… The gods want us farmers dead!”

Which would seem to be true, if gods existed, which they do not. (Eric? Jamie? Anyone?)

THE FILM

Kurosawa had intended to make a film depicting one day in the life of a samurai, starting with his morning coffee and ending with a katana to the lower abdomen, but he could never shape this idea into a suitable script. During the research phase of the project, however, he came across the compelling (and possibly apocryphal) tale of a rural farming village who hired seven samurai to defend their town against marauding bandits.

To craft the script based on this legend, Kurosawa holed up for six weeks with co-writers Shinobu Hashimoto and Hideo Oguni. Visitors and even phone calls were strictly forbidden. Preproduction stretched on for three months, as Kurosawa wrote a thorough dossier for each character with a speaking role, including such details as their favorite foods. The 148 days of shooting – four times the amount originally scheduled – took one year to complete. Toho studios were producing Gojira at the same time, which also ran over budget. The combination of these two unwieldy epics nearly bankrupted the studio, and Kurosawa had to repeatedly beg the forbearance of studio executives, who were convinced they were financing a flop.

By the time of its release, Seven Samurai was the most expensive Japanese film ever made. It went on to become the highest-grossing Japanese film, and remains one of the most widely-seen and highly-rated.

LEGACY

There are several plot elements that seem to originate with Seven Samurai, including the “audition” of various colorful characters to accomplish a mission, and the introduction of a heroic character by having him bravely resolve some crisis unrelated to the later plot. Try to spot the others!

The “wipe” transition effects were most famously copped by George Lucas in the Star Wars films.

Yoda rubbing his fuzzy head was apparently an homage to Kambei’s similar habit in Seven Samurai.

Not to mention: The Magnificent Seven, Battle Beyond the Stars, The Wild Bunch, Samurai 7, A Bug’s Life, etc.

Synopsis

I love how the calligraphic white-on-black titles are all placed off-kilter. Kettle drums keep a martial beat in the background.

“During the Civil Wars, an endless cycle of conflict left the countryside overrun by bandits. Peaceable folk lived in terror of the thunder of approaching hooves…”

We open on a hillside at dawn (or dusk; it’s hard to tell). The previously-mentioned thunder of approaching hooves grows in volume, until… a group of bandits charges over the hill!

They stop on the trail leading to a tiny village for a brief conference: Take the village or not?

The “take the village!” contingent is vocal, but they are eventually overruled when someone remembers that they just pillaged that town a few weeks ago! The bandits therefore decide to come back in a couple of months, when the barley is ripe.

Luckily for the village, an old guy gathering wood overheard this conversation, and he can now warn his neighbors.

Predictably, the town meeting does not go well.

“Is there no god to protect us?” wails one woman, and no answer is forthcoming, because there is no god.

“We’re better off dead!” exclaims another man.

Someone suggests calling the local Magistrate, but this suggestion is met with derision. “911 Is A Joke, y’all!” someone responds, or words to that effect.

“Never Again!” shouts Angry Young Guy. “These Colors Don’t Run!”

The Mayor, or someone who acts like a Mayor, points out that they have absolutely no chance of defeating the bandits in combat. And when they (inevitably) fail, the recriminations will be severe: “They’ll slaughter us all, down to the last unborn child.” Mayor-guy has a much better idea: Give the bandits everything they ask for, and then beg them to spare our lives!

Sounds reasonable to me, but Angry Young Guy points out that this is exactly what the European nations did when they tried to appease Hitler by letting him take Czechoslovakia, and look at how that turned out! Actually, this story takes place in 1587 or so, so he didn’t actually reference Hitler, but if I were there, that’s the argument I would make.

The meeting ends without a clear plan of action, so everyone decides to travel out to the Old Mill and seek the advice of the Old Man.

After listening to arguments from both sides, Old Man issues his verdict: “We fight.”

A plan is hatched to hire samurai to defend the village, but how to pay them? Again, Old Man has the answer: “Find hungry samurai.”

And thus the plot is set into motion…

A group of villagers (men, of course) are dispatched to the nearest “big city” to hire some hungry samurai, but they fail to find any samurai hungry enough to risk their lives for rice gruel. Worse, a bully takes their rice and then kicks their asses.

While staying at the sixteenth-century Japan version of a Travelodge, despairing over the impending sacking of their home town, the luck of the villagers takes an unexpected turn for the better. A hostage situation develops: A thief is holed up in a barn with a seven-year-old kid! A silent, poker-faced samurai (played by Ikiru’s Takashi Shimura) offers to handle the situation for two bowls of rice. The rice is delivered, the samurai (whose name is Kambei Shimada) disguises himself as a monk…

…the thief is quickly dispatched (read: disemboweled by a razor-sharp samurai katana), and the squalling brat is rescued.

The villagers, awed by the samurai’s graceful, efficient killing style and his apparent willingness to work for rice, follow him out of town. Also following: Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune), who wants to fight Kambei, and a greenhorn samurai, Katsushiro, who wants to be Kambei’s disciple.

The villagers work up their courage and approach Kambei with their problem.

“You need at least four men, one to guard each side,” muses Kambei, strategizing. “Two more to guard the rear. No matter how frugal our estimate, we need (ed. note: wait for it…) seven, including me.”

Seven, did you hear that? Seven Samurai!

In a sequence that must be the inspiration for every audition montage you’ve ever seen, the remaining samurai are introduced, interviewed and hired.

Soon, it is time to depart for the village, but only Six of the Seven Samurai have been recruited. At the proverbial Eleventh Hour, Toshiru Mifune stumbles in drunk and raving. He is hired on the spot.

Not really. Actually, the Six Samurai mock him mercilessly and leave him passed out in a stable. But come on – it’s Toshiro Mifune, people! We all know he’ll be back later in the film.

Back in the village, the residents are starting to worry about the imminent arrival of the Six Samurai. Manzo demands that his beautiful daughter cut her long hair: “There’s no telling what those samurai will do!”

The Six Samurai travel through the countryside, drawing ever closer to the beleaguered village. Kikuchiyo (which is a girl’s name, BTW) follows at a safe distance.

He’s a bit of an ass, but he’s got mad fishing skillz:

The Six Samurai become almost fond of his childlike capering.

They cross the final hill, and see the village below. “There’s no way I’m dying on that dungheap,” exclaims Kikuchiyo. The Six Samurai (plus Kikuchiyo, still on probation) enter the village square, and are greeted by… nobody.

The villagers are cowering in their huts, afraid to come out. “All they know is fear,” explains the Old Man. But then… the alarm is sounded! Which means that the bandits are approaching! The villagers rush into the square in a panic, but of course it was only Kikuchiyo, teaching them a lesson.

After scolding the townspeople for being such inhospitable scaredy-pants, Kikuchiyo is finally officially accepted as one of the Seven Samurai (although only Six are pictured in the image below).

Now the Seven begin planning. “How would you attack this village?” asks Kambei, looking at a hand-drawn map.

While Kambei, Katsushiro, and… um, one of the other Samurai whose name I have forgotten, devise a defensive strategy, the rest of the Samurai begin whipping the townsfolk into shape. “Nothing forces you to run like a battle!” one shouts to his panting students. “When you stop running, you die!”

Katsushiro, the greenhorn Samurai, seems to be more interested in picking flowers. He threatens to beat up a young man who is also picking flowers, but the young man turns out to be a young woman. Hilarity ensues.

A moral crisis arises when Kikuchiyo uncovers a stash of armor and weapons taken from the bodies of defeated soldiers. “Now I want to kill them all,” one of the Seven mutters, but Kikuchiyo is unfazed by this revelation: “What did ya think these farmers were anyway? Buddhas or something? Don’t make me laugh! …Farmers are misers, weasels and crybabies! They’re mean, stupid murderers! …Who turned them into such monsters? You did! You samurai did!”

Ouch.

Whiling away the days before the bandit attack, one samurai practices his sword handling in the forest, and one creates a flag for them to raise in battle: six circles and one triangle. “That stands for Lord Kikuchiyo,” he explains.

Katsushiro woos the village girl with the boyish haircut.

Plans are made to harvest the barley as quickly as possible, after which the fields will be flooded. Those living on the other side of the river – including the Old Man – are told to abandon their homes and move into the center of town. Of course, they balk at this demand, but Kambei scolds them: “This is the nature of war: …If you only think of yourself, you’ll only destroy yourself.”

INTERMISSION

The barley is ripe, and all of the village women come out of hiding to help with the harvest. Kikuchiyo tries to make a deal with one of the local hotties: “I’ll cut three times your share. In return, we get nice and friendly, eh?”

Finally, the dreaded day arrives, and scouts appear outside the village. Before the other samurai have a chance to tell Kikuchiyo to shut his yap, he gives away them away. The samurai are forced to kill the scouts to prevent them from reporting back to Bandit HQ. They keep one alive for a while, though, and pry some information out of him a la Jack Bauer.

Armed with the extracted info, three samurai (and one villager as a guide) make a daring dawn raid on Bandit HQ. After setting the bandit’s stylish A-Frame Bi-Level on fire, they cut down every male that tries to escape. One samurai is lost during the raid: The jovial Heihachi.

During the funeral, the remaining bandits arrive to sack the town. Kikuchiyo plants the flag, and the battle is on!

20 bandits from the south, 13 from the north – 3 with muskets! “Use your balls, if you’ve got any!” Kikuchiyo screams at his ragtag troops. Old Man is in the mill, where he is determined to die. His son-in-law mounts a rescue mission… which fails. To boost sagging morale, the samurai have their troops compete in battle-cry loudness contests. The bandits burn down the three houses beyond the river, just as predicted. Kikuchiyo rescues a baby and cries out in anguish: “This baby is me! This is exactly what happened to me!”

Night falls, and the bandits attack relentlessly. Under the direction of the samurai, and with the aid of the pointy fences, moats, and spears, the townspeople manage to repel them. There is a lull, and Kambei crosses seven circles off his bandit checklist. All samurai and soldiers gather at a breach in the wall, where Kambei predicts the next attack will come.

Kyuzo, the ghosty super-samurai, sneaks into the enemy camp and comes back with one of the muskets. “Two more down,” he says tersely, before lowering his head for a quick catnap.

It is morning, and the predicted attack comes. A few bandits are allowed to enter the village, wherein they are summarily hacked to bits. When the skirmish is over, Kambei counts four more bandits down, bringing the total to thirteen (or so). Plus, it turns out that some of the less-committed bandits are turning tail and then getting shot by the Bandit Commander. Kikuchiyo manages to snag a second musket from the enemy…

…but leaves his post to do it, which precipitates a disaster: Several bandits make it into the village! By the end of the following battle, seven more bandits are dead, but so are several villagers and at least one samurai: Gorobei.

“Next time they come, we fight to the finish,” says Kambei, exhausted and discouraged. “It’s better we fight it out before we’re spent.”

The men are allowed to visit their families, one at a time. Kikuchiyo is despondent over the deaths caused by his (heroic) foolishness. Katsushiro spends the night with his girlfriend, which makes her father angry. The townies, grateful to the samurai and fearing that tonight may be their last, present Kambei with gifts of (previously-hidden) sake and other delicacies.

Dawn breaks. Kikuchiyo unsheathes five separate swords and sticks them in the mud at his side. “I can’t kill five of them with just one blade,” he explains. In a torrential rain, the bandits attack, and the final battle begins.

The bandits that do make it into the village are dragged from their horses and slaughtered in the mud. Kambei takes a vantage position and picks off bandits with bow and arrow.

Kikuchiyo slashes, rages, and flails like an animal. The leader of the bandits is in a hut with the women, firing his musket.

Kyuzo goes down, then Kikuchiyo. Gut-shot, he nevertheless crawls into the hut and kills the leader of the bandits before dying in the rain.

The battle is over; all of the bandits are dead. Only Three of the Seven Samurai remain alive. “Once more, we survive,” says Kambei, surveying the human wreckage.

Now the sun is shining, and it’s time for the next harvest.

The threat having passed, the townspeople no longer want the samurai hanging around, so the three survivors prepare to leave.

They walk out of the village, past the freshly-dug graves of their comrades. Each grave bears a simple marker: The samurai’s sword stuck into the earth.

What I Liked

Seriously, what is not to love? The black-and-white cinematography is gorgeous and awe-inspiring, whether floating nimbly through the dense forest, illuminating multiple planes of action in deep focus, or capturing every grunt and slash of a chaotic swordfight in the rain.

Takashi Shimura (miles away from his performance as the beleaguered bureaucrat in Ikiru) is riveting as Kambei, the leader of the samurai. His affection for his fellow samurai, his irritation with – and simultaneous dedication to – the farmers, his steely resolve during the battle, are all believable. Shimura’s eyes eloquently convey bone-weariness, intense focus, profound sadness and occasional, twinkling joy. When the movie was over, Kambei was the character I missed the most; I wanted to follow him out of that village and just hang out with him.

The battle scenes are genuinely thrilling without being overlong or gratuitously violent.

Kurosawa’s mastery of storytelling is on full display here – characters are skillfully introduced, the stakes are immediately made clear, the plan for defending the town actually makes sense. Despite the fact that it’s over three hours long, Seven Samurai never feels padded or self-indulgent; every scene propels us forward, everything that happens builds logically on the character quirks and the events set spinning in earlier scenes.

Above all, this is what I loved about this week’s film: it’s a ripping yarn, filled with juicy characters, told skillfully. Simply put, Seven Samurai is one of the finest action/adventure films ever made, and it’s a whole lot of goddamn fun.

What I Didn’t Like So Much

I think I mentioned the female hysterics in my review of Rashomon, and the same applies here. Seven Samurai is unabashedly a male-dominated film. Given the plot and the historical period, that’s understandable. What IS problematic – not to mention hard on my ears – is that the only female character spends the bulk of the film shrieking and wailing. I literally (and I do mean literally) cringed every time she came on screen.

Four of the samurai – Kambei, Kyuzo, Katsushiro, and Kikuchiyo – were well-drawn characters, and I became attached to them over the course of the film. But there are three others – Gorōbei, Shichirōji, and Heihachi – who were less vivid. This is a case where I think an already-long film would actually benefit by increasing its length; there simply wasn’t enough time to adequately develop each of the Seven Samurai.

Should You See It?

Better question: Why the hell haven’t you seen it already?

Next: The Seventh Seal

One Comment

  1. “The Seven Samurai” – wow. For years I have studiously avoided classic films from classic genres. Not so much by choice but by feeling like I really can’t give them their “due.” If I’ve got 2 hours to spare one evening, do I really want to sit down with Eisenstein’s “Battleship Potemkin” or open my son’s eyes to the classic “Aliens?” Do I want to spend 3 hours watching “Birth of a Nation” or a double feature of both “Mad Max” and “Road Warrior?” I think you know to where my tastes lean. Still, though, being a student of film you’d think I’d pony up enough time or energy to sit my fat ass down and watch what is, undoubtedly, one of the greatest Westerns of all time. This Janus project allowed me to do that.

    Full disclosure: As with most of the films in this collection, I watch them in chunks on a 7” DVD player. I will admit this is not the ideal way of watching classic films – but it’s the only way in my busy schedule to get this done. Feel free to point fingers, make comments behind my back, disregard my feeble attempts at discussion/commentary. I’ll take it. And, of course, with “TSS” running at 3.5 hours in length – this was going to be no exception. Granted, I can tell you straight up that I actually looked FORWARD to watching this as opposed to “Richard III” which I despised from the moment Larry Olivier glared at me from my Mintek.

    Here’s, though, where this changed. I LOVED this movie. LOVED IT. The moment I shut off the DVD player an hour in…I couldn’t wait to turn the DVD player back on. Even in chunks, the 3.5 hours played like a 90 minute long film. I was pulled in from the opening scenes to the end of the film and I honestly do not think the film had a miss-step in it (oh, sure, I could have probably done without the love story) but the film is AMAZING.

    Story? As I’ve said numerous times in these reviews…the story is a simple one. A small town in Japan has been terrorized by a gang of evil Samurai. You know they’re evil because the head guy has an eye patch. When they decide to ransack a village they had ransacked just a few months prior, they have a change of heart and decide to come back in a few months when the crops will be in. Overheard by a villager the members of the village decide they need to be protected. So they hire 7 Samurai to protect them. Their pay? Food. That’s all the village can give them.

    The Seven Samurai (including a youngster – a Samurai wannabe) show up and whip the town into shape. Teach the men to fight, teach the women to hide, flood the fields, abandon the outlaying homes and mill, and thus prepare themselves for battle.

    When battle eventually comes (as they all do in these films) some are heroes, some are cowards, some are winners and some are losers. To tell more than this would give away too much of the joy of this film. But I’ll tell you there’s a badass Samurai in this film that, every time he was on screen, I was in cinematic nirvana heaven. He could just SIT THERE and I was entranced. When he returns with a rifle from the enemy – it is a brilliant moment.

    There is so much to like in this film that I could go on for days – but I will just mention one thing in particular… Kurosawa had balls, BALLS for setting the climax during a RAIN STORM! Amazing piece of work.

    WHAT I LIKED:

    Golly, darn near EVERYTHING. Including, though I didn’t mention it above, the amount of HUMOR in the film. It is even quite funny but, hey, stop reading this and see the movie now.

    WHAT I DISLIKED:

    There were moments where the acting was so over the top I’m surprised it didn’t come back around and smack itself in the head.

    I could have done without the love story – it was a tad distracting and ground the film to a halt. But it wasn’t over done and didn’t take up too much of the 3.5 hours.

    I realize that it’s probably impossible in a film like this, but it’s another film where all the dialogue and sound was added in post production. Sometimes I found it a bit distracting (like the sound effect of horses hooves was a bit “off”) but these are minor, MINOR quibbles.

    BOTTOM LINE:

    Said it before, I’ll say it again: SEE THIS MOVIE! NOW!

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