Blog Directory CineVerse: Seven at 70: Anyway you slice it, Seven Samurai is a crowning cinematic achievement

Seven at 70: Anyway you slice it, Seven Samurai is a crowning cinematic achievement

Saturday, April 20, 2024

They don’t come more epic or universally loved than Seven Samurai, the classic Japanese film directed by Akira Kurosawa and released in early 1954 by Toho Studios. The setup is straightforward but potent: A small farming village enlists a handful of samurai to defend it from bandits who return every harvest to steal their crops; the samurai, each with their unique skills and personalities, train the peasants and prepare them for the impending attack. But it’s the visual execution of this narrative, coupled with several unforgettable performances and woven with thought-provoking subtexts, that elevates Seven Samurai to the highest ranks of world cinema.

To listen to a recording of our CineVerse group discussion of Seven Samurai, conducted earlier this month, click here. To hear the current Cineversary episode celebrating the 70th anniversary of Seven Samurai, click here.

Seven Samurai remains an evergreen picture and an eternally rewarding watch for several reasons, most of all because it’s a streamlined story that’s easily understood and can be appreciated universally. There’s a reason why this yarn continues to be remade by newer filmmakers: Because it continually appeals and satisfies across any language or cultural boundary and can be freshly adapted to many different genres, too, from westerns to science-fiction to anime to a Pixar family film. It’s nearly impossible not to become immediately captivated by the premise and central conflict, the plight of the farmers, and the camaraderie and respect between the samurai.

Yes, this is a long film that requires patience—it’s twice the runtime of most features and includes an intermission modern audiences may find archaic—and there are several different characters to keep track of (although really only a handful who are fleshed out enough for heavy dramatic lifting: Kikuchiyo, Kambei, and Katsushiro). But it doesn’t feel bloated, and no shot or scene is superfluous. Kurosawa is working in a long-form epic medium here but he demonstrates such superb skills in his storytelling, character introductions and development, compositions, editing, and action staging/fight choreography that there’s no way this movie can fail or disappoint.

Kurosawa uses the elongated running time to the benefit of the plot and its dramatis personae. The longer length permits us to get much better acquainted with the various farmers and ronin, provides breathing room for subplots like Katsuhiro’s romance with Shino and the reason behind Rikichi’s anger, and builds tension as we wait for the passing of the seasons and the inevitable return of the bandits. “Seven Samurai unrolls naturally and pleasurably, like a beautiful scroll or valuable rug, luxuriating in its elongation—it takes an entire hour just for the basic task of choosing the titular seven. Rather than try to ignore time, the film emphasizes its passage, underlining key scenes with a quiet but insistent drumbeat that could almost be a clock ticking off the inexorable seconds,” reflects critic Kenneth Turan.

The characters are audience-accessible, often given interesting personalities, intriguing backstories, or relatable motivations that help the viewer better understand and root for them. Critic James Berardinelli wrote: “An average samurai film focuses on a sword-wielding, superhero-type individual who battles his way through the story, often triumphing over a seemingly overwhelming host of foes. Seven Samurai offers us flawed protagonists, some of whom are not skilled fighters, and one of whom is often drunk, belligerent, and decidedly non-heroic in his approach.”

We think of Seven Samurai as an action drama. But it actually wields elements of many different genres, including romance, tragedy, and comedy. It’s a funnier film than you probably remember, consistently infusing humor across its 3½-hour story and adding a counterbalance of levity to the serious, somber, and suspenseful moments that predominate. The result? A more well-rounded entertainment emotionally. So many memorable lines hit the funny bone, like “Find hungry samurai, “Give your wives plenty of lovin' tonight, you hear?”, “Does any of you have a cute sister?” “Take a good look at your daughter – I mean your son,” and “You fool! Damn you! You call yourself a horse! For shame! Hey! Wait! Please! I apologize! Forgive me!” Mifune delivers an inspired performance with a range of emotions as Kikuchiyo, who provides needed comic relief in a film that otherwise could have suffered from solemnity.

Likewise, Mifune expresses an impressive dramatic range here and, despite his buffoonish behavior, lack of battle experience, vainglorious ambitions, and poor tactical choices that result in the deaths of others, demonstrates exceptional heroism. His impassioned monologue addressing the samurai is particularly moving, offering a counterargument to an emotionally and morally complicated situation where the audience and the samurai feel skeptical about the farmers. “There’s no creature on earth as wily as a farmer! Ask 'em for rice, barley, anything, and all they ever say is ‘We're out’…They kowtow and lie, playing innocent the whole time. You name it, they'll cheat you on it. After a battle, they’ll hunt down the losers with their spears. Farmers are misers, weasels, and crybabies! They're mean, stupid murderers!...But tell me this: who turned 'em into such monsters?...You samurai did! Damn you to hell! In war, you burn their villages, trample their fields, steal their food, work them like slaves, rape their women, and kill 'em if they resist…What the hell are farmers supposed to do!

It checks so many satisfying “all-time great” boxes and remains at or near the top of many “best movie” lists. It could be the best war film of all time. It’s a ripping adventure and a cinematic epic. Many consider it Kurosawa’s supreme work and the greatest Japanese film ever. And it has inspired almost too many filmmakers and later movies to count.

Among the Sight and Sound polls across the decades, Seven Samurai has ranked #3 in the 1982 critics poll, #9 in the 1992 and 2002 directors polls, #17 in the 2012 Sound critics poll, and #20 in the 2022 critics poll. Japan’s oldest film magazine Kinema Junpo voted it the best Japanese film ever made in 2009 and 1999. It earns the top slot in the 2018 BBC Culture poll of the 100 greatest foreign language films. And it placed tops in Empire Magazine’s 100 Best Films of World Cinema (2010).

Reflect for a moment that this is the film primarily responsible for introducing the Japanese samurai character into Western pop culture in the 20th century. A plethora of samurai films and chanbara (meaning “sword fighting”) movies were produced in Japan and across the world following Seven Samurai.

Additionally, Seven Samurai has been reinterpreted cinematically numerous times, which speaks to its timeless qualities and ubiquitousness as a classic film text. Among the remakes are The Magnificent Seven from 1960 and 2016, Kill a Dragon (1967), The Invincible Six (1970), Sholay (a Bollywood film) (1975), Duel of the Seven Tigers (1979), Battle Beyond the Stars (1980), The Seven Magnificent Gladiators (1983), Seven Warriors (1989), A Bug’s Life (1998), China Gate (1998), the Japanese anime series Samurai 7 (2004), and The Magnificent Eleven (2013). It has also been credited with influencing later Hollywood and spaghetti Westerns, from Once Upon a Time in the West to The Wild Bunch and The Last of the Mohicans.

Seven Samurai is one of the first movies to employ the plot device of enlisting and gathering heroes into a group to accomplish a mission, used in countless later films like The Great Escape, The Dirty Dozen, The Guns of Navarone, The Blues Brothers, Ocean’s Eleven and its sequels, Inglorious Basterds, and Justice League. Consider, too, how each of the seven samurai is separately introduced and given their own initial spotlight; it’s been argued that Seven Samurai started this trend. It’s also among the first films to use the action/adventure device of introducing a main protagonist in a dangerous side plot that isn’t related to the later main plot (think Raiders of the Lost Ark years later).

But the plaudits don’t stop there. We can also thank Seven Samurai’s climactic concluding battle scene in the rain and mud for inspiring so many similar sequences in films to come, including Chimes at Midnight, The Two Towers, Matrix Revolutions, John Wick, and countless others. Per the BFI: “Endlessly influential, the scene contrasts the insistent downward motion of the rain with the sideways movements of the bandits in a highly organized visual scheme which is paradoxically both frenzied and formal.”

Perhaps an argument can be made that the international success of Seven Samurai, with its extended runtime, encouraged Hollywood filmmakers to expand their canvases and create longer, more ambitious pictures, as evidenced by the lengthy epics released over the next several years, including The Ten Commandments, Spartacus, Bridge on the River Kwai, Ben-Hur, Lawrence of Arabia, and Cleopatra. According to Kenneth Turan, Seven Samurai was the longest hit movie since Gone With the Wind (three hours, 58 minutes) 15 years earlier.

What’s also distinctive and perhaps innovative is that most of the character deaths are not glorified or exaggerated; some kills are depicted in stylized slow-motion, but no death is protracted or sentimentalized for dramatic emotional effect (although we do see the samurai mourn certain deaths, as when Katsushiro weeps at the shooting of Kyuzo). Deep Focus Review author Brian Eggert postulated: “In each case, death is clumsy and unforgiving and unsophisticated…Capturing the battle from numerous angles did not aestheticize his violence into graceful interplays of warrior and bandit, however; we feel each death, as Kurosawa remains dedicated to realism on all fronts.

This picture reveals much about its director. Kurosawa repeats patterns and symbols throughout Seven Samurai, with one common motif being circles, represented by groups that form in circular shapes and the round symbols on the flag signifying six of the samurai. The triangle on the flag stands for Kikuchyo, who aspires to be a circle but falls on the spectrum between farmer and samurai. The director also favors different shots of people grouped together; when a single individual is featured alone in a shot, it is often meant to suggest his or her detachment or emotional distance from the group he or she is compared to.

Perform a shot-by-shot analysis of Seven Samurai and you’ll notice the evident artistry and craftsmanship of a master filmmaker at work. Kurosawa often uses wide-angle, deep-focus lenses that compress foreground, middle ground, and background nicely into the same shot and which show action on all three planes that are in focus at all times—aiding in his epic visual scope. He also employs multiple cameras to show different angles, which was beneficial when editing together the magnificent action sequences. Notice film speed fluctuations, which sometimes occur within the same shot, such as the slow-motion death of the swordsman who challenges Kyûzô; this technique has been widely imitated by other filmmakers, from Arthur Penn to Sam Peckinpah to Sergio Leone. And observe how Kurosawa’s camera can, within the same continuous shot, pan in one direction to follow a character or group, and then suddenly pan in the opposite direction to keep pace with one or more new figures who have entered the frame. This crisscrossing movement ties into the film’s themes of human duality and contrasting forces.

Close-ups are used sparingly, with the director often preferring single uninterrupted medium or long shots to paint a broader canvas of heroes, villains, and conflict. Critic James Berardinelli noted that Kurosawa frames as many of the seven samurai within the same shot as he can as often as possible. Marvel, as well, at the tight and seamless editing, as well, and the masterful action choreography shots that are cut together perfectly. Note how Kurosawa preferred wipes as transitions between scenes, denoting the passing of time. The combination of these approaches, especially the careful framing of shots and juxtaposition of differing compositions via clever editing, raises Seven Samurai above standard action entertainment. Senses of Cinema essayist Patrick Crogan wrote: “Kurosawa’s dynamic camera, tracking fast-moving warriors and sweeping across battle scenes, is counterposed with static and close-up shots. Long takes are opposed to rapidly cut sequences from a number of camera angles. Like Eisenstein (another great action filmmaker), Kurosawa’s editing and camera direction work together to create spectacular visual impacts and elicit complex combinations of emotions and thoughts in the spectator.

Roger Ebert was equally enamored of the director’s talents. “Nobody could photograph men in action better than Kurosawa,” he opined. “One of his particular trademarks is the use of human tides, sweeping down from higher places to lower ones, and he loves to devise shots in which the camera follows the rush and flow of an action, instead of cutting it up into separate shots.”

One of the central theses of Seven Samurai is performing according to or in defiance of social roles and class structure. The film examines the extent to which our identity is predestined or predetermined by society and class and how diligence, determination, and fearlessness can help you break through these barriers, as demonstrated by Kikuchiyo ultimately meriting the rank of samurai, although he loses his life in the process.

Kikuchiyo is a surrogate for the audience, representing a common person who aspires to be something greater than he is, yet flawed and imperfect; he’s capable of showing a range of emotions, from anger to humor to impudence. He also embodies rebellion against social conventions and customs. Kikuchiyo is the fulcrum between the peasants and the samurai, exhibiting traits representational of each side and possibly being the most relatable and well-rounded character in the entire story. The fact that this farmer’s son transforms into a valorous samurai by the end of the story demonstrates that bushido, the honorable code of ethics by which a samurai lives, has less to do with class and social standing than personal character and integrity.

Why do the samurai take this job for virtually no pay? The same reason the bandits continue to attack even though they know the village is well-defended: They perform the duties they’ve been ascribed by their social caste. Yet this is a story about breaking with tradition. The peasants are forced to veer from their assumed path in life by fighting back; the samurai choose to break from their predicted pattern and defend the farmers despite not being fairly compensated; these two separate classes must deviate from the norm and work together as one to defeat the bandits.

The film also underscores the dangers and downsides of class division: farmers are forced to hire and also kill samurai; a peasant daughter and samurai must never mix or the girl loses her honor; and Kikuchiyo must conceal the shameful fact that he was the son of a farmer. Ironies about class division abound in Seven Samurai. The farmers, dependent on the seven ronin, have killed samurai in the past, and though the bandits are eventually defeated, the samurai have “lost”; the farmers prevail, but now they don’t want any armed samurai around because they represent a threat to their established order.

Another crucial message? The role of the individual in society. Before the film was made, Japan was occupied by Allied forces for several years; once the occupiers left, the country suffered a bit of an identity crisis. Traditions of rigid honor and duty and cultural precepts that view the individual as a cog in the machinery of society led them down the path to ruin in World War II. Westerners infused the notion of the value of the individual, which clashed with longstanding socialistic beliefs in each person’s duty to serve collective society.

Beginning with Seven Samurai, Kurosawa’s films increasingly emphasized a more flexible humanism ethos and an emphasis on individuality that was characteristic of Western culture. This film demonstrates the struggle between those two ideologies: Japanese traditionalism vs. Western modernism. It also examines the negative repercussions and ultimate futility of the previously dominant inflexible Japanese ethic of acting on social obligations and performing according to social expectations.

But while Seven Samurai values the role of the individual, it also stresses the importance of coordinated communal action. Kambei proves that only by cooperating constructively as a disciplined team with assigned roles can the samurai and the farmers defeat their adversaries. The samurai carefully train the peasants and enforce strict rules designed to prevent anyone from going rogue, abandoning their post, or behaving selfishly at the expense of the entire village. Ultimately, it is this well-organized collectivism and adherence to sound tactical strategy that ensures victory, although not everything goes according to plan and the group suffers more losses than expected.

Kambei’s defensive strategizing and military maneuvers comprise one of the fascinating facets of Seven Samurai. Among his pearls of wisdom: “This is the nature of war: By protecting others, you save yourself. If you only think of yourself, you will destroy yourself”; “Every great castle needs a breach. Draw the enemy there and attack. You can’t win by defense alone”; and “There’s nothing heroic about selfishly grabbing for glory. Listen to me: War is not fought alone.” Kambei is a brilliant military tactician who favors a war of attrition. He gates off one village access point and floods another; leads an ambush on bandits in their lair to lessen their numbers; concentrates his forces around the majority of the homes at the expense of three vulnerable huts on the outskirts; initially allows one bandit into the village at a time so they can more easily kill their foes and systematically improve their odds; and, for the last battle, realizing his group’s limitations and dwindling stamina, permits all 13 final bandits inside the perimeter, saying it’s “better we fight it out till we’re spent.”

Another evident thematic takeaway is that war plays no favorites. Four of the seven ronin meet their demise following the conflict, including master swordsman Kyuzo (who, like Legolas in The Lord of the Rings films, serves as a superhero-like sidekick) and reckless but brave Kikuchiyo; the least experienced, Katsushiro, somehow survives, as does Kambei, the leader. Seven Samurai teaches us that violence and battle beget casualties, often unfairly and randomly.

The multi-natured complexity of human beings is under Kurosawa’s microscope, too. On its surface, Seven Samurai is a black-and-white morality tale about good versus evil, but this is an inaccurate characterization upon further scrutiny because there are many shades of gray at play. Kikuchiyo’s scolding of the samurai for their hypocritical views on the farmers reveals that there are two sides to every story and a duality within human nature that can seesaw between selflessness and selfishness, between virtue and vice. Katsushiro and Shino’s clandestine affair and one-night stand are denounced by some as immoral and improper but defended by others as a gesture of young love in a time of duress. Kikuchiyo leaves his post to steal a firearm – a brave yet irresponsible act that results in one less bandit but likely leads to several farmer deaths, including Yohei’s, because Kikuchiyo abandoned his post. And Rikichi, although deserving of our sympathies due to the abduction and eventual suicide of his wife, harbors an unexpressed rage (recall how Heihachi tries in vain to get Rickichi to talk about what’s bothering him) and expresses a bloodlust for torturous violence upon a captured enemy who begs for his life; but it’s not Rikichi who metes out the vengeance – the supposedly feeble and helpless old woman villager kills that bandit. These and other examples show how both the peasants and the samurai are capable of positive and negative acts.

Lastly, the ending of the film suggests a thematic changing of the guard. Kambei’s cryptic final lines reveal much: “In the end, we lost this battle too. The victory belongs to those peasants, not to us.” We see the three surviving samurai now physically distant from the villagers they defended and preparing to depart to an unknown future. This detached trio, with their concerned facial expressions and resigned body language, contrasts with the communal throng harvesting and singing happily in unison. The victory has made the samurai obsolete, and now they stand as an unspoken threat to the peaceful social order established by the farmers. Their assumed obsolescence means the peasants no longer have to fear the samurai’s oppositional force, the bandits. Flush with confidence and having earned experience from their triumph, the farmers can hopefully defend themselves from external threats going forward. This signifies hope that civilization is progressing into a new era, yet the tone at the conclusion of the film is elegiac as framed from the perspective of the departing samurai.

Seven Samurai’s most generous gift to birthday wishers on its 70th anniversary is also its greatest strength: its universality. It’s an ever-vibrant, easily comprehensible text that translates effortlessly across languages, cultures, and eras. It’s little surprise that this tale has been adapted so many times across the decades in several different countries and can be flexed to fit multiple genres. Yet, despite the simplicity and malleability of its narrative, the wealth of captivating characters and complex moral themes keep us enthralled whenever we revisit the movie. The broad brushstrokes continue to pop on this cinematic canvas – including the memorable character introductions, enthralling battle planning scenes, immersive combat sequences, and satisfying subplots involving Katsushiro and Rikichi. But the smaller fine touches matter, too: from the endearing way Kanbe rubs the stubbly crown of his head and the sheepish manner Kikuchiyo scratches the side of his face, to the actors’ breath vapors reminding us of the cold shooting conditions, to the gleeful shouts of the children who comprise Kikuchiyo’s fan club, to the fury with which the wind whips against Heihachi’s flag—a stalwart banner that, like the heroes represented in its markings, defies the elements and rouses the spirit through its elevated presence. Seven Samurai is many kinds of master paintings in one: a deep focus landscape, a portrait in triplicate, a still life of sorts depicting a restless group awaiting its enemies, and a real life capturing vivid action across multiple planes and perspectives. Among the esteemed gallery of Kurosawa works, this is the piece de resistance that occupies an entire wall within its own well-visited wing of the museum.

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