Retro Reviews – Seven Samurai

*Originally written in 2003

Adventures and Quests: Seven Samurai (1954) | Detroit Institute of Arts  Museum

Kurosawa’s most famous film, and arguably the most famous film ever to come out of Japan over 50 years after its release. Endlessly influential, often touted as the first action movie, and full of rich cinematography, brilliantly constructed set-pieces, humour, sorrow, and some timeless characters portrayed by excellent performances. The Seven Samurai is still seen today by fans and critics alike as one of the best films ever made, almost flawless in every department and still as appealing and relevant as it was 5 decades ago.

The film begins by telling us that Japan over 400 years ago was a place of fighting and poverty, with Samurai and bandits wandering the countryside, some with honour, some stealing from the poor. We meet a group of 40 bandits who travel from village to village through the year, ransacking and taking whatever they can find. In the past they have murdered farmers, raped their wives and daughters, and taken their livelihood. They decide to raid one village once it is time for the farmers to harvest. A few villagers over-hear this and try to prepare. Some believe they should fight, some say they should plead with the bandits, others say they should just give in as always or they will be killed. Eventually their Patriarch Gisaku says they should hire some help, Samurai who will help them in exchange for food. This seems like an outrageous plan as Samurai are proud, but a small group of farmers led by Rikichi leave with some food to find such Samurai in the hope that their village will be saved, the alternative being worse.

They struggle at first and we see how there is no pity for them, that most people are too busy with their own affairs. Just as they give up hope they witness Kambei, a Samurai performing a selfless deed. They follow him and ask for help. Joining Kambei is a young apprentice Samurai Katsushiro who also saw Kambei’s deed, and following them is a fiery man who claims to be a samurai-Kikuchiyo. Kambei listens to them and eventually agrees, believing they will need a total of seven Samurai. He and Katsushiro make two, and they begin to look for and test others. Kambei’s old friend Schichiroji who he believed was dead arrives making 3. A woodcutting, quirky Samurai called Heihachi joins along with masterful swordsman Kyuzo making 5, and a man nicknamed ‘strongman’ makes 6. They leave for the village, followed by Kikuchiyo who wants to be part of their group even though no-one believes he is a Samurai. He proves himself and makes 7 when the villagers do not come to welcome their rescuers. We see how the Samurai and farmers mix, and we see mistrust and fear. Many emotions come out adding depth so rarely seen in action films. There is a love story, many twists, prejudices and hidden truths. As the bandits approach, the farmers are trained and a plan is made, but there will be many casualties.

As so many books have been written on this film alone I can only offer a summary. Each actor is excellent, with Mifune standing out. Shimura, Miyaguchi, Tsuchiya, and Kimura all give emotive performances and when a character dies or feels sorrow we genuinely grieve with or for them. There is so much going on and so many story lines that we are completely pulled into the lives of each character. Kurosawa’s direction cannot be faulted, and although it is slow at times and the search for Samurai takes up much of the film, we are captivated throughout. The action scenes, groundbreaking for their time still manage to create awe today simply because they are filmed so beautifully. This is an immortal story of winners and losers, of truth and honour, of love in all its guises, and of overcoming personal prejudice which will stay in the mind forever.

Let us know in the comments what you think of Seven Samurai!

TTT – Akira Kurosawa

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Greetings, Glancers! It’s been a while since my last Top Ten Tuesday list, so why not kick it off once more by looking at my 10 favourite films by The Master. Akira Kurosawa is frequently cited by anyone with even a passing interest in cinema as one of the greates directors of all time. His influence is seen in most movies today, from a technical point of view, from a storytelling standpoint, and simply because his sheer bulk of work made the likes of Spielberg, Lucas, Scorsese, Fellini etc start making movies. His working has a lasting impact on Japanese Cinema and Western movie makers have taken his ideas and either remade them or added their own touches. There will be quite a few films not making this list as the quality and breadth of his work is stunning, but this is as good a place to start if you are interested in getting into Kurosawa.

10. Kagemusha

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We start with a latter day Kurosawa epic charting the downfall of one particular clan and their attempts to trick those they are warring with by replacing their dead leader with a thief who happens to look like him. Amidst the massive battle scenes we have the old questions of loyalty and honour coming back again again as the thief first only cares about himself but over time sees himself as a de facto leader and member of the clan. It’s that blending of the personal drama offset against the massive scope of warring armies all shot with Kurosawa’s flawless eye for detail which sets Kagemusha apart from the lay man’s epic.

9. Ran

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Continuing with the epic, perhaps Kurosawa’s biggest and most ambitious film, Ran may be the most beautifully shot piece the director created. In many ways it feels more like a Western movie than any other one Kurosawa shot, with a memorable score, vibrant colours, and a bleak and depressing outlook. A gorgeous film to look at, it is a tough watch due to the fact that almost every character is either ruthlessly self-interested or doomed to a needless death. It’s sad to note that at his age at the time of filming Kurosawa was viewing the world with such futility and fatalism, especially considering the heroism and hope in his previous works.

8. The Hidden Fortress

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A rip-roaring old school action movie with samurai fights, scheming, and plenty of laughs. You have the group journey of four characters, each individually has their own plot and life, and they additionally can be split into groups of two – a road movie without cars or spaceships where the quest for gold and honour clash and combine. Like other films on the list, this is a good one to surprise people with when they believe that old black and white or foreign movies can’t possibly be entertaining.

7. Stray Dog

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On the cusp of greater success, both Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune made this noir detective thriller which stands out for most people as their finest non-Samurai work. Both borrowing from the US hard-boiled works of the 1940s and in turn adding a style which would be later adopted by the West, it is notable for the great rapport and performances of Mifune and Shimura. Both leads basically invent a thousand tropes as the hotshot rookie and weary veteran team up to chase Mifune’s missing gun around Tokyo as it continues to be used in increasingly barbaric crimes. Another wonderfully shot and well-paced movie

6. Sanjuro

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The partner to Yojimbo is perhaps the more entertaining film due its overall lightness. Mifune returns as the ‘unnamed’ Ronin who has a knack for appearing in the right/wrong place and the wrong/right time and using his wiles and considerable sword skills to sort out the rights/wrongs of a town. There is plenty of violent action here and a surprising amount of laughs, at least for me.

5. Rashomon

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The first true masterwork of Kurosawa’s career, this is a small piece utilizing the immense skill of a talented cast and crew. Most of the crew lived together throughout the shoot to create a sense of family and a one direction purpose to make something as good as it could possibly be. With experimental shots and storytelling techniques, an ambiguous plot, superb performances, rain, silence, light, Rashomon is one which continues to impress and is one of those films which all students of film should watch to vastly increase their knowledge and appreciation.

4. Ikiru

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A motivating tale, one of hope and laughs, of the difference between youth and old age and the impact one can have on the other, also a satire of the working life, of bureacracy, and a discussion on the anonymity and powerlessness we can feel being a cog in the wheel – all topped off with the message that we can each make a difference and overcome the odds and the uncaring world.

3. Yojimbo

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The more influential and more fondly remembered partner of Sanjuro sees Kurosawa and Mifune create an action hero archetype which remains to this day – the nameless wanderer, the anti-hero, the loner in search for person glory, the mysterious stranger. Forming the basis for Leone’s A Fistful Of Dollars, Mifune is masterful as the wily, fearless, and skilled unnamed ronin who visits a town under the thrall of two warring clans. He conspires with each group, turning them against each other for his own ends and to rid the innocents caught in the midst of the struggle of these gangsters. Even though Kurosawa was influenced by Western Literature in crafting the story, it is the style, tone, and look of his film which had Western filmmakers trying to emulate – the wide shots featuring a lone warrior in the distance, the wry humour, the lack of dialogue from the main character, the violence both on screen and implied – the dog carrying the severed hands in the opening moments telling us the town’s history without needing to hear about it.

2. Throne Of Blood

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One of Kurosawa’s lesser known films, and one of his most direct adaptations, this retelling of Macbeth remains the creepiest version yet committed to film and is perhaps still the closest at getting to the root of the lust for power and the stain of madness which ruins anyone who comes into contact with it. Again Toshiro Mifune leads the way with perhaps his finest performance as the tortured Taketoki Washizu, together with an absolutely terrifying Izuzu Yamada as his Lady Macbeth. We follow the loose plot of a mysterious force whispering honeyed prophecies into the ear of an ambitious warrior, a scheming wife eager for glory and power coaxing a husband into doing what must never be done, and the inevitable downfall – that sense of inevitability pervades every shot, with fog closing in, with shadows growing and becoming denser, until a rain of arrows courses down. The use of Noh imagery is suitable for the plot and adds another layer of mystery and unease for Western audiences, destined to be haunted by the vision of Yamada’s grinning death-mask like face. The climax is still among the most thrilling in movie history and that last arrow is still brutal and shocking.

1. The Seven Samurai.

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I’ve mentioned elsewhere that I believe that the best films of all time must be a mixture of immediate and long-lasting critical and commercial success, be classed clearly as both entertainment and art, be influential on a number of levels both technical and otherwise, and retain ‘watchability’ for a wide audience over the decades. I’ve said before that I believe the best four films of all time which fit this criteria are Vertigo, The Godfather, Star Wars Episode IV, and The Seven Samurai. Its influence on multiple genres from action to drama is clear and it’s as entertaining and engaging today as when I first saw it – presumably it’s just as good as it was upon release. Its influence on filmmakers cannot be understated. It is Kurosawa’s signature film and whether or not you feel it is his best is a testament to his skills. At almost three and a half hours it is Kurosawa’s longest movie, but it flies by like a 90 minute movie. With a large cast we somehow manage to feel empathy and sympathy for all of them, we engage with them and love them, and feel a sense of loss when they fall. The plot on the surface is simple – a village abused by bandits recruits seven warriors to protect them, but the interactions between characters gives a snapshot of life like few films come close to achieving. Modern viewers should not be put off by the length, or the age, or the subtitles – if you watch it for the first time today, you won’t see anything better this year.

What are your favourite Kurosawa films – which ones are missing from my list? How do you convince friends to watch a fifty year old Japanese film? Let us know in the comments!