Friday, March 16, 2012

Seven Samurai, dir. Akira Kurosawa (1954)


It never fails.  The ominous drums start, the credits flash onto the black screen in stark white characters, and the familiar tingle creeps up my spine.  I'm locked in.

I first saw Seven Samurai when I was twelve or thirteen.  If I remember correctly, it was the first Japanese film that I ever saw.  It was the perfect movie to show a half-Japanese kid who'd started studying martial arts and loved action movies and stories of knights in shining armor.  However, fond memories alone wouldn't make this my favorite movie.

Here are a few reasons why I love this film so much (I'll try to be brief):

1) Economical storytelling.  It may seem counterintuitive to call a 207-minute movie "economical," but consider the opening scenes.  In only ten minutes, Akira Kurosawa establishes the story's antagonists, the central conflict and a handful of the protagonists.  A gang of bandits rides up to a cliff overlooking a small village.  "Take it!  Take it!" they chant, but its leader--a particularly menacing-looking dude--realizes that the villagers won't have anything worth taking right now.  The bandits resolve to come back after the villagers finish their harvest.  After they ride off, a frightened farmer emerges from his hiding place, scurries down the hill and warns the other villagers, who understandably start freaking out.

A suggestion from one farmer that they tell the local magistrate is shot down instantly at a pity party held in the village square.  Then, a wild-eyed farmer named Rikichi (Yoshio Tsuchiya) stands up and screams that they should fight the bandits and kill them all.  The more cautious and cynical Manzo (Kamatari Fujiwara) tells him that the idea's preposterous. Their only play, he says, is to grovel and beg the bandits to leave enough for them to survive.  At last, the villagers walk, heads hung low, to the shack of the wizened, raspy-voiced village elder, who decides that they'll hire masterless samurai to defend them from the bandits.

Again, all of this takes ten minutes.

Consider as well the scene that introduces Kambei Shimada (Takashi Shimura), the leader of the titular seven.  The team of farmers dispatched to hire the samurai come across a hostage situation: a thief who was discovered by a group of town-dwellers kidnaps a young boy and flees into a barn.  Kambei steps forward to help.  He cuts off his topknot and gets a Buddhist monk to shave his head and lend him some robes.  Armed with only a pair of rice balls, he gets the thief to lower his guard, rushes into the barn, kills the thief with his own sword and rescues the boy.

In this one scene, Kurosawa and his screenwriters, Shinobu Hashimoto and Hideo Oguna, show us everything that we need to know about this man.  We see that he's smart, that he's tough and, most importantly, that he's compassionate.  Indeed, as I mentioned above, he's so willing to help others that he cuts off his own topknot.  In the film Harakiri, a trio of samurai who get their topknots cut off kill themselves because of the disgrace.  Kambei doesn't even blink.  The qualities he displays here fuel his later development and orchestration of the villagers' defense against the bandits.

2) Technical mastery.  In the excellent "Scholars' Roundtable" commentary on the 3-DVD Criterion Collection box set, Stephen Prince says, "You could take any four minutes of this film, anywhere in the picture, and find more concentrated filmmaking genius than you'll find anywhere [else] in cinema."  That's the whole truth and nothing but, in my opinion.

There's a sensous, tactile quality to Seven Samurai that is truly stunning.  This arises in great part, I think, from Asakazu Nakai's extraordinary deep focus cinematography.  You can see the minute play of light on water, the grain of wood, the rustling leaves on trees as wind blows through them.  You can even see the little wrinkles in the actor's costumes and the pores on their faces when they're in close-up.

Not only does the film look great, it sounds amazing too.  Kurosawa and his composer, Fumio Hayasaka, use music very sparingly throughout.  The movie builds enormous tension in many scenes by pumping up background sounds: the thunderous gallop of horses, the gurgle of flowing water, the crackle of fire, the staccato of pouring rain, the howl and whistle of wind.  When music does play, Hayasaka's themes are simple, terse, and instantly memorable; each theme centers clearly on one specific character or idea and helps push it to the foreground in the viewer's mind.

Finally, the editing brings sight and sound together so that the film feels less like a static construction and more like a living, breathing thing.  In the commentary mentioned earlier, Japanese film expert Donald Richie rightly calls Seven Samurai "an editor's dream."  In fact, I don't think that I could describe the editing better than Richie does: thanks to the editing, he says, the film feels "fluid," "vital," kinetic," "alive" (italics mine).

3) Themes of Struggle, Collectivity, Hope.  "You have to learn to struggle in order to find yourself."  This, Donald Richie says, is one of the crucial messages of Seven Samurai.  Conflict, the film shows, can be nasty and brutal--the battle scenes allow us no illusions about that--but you must stand your ground and hold your own if you want to survive and to thrive.

However, Kurosawa argues throughout the film, individual power and glory won't be enough.  We must live with each other, we must help each other, and we must work with each other.  This concept is emblematic of Japanese thought, of course, but it also calls to mind Patrick Henry's oft-quoted declaration: "United we stand, divided we fall."

In the film's bittersweet, unforgettable final scene, the villagers joyfully plant the seeds for the next year's harvest.  The bandits have been vanquished, not without pain and loss but vanquished all the same.  The three surviving samurai watch the farmers quietly, mournfully.  They have no place here now that the threat is gone.  Kambei and his friend Shichiroji (Daisuke Kato) look up at the graves of their four fallen comrades, and they know that this is all that waits for them and for the rest of the samurai class.

In spite of all this, I don't regard the fate of the seven samurai as entirely sad.  If not for Kambei, Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune, seen below) and the other five, we wouldn't see the villagers as they are in this final scene.  It makes me think of these lines from Walt Whitman's Song of Myself:

I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again, look for me under your boot-soles.

You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.

Because of its themes of conflict, collective action and the hope that a better life can arise from these, Seven Samurai still resonates very strongly with the person I am today: a Joe Strummer-obsessed, democracy-loving Occupy Wall Street sympathizer.


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