DVD Review Of Seven Samurai

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 9/27/06


  Some films do get better with repeated viewings. Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 black and white film Seven Samurai (Shichinin no samurai) is one of them. It was well deserving of winning the 1954 Venice Film Festival’s Silver Lion, as well as the two Academy awards it won for Best Art/Set Decoration and Best Costume Design. On a first view it’s simply a great action film, but with subsequent viewings the finer points of characterization come through in each moment, seeping into the mind subliminally and purposefully. The story, at nearly three and a half hours in length- including a five minute intermission, is never weighted down with fat, as all of the many subplots bear fruit- so unlike most films made in Hollywood today. It became an international sensation, and the highest grossing Japanese film of its day.

  Yes, there are remnants of the stale samurai genre, such as the wise man Kambei Shimada (Takashi Shimura), and the ‘boy on the verge of manhood’ in Katsushiro Okamoto (Isao ‘Ko’ Kimura), and his romance with farmer Manzo’s daughter Shino, but the central human dilemma of the 16th Century farmers who are helpless against the depredations of the bandits, who abound during the civil wars of the era, raises the film above mere clichés. We only see the bandits at the beginning and end of the film. There are about two hours where the meat of the tale takes place, and not a bandit is in sight. How many films do away with their bad guys for so long? How many could afford to? Since we do not know any of the bandits’ names, they are more like a singular character, or a sheer force of nature. Why do they keep coming to attack the villagers, even as their forces are successively thinned with each failed raid? They must realize that the once helpless villagers have hired defenders? There is no Darth Vader among the bandits, despite George Lucas’s latter-day attempts to cite this film as an influence for his banal and downright puerile Star Wars saga. We also learn that the villagers are neither as poor nor innocent as they portray. There are murderers amongst them, who have killed samurai before. They also seek to lowball and underpay their protectors.

  Yet, we also see the samurai of this film as mortals- just men, not gods. They work for meager wages- and technically they are all ronin, or samurai without masters. Think of the Knights Of The Round Table were they not under King Arthur’s charge. Some will even cut wood for a bowl of rice, if need be. The samurai also are not all noble, for Kikuchiyo (Toshirô Mifune)- the name is an assumed one, the would-be samurai, vents his anger at the fact that the rottenness of the samurai class forces the farmers to be craven and duplicitous. The samurai are little better than the bandits, to him, for they have killed and raped farmers and their women, and force them into servitude. Thus why Manzo (Kamatari Fujiwara) the farmer obsesses over his daughter Shino’s disguising herself as a boy, to protect her from bandit and samurai alike. Kikuchiyo, we learn, was born a farmer’s son. A good portion of the film is also spent on the fortifications of the village- building of walls and moats, which allows the battle scenes to take place on familiar territory for the viewer. When we see something occur, we can know, as quickly as the villagers, where a bandit will come from or head to, and what is likely to happen. How many epics are just a whirl of motion and bodies with no way for the viewer to place it all in context?

  There is also the introduction of Western modernity, in the form of guns, to this tale. Most samurai films show the samurai winning with superior skill in swordplay. This film shows four of the samurai killed by gunshot- not man to man swordfighting. Not only does this reinforce the sense of ‘unfairness’ about their demises, but it also adds realism, something that this film offers, yet other samurai films fail to. Also, there is no real grand battle at the end. Yes, there is a final battle, but the villagers win due to the superior intelligence of the samurai, not their superior arms or numbers. They also win by attrition, and the venality of the bandits. As a final observation on the realism of the film, Kurosawa shows the three surviving samurai leave the village with little to show for their work, save their honor and war tales. Kikuchiyo is snubbed by his lover, Shino (Keiko Tsushima) who returns to the drudgery of her life as a farm girl- unlike the 1960 Hollywood version of the film, The Magnificent Seven, by John Sturges, where the ‘naïve young man’ character ends up with the girl in the end, and Kambei notes that he and his comrades have lost again. The villagers can live in peace, if but for a time, while they must go seek employment on the road, sans four of their brothers in arms. There is no Hollywood ending, nor cheap emotional payoff in this film, and this is part of its greatness. It refuses to condescend.

  This film has also often been called epic, but it’s really not. Almost all the action takes place indoors or in small settings. There are many characters and extras. But there are only forty bandits, and maybe twice as many villagers. This is not epic warfare, but personalized and small scale. The only epopee the film indulges in is the rhetoric spouted by Kikuchiyo, and the visuals of Kurosawa, that lets a viewer often get both a subjective and objective viewpoint in one shot, often over the shoulders of the characters. We never seem to know where we stand in relation to the real action- which is often offscreen- as we will see only a character’s reaction to it, although clearly the samurai are the most identifiable characters.

  Yet, in true Kurosawa fashion, and in keeping with his detached telling of the tale, the fact is that we are never privy to the inner workings of any of the samurai’s motives. Presumably, Kambei, the oldest and wisest, is moved by the challenge and the plight of his would-be employers. Katsushiro, the youngest, and it seems the wealthiest, is in it for knowledge, and to serve his master- Kambei, whom he deifies. Kikuchiyo seems to be in it just to kill, and work out issues of aggression and abandonment over the murder of his parents as a child. Yet, these are never made truly clear, and the other four samurai are never even given that much consideration as to motive. Mifune is the putative star of the film, and doubtless his Kikuchiyo is a memorable character in a Calibanian vein, yet it’s a role that is not so far off from the loony bandit he portrayed in Rashomon, and his scenery-chewing acting style is a bit overdone, at times. Yet, it is leavened by the fact that not only is Mifune overacting, but so is Kikuchiyo, his character, within the film, and to the other characters. It’s notable that his sword is almost as tall as himself, and twice the length of the other samurais’ swords. Yet, there is the remarkable scene where he vents his anger when Kambei and the others see the armor of dead samurai. At first, he agrees with the samurai that the villagers are liars and not worth defending, even that they should be killed. But, then his rage turns toward his stunned comrades. He then leaves, and huffs at Katsushiro, who is returning to the village, and entranced by the armor he wears. Then, as a flock of children come to ogle him, he rejects their advances as well.

  Another great scene comes when the samurai scout out the bandits’ lair, and Rikichi (Yoshio Tsuchiya)- the only firebrand among the farmers, and the one who instigated their hiring the samurai, discovers his wife (Yukiko Shimazaki) is a whore bedding down with the bandits. His insane reaction ends up with one of the samurai, Heihachi, getting shot and killed. When the samurai is buried, Rikichi’s double grief- over his wife, and causing Heihachi’s death, is powerful, yet backgrounded to the samurai ritual of burial. This sort of technique deepens the scene with characterization and realism. But, the whole scene starts dreamily, with very little music- that from the Noh dramas, and then builds to a fiery conclusion and mass death. The music gets grander and grander, as the prostitute-wife awakens and the samurai carry out their attack- which is clumsy and real, not stylized like most samurai films. Even the cinematography moves from gauziness to clarity.

  A later scene has Kikuchiyo breaking down when the village waterwheel is burnt, and a mother saves her child, hands the baby to him, and his own childhood returns. Yet, despite all the raves, this film is really the tale of Kambei, played by the magnificent Takashi Shimura, a Kurosawa regular, just off his great role in Ikiru (1952), as a doomed political hack who achieves a minor victory against bureaucracy. All wise men in film derive from his role. In Rashomon (1952) he played a peasant, in Ikiru a bureaucrat, and here a sage and warrior. His range is immense, because only via his eyes can we tell he’s the same actor. Whereas Mifune is often rightly praised for acting with his whole body, Shimura can act with his eyes alone. He’s that great, period. He can even elicit laughs with a rub of his shaved head, which we know was shaven when his character was introduced, rescuing a kidnapped child from a bandit. He posed as a priest, thus showing his character is not above the profane to get his pay. The scene also showed that slow motion could be an effective technique, for, although we do not see what Kambei does to the bandit inside the hut, we see the bandit run away then fall in slow motion. Later, we see Kyuzo- the master swordsman, reluctantly kill a boastful challenger, who just won’t leave him be, with just one stroke of his sword, also in slow motion. This is just one of the many techniques this film pioneered and uses effectively. Another is the dramatic wipe of the screen, to show an ellipsis in time, and the recapitulation of events to other characters that enter the canvas. How many films are bogged down by unneeded scenes of explanation of things the viewer already knows? Kurosawa thus emphatically shows us that his films are for his audience, foremost, and his characters, secondly.

  Almost as good an acting job as Shimura’s is done by Ko Kimura as Katsushiro. Watch the scene where he confronts the great swordsman Kyuzo (Seiji Miyaguchi)- in yet another bravura performance that shows less is more, after Kyuzo has singlehandedly killed two bandits and returned with a needed gun. Katsushiro says little, save to tell his hero he is ‘great’. Kyuzo restrains a smile of satisfaction. Then, when Kyuzo is later killed by a gunshot, by a craven bandit hiding in a house during the rainstorm, look at the utter devastation on Kimura’s character’s face. Similarly, look at his reaction to killing a bandit- the first man he has ever killed, or even to some of the earlier shots that show him ruminating on the fact that a life as a samurai is not all glamour. Let a Mark Hamill try to act like that!

  The three other samurai, Heihachi Hayashida (Minoru Chiaki)- the good natured samurai who dies trying to restrain Rikichi after he finds out his wife is a whore, Shichiroji (Daisuke Katô), and Gorobei Katayama (Yoshio Inaba)- Kambei’s deputy, killed before the final attack, are also well detailed, in their smaller roles, although it takes repeated viewings to distinguish them from each other. Of those three, only Shichiroji- Kambei’s former right hand man- in adventures before the film’s setting, survives with Kambei and Katsushiro. Yet, their relative lack of characterization is fine, for war tends to dehumanize and deindividuate people anyway, and this is another example of the realism that Kurosawa adds to the film in seemingly throwaway instances.

  As for the DVD from The Criterion Collection? It was the second title the company ever put out, after Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion, and it shows, unfortunately. The print is flecked with dust and streaks, the images in some scenes are not crisp at all, but obviously, as years have gone on, the film company has gotten better at restoration. It is rumored that a three disk version of the film will be released by Criterion this fall, with many other features, and a vastly improved film quality. Among the features will be the Seven Samurai excerpt from the film series, Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful To Create, a two hour interview of Kurosawa, a documentary on the origins and influences of the film, more trailers, and a better subtitling- hopefully in gold lettering. Hurrah! One can only hope that it will have a dubbed version along with the subtitles. Criterion’s biggest flaw has always been a lack of dubbing and the use of pallid white subtitles in black and white films, which often makes the dialogue hard to read- especially in the often murky print that was used for this DVD. Other than the film’s trailer, there is a 1988 film commentary by Japanese film scholar Michael Jeck. The new version will reputedly have a second commentary track with a bevy of other film scholars. This is welcome, for Jeck too often descends into useless minutia, like the fact of samurai films accounting for half of all Japanese films in the fifties and sixties, or commenting on Katsushiro’s stick technique while testing samurai reactions to an ambush, as if that has equal weight with some other, more important, aspects of the film. Or he flat out butchers the language, like stating the film begins in medias res, more than once- to show it was not a mere slip of the tongue, when he really means in media res. He also tends to worship Kurosawa a bit too much, and in a slack-jawed vein, to the point of even claiming that wind seen in certain scenes is choreographed to the Nth degree by Kurosawa, as if each dust mote were perfectly placed. A little less scripting and showing off of his expertise, and a bit more of a true fan’s point of view would have helped greatly.

  Yet, despite the relentless hagiography, Kurosawa did not make this film alone. It is a truism that almost all great directors have at least one great collaborator. With Ingmar Bergman it was his cinematographer Sven Nykvist. With Federico Fellini it was his musical scorer, Nino Rota. But with Kurosawa it’s not only great stars like Mifune and Shimura, but his co-writers, Shinobu Hashimoto and Hideo Oguni- part of a rotating staff of writers that muted some of Kurosawa’s own admitted over the top tendencies in storytelling, and brought the tale down to a human level. Without them the film may have been little more than a greatly stylized genre film, rather than a great film, period.

  The cinematography Asakazu Nakai, and score by Fumio Hayasaka are also very good, although this is an actor-driven vehicle. Nakai’s deep focus techniques- at the time cutting edge, are every bit as good as those in Citizen Kane. Especially, look at the complexity of the many crowd scenes, where many little stories play out as we watch the foregrounded action of the samurai. Things like this are only gotten on repeated viewings, and with my second viewing I picked up much more than on a first glance, especially while not having to read the subtitles. And look at how jungle twigs seem to leap out at the viewer, as does Mifune’s huge phallic sword as he slings it over his shoulder. The whole film was shot in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio, so one wonders what Kurosawa would have done with this film in widescreen.

  There’s no doubt that Seven Samurai is a great film, and with its length and complexity it will only grow in my estimation as I view it more and more over the years. Of that I’m sure. But, that said, I do not think that it is Kurosawa’s best film. I’d still lean toward Ikiru for that honor- for it’s simply the more deeply human tale, and Shimura is even better in his role as Watanabe the doomed bureaucrat than as Kambei the indefatigable warrior. However, this is the granddaddy of all great action films, from Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch to even James Cameron’s films like Aliens or The Terminator series, as well as a great bildungsroman for Katsushiro. It also struck me, as the film opens to drumbeats, how reminiscent this film’s opening is to that of my beloved Godzilla- a film that was released in the same year, with the footfalls of the monster dominating a black screen filled with credits. While Godzilla is nowhere in a league to Seven Samurai as a film, it is the second most influential Japanese film of all time. That both rely on such primal sounds in their openings makes one wonder if there’s a connection.

  Yet, the thing that Seven Samurai has that few other films do is its incredibly detailed richness. From the bad skull caps the male characters wear, to the ambush tests Kambei devises to recruit his cohorts, to the old woman who goes to kill a hobbled bandit with a farm instrument- to avenge her son’s death, and many others; all of these and more make repeated viewing a necessity to truly appreciate this film, for all of these things are non-essential to the basic plot, even as they heighten the realism of this unreal tale. Let me end by stating that Seven Samurai is every bit as good, and great, as its greatest champions claim, and I ask you, how rare a thing is that?


[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Alternative Film Guide website.]

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