Seven Samurai might sound familiar - maybe you have seen the Hollywood remake, The Magnificent Seven. The story is about a small town that is going to be attacked by a group of about 40 bandits. They hire seven samurai to protect them during the battle. The samurai do so because that is what they do - their class, their obligation. Lives are lost during the battle, but thus is the life of a samurai. Or something like that. I didn't learn much in my history of Japan class I took in college. My professor was from Transylvania and often only taught us of important Japanese figures by naming them only as "monkey face", with no other details about them provided. Later, he would show us pictures of them. "Who is this, guys? Guys?" We would never respond, afraid he might suddenly drink our blood or something when we inevitably got it wrong.
Something that I liked about this film was the strange sense of obligation that the samurai had. Ebert writes of this, "Why do they take the job? Why, for a handful of rice every day, do they risk their lives? Because that is the job and the nature of the samurai. Both sides are bound by the roles imposed on them by society, and in To the Distant Observer, his study of Japanese films, Noel Burch observes: "masochistic perseverance in the fulfillment of complex social obligations is a basic cultural trait of Japan." Not only do the samurai persevere, but so do the bandits, who continue their series of raids even though it is clear the village is well-defended, that they are sustaining heavy losses, and that there must be unprotected villages somewhere close around. Like characters in a Greek tragedy, they perform the roles they have been assigned" (The Great Movies, 400-402). In a lot of western movies (which I mention since Kurosawa seems to have so influenced the genre), the heroes earn the position that they get in the town. They do some good deed or show strength in some way and they are appointed with an even greater mission. In Seven Samurai, the only qualification for the position of town defender is that fact that they are samurai. There is an uneasy relationship with the peasants and the samurai, because there is no sense of respect for the people protecting them. They didn't "earn" the job so much as they just have to do the job. I don't know if one style is better than the other, but I felt more of an interest and fascination with the relationships in Seven Samurai, personally, although I can't put my finger on what I liked more about it. Maybe it's how unfamiliar I am with that sort of obligation that makes it more interesting to me, since I don't understand it and I am intrigued and want to try to comprehend it.
The action scenes are...incredible. I miss action that looks like this. The camera shows everything - people are stabbed, and Kurosawa follows through, showing where their bodies land. Everything is clear, but still so exciting and stressful. I felt more involved and committed to the action when I could see it clearly and it made sense. Ebert writes of the action in his essay, saying "...the action scenes have a thrilling sweep. Nobody could photograph men in action better than Kurosawa. 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. His use of closeups in some of the late battle scenes perhaps was noticed Orson Welles, who in "Falstaff'' conceals a shortage of extras by burying the camera in a Kurosawian tangle of horses, legs, and swords" (The Great Movies, 403). I love that there is a sense of the rush and confusion of war. This is what directors try to re-create when they make shaky, jump-cut laden action scenes now. They want to create the madness and chaos of war, but they take it too far. Kurosawa had this grace that he used to capture action, like Ebert describes. You could see closeups that were jarring, but you also could see the whole flow in what is going on. I often get tired of action movies now because of their failure to restrain themselves. There are scenes of flailing and quick cuts, and then a man cries off-screen, and this is how we are able to tell that someone was punched. I'm personally not a fan of that style, so I loved the smooth blend of rush and clarity that Kurosawa uses.
This is an incredibly long movie now, but it's worth watching if you have the time. It looks beautiful, for one. The story is also easy to follow since we are so familiar with it by now - but it does not make it boring. It makes it exciting to see where our favorite directors found inspiration. To see so many firsts in a film and think of how creative and innovative Kurosawa was for his time. It's fascinating to see a a movie like this, for me. It was so hard to relate to on some levels (I don't think most people I know have had experience with a class system that is like the one in ancient Japan) but still felt so familiar and easy to understand in various ways. I also really love film history, so to actually sit down and see a film that inspired so much of our current cinema is very cool. Not everyone loves to do that, some people are ok just knowing the reference, which is fine also. Not everyone has 4 hours of their life to plop down in front of their TV. I barely did tonight, myself. But I'm glad I watched it, because the experience of watching Seven Samurai was probably more enriching, enjoyable, and entertaining than what I would have been doing otherwise. If you find yourself with a bunch of time to kill and check this movie out, let me know!
Have any of you seen Seven Samurai? Share your thoughts in the comments!
Ebert's Great Movie essay on Seven Samurai