De Syv Samuraier
Here is a movie I have been looking forward to for a long time. “Seven Samurai” is legendary and one of the few movies from this period I have seen before, though so many years ago that, as I found out, I remembered very little from that first viewing. As it happened it also turned out to be a more difficult movie to get hold of than anticipated. The boxset of Kurosawa samurai classics I had ordered never showed up and I had to reorder it. Somewhere out there in the postal limbo a totally awesome boxset is floating around…
As I already mentioned the reputation of “Seven Samurai” is immense. It is frequently mentioned as one of the best movies ever and particularly one of the best westerns ever, which is curious considering this is a samurai film. It is a movie that has been referenced countless times and remade in numerous incarnations. This can only disappoint. No movie is that good.
“Seven Samurai” is exactly as good as its reputation and probably even better. Whether or not it is the best of Kurosawa I leave unsaid till I have watched the rest of his entries in the Book, but it is better than both “Rashomon” and ”Ikiru” and they were both worthy movies.
The story in “Seven Samurai” is deceptively simple as all good stories actually are. A village of farmers is so fed up with bandit raids that they hire a band of samurai to protect them. The samurai are so successful at their job that they transform the village not only into a fortress, but also a cohesive unit so that when the bandits finally attack they are able to repel the attack. That is it.
It is everything in between that are complex and makes this such an excellent movie.
First of all there is the length of the movie. At little more than three hours “Seven Samurai” was longer than I remember and it may be that I got an uncut version. Normally that would mean a super complex story (eg. epic scale) or a lot of excess fat. In this case it allows Kurosawa to build characters and to explain the workings of Japanese life in the 16th century, especially concerning the relations between farmers and samurai.
The first third of the movie follows a band of farmers trying to hire samurai. This is an extremely daunting affair. Farmers are very low caste and the profile they present is of simple, stupid and cowardice characters. Samurai on the other hand is the warrior caste. They are strong, honorable and smart. Normally they would enter into the service of a nobleman or, at times of war, a warlord. For them to enter into service of a farming village, working for food, is unheard of. It is demeaning to this proud class who seems to value its honor so much. What kind of samurai would accept such a job? But the farmers do find a band of samurai willing to work for them. Samurai who define honor differently. What Kurosawa, who was of samurai stock himself, is saying is that it is not the farmers who exists for the samurai, but the samurai who exists for the farmers. That the army, bureaucracy and politicians are there for the people and not the other way around. A message eerily similar to that of “Ikiru”. For a post war Japan it is also a redefinition of the meaning of samurai, a reinterpretation of the Bushido code, away from senseless war heroics and toward dedicated and worthy servitude.
Each of the samurai have their own distinct character. Particularly noteworthy are Kambei (Takashi Shimura) the leader of the band, a man who is introduced as one who cares less about the symbols of honor (he shaves off his topknot) and more about behaving honorably. He is the father figure and the natural leader. Katsushirō (Isao Kimura) is a very young samurai, star struck by the more experienced samurai and eager to become an apprentice to Kambei. Because of his youth and relative innocence we observe much of the movie from his point of view. Kyuzo (Seiji Miyaguchi) is the quiet master swordsman, the archetype of skill personified while Heihachi (Minoru Chiaki) is the exact opposite, jovial, high spirited, but better at cutting wood than enemies. And then there is Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune). He appears as a clown, a farmer posing as a samurai (something which would have been immensely dangerous at the time), wild, crazy, simple and unreliable. But as the movie wears on he becomes the connection point between the village and the samurai. He alone for all his craziness understands both world and despise them both.
That brings us to the second act, the preparation of the village. Beneath the planning, training and building of fortifications we get a unique view into both village and samurai life at the time. We realize how deep the gulf is between the two groups and how it is almost impossible to bridge that gulf. One example is Katsushiro’s doomed courting of a village girl and another is Kikuchiyo’s hopeless in-between character. If Katsushiro shows us the farmer/samurai schism through his innocence, Kikuchiyo shows it to us through bitterness. They are brought together, farmers and samurai, by common need, not love, and while they gain an insight into each other’s worlds the gap is too wide. In times of peace farmers just have no need of leeching samurai.
Then the bandits attack and for an hour we get some of the best and most iconic battle scenes ever filmed. Fighting with big knifes is a gruesome affair and watching a mob of farmers hunt down isolated bandits with picks, spears and farming tools is outright horrifying. There is something absolutely fascinating about watching fighting Japanese style. Everybody is running, there is a lot of shouting and death comes swift and without mercy. The battle unfolds much as planned by the samurai revealing their supreme skill and experience, but it is the small things that always go wrong in battle. Accidents, desperate shots, uncontrolled mobs or horses. You may wish for that epic duel, but reality is that even the best samurai is killed by a stray bullet.
As slow and observing the filming is in the two first acts as fast and energized it is in the last. Kurosawa keeps the tension going for the last hour through the undulations of the battle waves where even the troughs have that unrestful tension of waiting for death. This is just amazing.
Kurosawa created an exciting and very watchable movie that still holds up today, but he also commented on and redefined the samurai caste and the warrior culture that had led Japan into disaster in the first half of the twentieth century. What is real bushido and is there room for that in a modern country? Kurosawa the social commentator showed the way.