Friday, January 3, 2014

Classics Revisited: Seven Samurai

(1954) Directed by Akira Kurosawa; Written by: Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto and Hideo Oguni; Starring: Toshirô Mifune, Takashi Shimura, Isao Kimura and Keiko Tsushima; Available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Rating: *****

“To tell you the truth, I can only make films that I care about.  I just can’t help it.  But working within those parameters, I made films like Seven Samurai and Yojimbo, though it was by chance that I made those crowd-pleasers.” – Akira Kurosawa (Excerpt from 1993 interview, My Life in Cinema: Akira Kurosawa)

The thought of writing my first offering for Japan-uary III intimidated me to the point where I debated choosing something, anything, else.  I wondered if I had any business discussing one of the most esteemed films among scholars, professional critics and cinephiles.  While I would never place myself in the first two aforementioned categories, I pondered what I could possibly say that had not been said.  Call it hubris, call it naïve earnestness or whatever, but as an overzealous film enthusiast with an unfortunate compulsion to write about what he sees, I couldn’t contain myself.  Instead of focusing on Seven Samurai (aka: Shichinin no samurai) as a treasured artifact to be admired from afar, I chose to explore what has made it such an endurable and accessible classic.

The basic story, set in 16th century feudal Japan, is simple, but the implications are complex.  The residents of a village besieged by bandits have had enough, and decide to hire a group of samurai to defend them.  Rice is the only commodity the poor farmers can provide in trade for the warriors’ services, so they face the impossible task of finding honorable men who seek neither fame nor wealth.  As the hired swordsmen are assembled, the wheels are set in motion to plan the village’s defense.  Ultimately, it is the farmers who must rise to the challenge, as the samurai instruct them to take an active role in securing their future, rather than passively accepting their fate. 

Production of Seven Samurai was long and arduous, exemplified by director/co-writer Akira Kurosawa’s struggle with Toho brass over the film’s progress.  The shooting schedule, intended to run three months, was stretched out to a year.  The finished screenplay was the culmination of a collaborative writing effort between Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto and Hideo Oguni,* who spent weeks hashing out the script from an isolated cabin. 

* Commenting on the exhaustive process of creating a screenplay with two other writers, Kurosawa stated, “…we’d all write the same scene.  Then I’d weed out any subpar writing.” (Excerpt from 1993 interview, My Life in Cinema: Akira Kurosawa)

Heading an unforgettable cast is Toshirô Mifune as the headstrong, impulsive samurai Kikuchiyo.  He relates to the farmers on a level that the other samurai cannot understand.  Ever mindful of his peasant roots, he’s quick to reveal there’s more to the villagers than their simple, unassuming demeanor would suggest.  He alternately provides some of the film’s most humorous and poignant moments.  In an early scene, he mocks the villagers for their fearfulness when the samurai warriors arrive, exposing their hypocrisy.  In a later sequence he reveals his vulnerability as he sees himself in an orphaned infant.  Kikuchiyo lives life like there’s no tomorrow because he recognizes the transitory nature of being.  He has nothing to lose, and nothing to gain, but will risk his life for the benefit of others.

While his role is not as flashy as Mifune’s, Takashi Shimura plays a vital role as the leader, Kambei Shimada.  He’s fought many battles and lost, but somehow always survived to fight again.  Shimada is the glue that holds the rest of the samurai together, exacting a leveling influence on everyone.  He’s not in it for fortune or glory, but honor-bound as a defender of the weak and downtrodden.  He embodies the spirit of Kurosawa’s comment: “These seven samurai were the real samurai who responded to need.  They were the truly good samurai.” (Excerpt from 1975 interview with Joan Mellen)

Farmer Manzo (Kamatari Fujiwara) represents the villagers’ ambivalence about their samurai guests.  He needs them for protection, but fears them.  In an effort to protect his daughter Shino (Keiko Tsushima) from the samurai, he cuts her hair short, and implores her to masquerade as a boy.  When she spends the night with Katsuhiro (Isao Kimura), Shimada’s young apprentice, Manzo beats her.  His wanton act of cruelty toward his daughter, presented as an affront to his honor, belies his true contempt for the samurai.

Seven Samurai’s kinetic action scenes and rousing music score (supplied by Fumio Hayasaka) are elements present in many modern action films, but one thing that present-day filmmakers should take note of is Kurosawa’s meticulous attention to characterization.  He takes the time to establish the main characters and make them three dimensional.  During the film’s almost three-and-a-half-hour running time, Kurosawa establishes individuals you care about, so you are invested in their outcome.  It’s time well spent, with details that are essential, not extraneous.  I felt honored to spend the time with these characters, recalling Roger Ebert’s assertion that “No good film is too long and no bad movie is short enough.”

It’s no secret why Seven Samurai has earned its status as one of the greatest films of all time.  As long as cinema exists, this film will continue to be watched, re-watched, and re-interpreted.  A true classic is not a moldy artifact of film history, but a living document, a source of inspiration for writers and filmmakers of the present and future.  To gauge Seven Samurai’s impact on our collective film consciousness, you don’t need to look further than the material’s applicability to numerous situations never envisioned by Kurosawa: the American Western The Magnificent Seven, John Sayles’ adaptation for his screenplay of the low-budget space opera Battle Beyond the Stars, Pixar’s animated comedy A Bug’s Life, and on the small screen as The A-Team (okay, maybe that one’s a bit of a stretch).  The original film, however, remains the definitive template for action films, and its universal theme of guardians banding together to protect the underdogs of society transcends cultural and language barriers.

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