Seven Samurai, 1954
Written by Akira Kurosawa & Shinobu Hashimoto & Hideo Oguni
Directed by Akira Kurosawa
Sometimes this classic-movies-up-for-review thing just seems a little pointless. What exactly am I going to be able to say about Seven Samurai that hasn't been said better by about a thousand people in the last half-century? What insight can I offer? Oh, well, I saw it, and it's magnificent, and I soldier on regardless of my own limitations.
The plot is simplicity itself. It's 16th century Japan. A group of bandits spies a tiny village but decides not to attack until after their current crop is picked. A villager hears the plans and runs back to his home to warn his neighbors. But what can a group of starving villagers due against the bandits? Should they beg for mercy, or fight? When the question is posed to the village elder, he has an ingenious idea: hire one of the clanless samurai wandering around the cities. How can they pay him, when all they have is rice? "Find hungry samurai," responds the old man reasonably.
And so they do. I've described maybe the first five minutes of Seven Samurai, and the rest of the run time is divided up into a very logical series of events: the hiring of the titular defenders, the training of the villagers and preparations for the attack, and the final action sequence in which all that training comes to use. It's not hard to imagine a ninety minute version of this film that has a very similar plot -- Kurosawa's film is generally considered to be the progenitor of all modern action pictures, and the modern familiarity with the genre makes the particular beats and rhythms of Seven Samurai as familiar as mom and apple pie. Some old movies need a bit of translation into modern terms so that we can understand what they meant to their original audience, while this one seems familiar because of how widely and pervasively influential it was. It's a challenge to remember just how original all this was in 1954, but the movie works even if we just take it as a simple action picture.
A simple action picture, though, this is not. I mentioned that this film could be trimmed to half its length and still have virtually the same plot, but the resulting ninety-minute film would be forgettable despite the amazing performances and stellar camerawork that would still be present. Kurosawa has done far more than simply invent the action picture here; he has taken a simple plot and used it to create a masterpiece of tone and character, to examine society and the roles that individuals play in it, and to meditate on the meaning of war and violence.
At the heart of Seven Samurai is the aging samurai Shimada, played to perfection by Takashi Shimura. Shimura is an imposing physical presence, a warrior in thought and in deed, but also a man with a heart, a personable giant of a human being, equal parts wise and fierce. He can be harsh when need be but also warm and inviting -- when he smiles with his friends we find ourselves smiling along with him. Shimura's performance alone would make this a great film; his performance grounds this epic picture in the human, even the mundane, and allows us the emotional center to what is at times a heartbreaking sequence of events.
At the other end of the seven there is Kikuchiyo, played perfectly by Toshiro Mifune. Mifune and Shimura were regulars of Kurosawa's works, and had appeared together also in his Stray Dog, which I reviewed last year. Here Mifune is a young man who comes from peasant stock, but considers himself a samurai. The other samurai know better, but Mifune has courage to back up his posturing, and so ingratiates himself among them that he becomes one of their group whether they want him to or not. Mifune's character is the source of much of the comic relief of Seven Samurai, but his background also allows him to work as a bridge between the villagers and the samurai -- as the one character whose feet are planted in both worlds, he has the ability to communicate with both and to heal the divisions between them.
Which is important, for perhaps the most important theme of the film is the caste-ridden society of feudal Japan. The villagers have need of the samurai but do not trust them, and the samurai are perhaps a bit condescending to the poverty-ridden villagers. The villagers live lives of backbreaking labor and near-starvation, but give the samurai their best rice so that they can be defended from attackers. Still there is tension, as there is a general fear among the villagers that the samurai will take advantage of the women of the village, a fear that is perhaps not too far off the mark considering the deprivation that the samurai suffer through. A crucial subplot follows the love story between a young samurai in training and a peasant girl, when their love is consummated the night before the last stand of the villagers and the samurai against the bandits, the resulting eruption threatens to destroy the very social fabric that they are all trying to save.
At the end of the film, after all the dying that is going to be done has been done, one of the surviving samurai stares off into the distance at the joyous villagers harvesting their crops. This is just one more battle they, the samurai, lost -- it is the villagers that have won. World War II was less than a decade past at the time this film was made, and Kurosawa is arguing that the time for imperialist notions, the time for warriors instead of farmers, is over. Kurosawa is pointing his society towards the gentle humanism espoused by the samurai played by Shimura, toward the desire for peace and joy felt by the villagers who have survived to strive another day. Very different is the perspective on war and violence espoused by Kurosawa here and that expressed by Ford's The Searchers, which was made only two years later but here in a victoriously postwar America. There are striking parallels between these two masterpieces, but they are separated by a perspective shaped by culture and by the expectations of their audiences.
I haven't even really scratched the surface of the brilliance of Seven Samurai. How could I? It is long but never boring, old but fresh, with a simple plot but with implications that echo down the ages. This is a film that will be loved for as long as the medium exists.