We Care Because We’re There – Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954) – the Friday Classic review
So good it’s been successfully remade as Western, space opera and insect animation, but so spectacularly brilliant that none has eclipsed it
(Akira Kurosawa, Jap, 1954)
Seven Samurai is less a film than a monument – a statement of intent about what cinema could and should be doing. It functions equally well as exhilarating entertainment and vital social commentary – variously wry, angry, funny, edge-of-the-seat exciting and never less than gripping despite its epic length. And it’s a story sculpted on film, each element meticulously designed to deliver a loving tribute to light and movement.
As all those remakes attest, it’s one of the greatest of original screen stories, something so pure and mythic it feels as though it should have been around much longer. Akira Kurosawa builds things in three simple blocks of roughly equal length. The first hour brings together the disparate bunch of wandering, hungry ronin; the second hour charts their love/hate relationship with their farmer employers as they prepare for battle; and the third hour is one long siege-battle, a sine wave of activity and anticipation.
The slow-burn is crucial, because Kurosawa is telling the story of an entire world. In the rigid caste system of the 16th Century, samurai have set rules to follow – and the farmers’ mercy plea is actually an affront to the established order of things. Cleverly, Kurosawa shows the misses as well as the hits during the recruitment phase – rigidly honour-bound warriors who have no truck with the farmers’ offer, and one who not even the samurai can convince to join them. The ones who say yes have different (and beautifully differentiated) reasons for accepting: Kambei, the Zen-like leader, accepts out of sheer (if ultimately misguided) decency; several follow him out of respect, others to better their skill, or to prove their worth. The men-on-a-mission assemblage is ripped off to this day, but few films are allowed to paint such a broad picture in doing so.
The second hour is all trials and tribulations, and a sign that this isn’t going to be such a clearcut victory as the genre demands as the samurai are forced to deal with the enemy within as much as the imminent threat from the bandits. The growing complexity of the villagers’ lifestyle – their stolen trophies of dead samurai, their hissy-fit when they realise they’ll have to sacrifice at least a few of their homes, and their vigilante vengeance against a prisoner of war – open up a cultural divide that the samurai must bridge carefully. Negotiations are give and take: the revenge killing is grudgingly allowed, but only after Kambei loses his cool in one of cinema’s great explosions when he takes on the deserters. And everything is further complicated by the presence of Kikuchiko, the orphan farmer who wants to be a samurai, and who respects and despises both groups in equal measure.
There’s yet another facet to this middle section – the painstaking exposition of tactics – that’s worth mentioning because it highlights how well the screen time is used. The explication of Kambei’s strategy is stunning for two reasons. Firstly, it’s unusual that the audience is privy to the plans. Other directors might have hidden away a few surprises, but Kurosawa’s psychology is spot-on: the open-plan approach instils the anxiety that this apparently perfect plan will go awry. The second stroke of genius is the pin-sharp geography of the village. Every detail of its awesomely convincing set is mapped out so that, when the action comes, Kurosawa can be as frenetic as he likes because he’s given us a local’s knowledge of the area. It’s a lesson that today’s action directors could do with heeding – we care because we’re there.
At a purely technical level, this is a stunning achievement. Kurosawa’s innovative telephoto technique allows not only a rich, diverse range of shot choices but also realistic movement within the frame, even before the battle starts. And when it does, it’s like nothing seen before or since because of the variety of action, from the initial mad dash to repel the boarders, to the agonisingly tense ‘one at a time’ gambit to the final muddy free-for-all. The verisimilitude often gives this the feel of a documentary, and there are times you have to do a double-take to appreciate that it’s set 400 years before it’s filmed!
The visual ventriloquism is all the more startling if you’ve seen Kurosawa’s thoroughly modern 20th century dramas, a quality that extends to the acting. Takashi Shimura’s cat-like, confident warrior is almost unrecognisable from the dull, dying civil servant of Ikiru, while Toshiro Mifune – though he often plays forces of nature – is particularly extraordinary here, a hurricane of comedy, rage and dignity.