not in our stars, but in ourselves
How many directors can say, in all honesty, that they made a three-and-a-half movie in which every scene, every shot, has a fully considered purpose? How many can make a film that long that never lags, never fails to engross, never feels too bloated or ponderous? Not many, I’ll tell you what. Seven Samurai (1954) is the rare universally acclaimed film that deserves every scrap of praise bestowed on it, and Akira Kurosawa is the rare director who knows exactly what he’s doing 100% of the time.
The story is deceptively simple: during the sixteenth century, with bandits roving the country, a mountain village hires samurai to defend its harvest. A group of farmers set out to try to find hungry samurai – quite literally, samurai who are down on their luck enough to work only for food, but skilled enough to fight off forty or so bandits. First they find the masterful (but still masterless) Kambei Shimada (Takashi Shimura). They explain their plight, and even though he’s tired of fighting, he agrees to help them. From there, he seeks to recruit additional samurai – essentially, by auditioning them. Incredibly, he finds six others to fight with him: Katsushirō Okamoto (Isao Kimura), a young man from a good family who is, as Australians say, keen as mustard; Gorōbei Katayama (Yoshio Inaba), an archer who is equally skilled in strategy; Shichirōji (Daisuke Katō), Kambei’s old friend and lieutenant; Heihachi Hayashida (Minoru Chiaki), a man who makes up for his lack of skill as a fighter with his wit and good nature; Kyūzō (Seiji Miyaguchi), a phenomenally skilled swordsman; and Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune), a rascal who has more heart and nerve than training.
Part of the reason for the rather lengthy running time is that Kurosawa invites the viewer to get to know each of these seven samurai in great depth. They aren’t just cardboard cutouts, or “types,” or anything so easily reducible. They all have their own personalities, their own proclivities. And rather than employ the more usual action-film tactic of providing a focus-grouped outline of a person (the grizzled cop! the sassy black sidekick! the wildcard!), Seven Samurai spends significant amounts of time letting those little idiosyncrasies shine through all on their own. I don’t think this is an especially common filmmaking strategy in Hollywood films, and I haven’t seen enough Japanese films to judge whether or not it’s the usual there; but it’s here, and it works beautifully. No better way to make you forget about the hours passing like making you feel like you’re getting to know some fascinating men.
Well, I forgot, anyway.
I have to admit: I feel intimidated when I try to take on Kurosawa. He’s just SO big. And I am so sadly lacking in my familiarity with Japanese film. So all I have to go with is my gut. You may recall that, in the face of other Big Deal movies (*cough*), I remained unimpressed. But this just has so much – characters, adventure, philosophy, history, butts* – in every frame, every shot, every scene, every sequence. Again, I feel out of my depth saying something like this, but: Japan seems to be the country for extraordinary depth and complexity masquerading as the plainest simplicity. For this Old Hollywood and Weimar Republic-lovin’ gal, it’s a tremendous change of pace – and an awe-inspiring one at that.
Others more capable than I have noted how deeply Kurosawa understood and internalized the grammar of the Hollywood Western, and made his own sort of eastern western with Seven Samurai. I’m not terribly familiar with Westerns, either, so I’ll leave that one to the film scholars to blather on about – but it’s an interesting point to ponder. Westerns are all about lawlessness and a seemingly boundless frontier. The world of the samurai is nothing but laws, honor, rules, and customs. It’s not nature that attacks them – it’s other men, or it’s their own neuroses. That’s probably the key to most Westerns, too, but Seven Samurai is clever enough to do without the nature-as-savage middle man.
Just a programming note, for those of you playing at home: it’s going to continue to be very Franco-Japanese around here for the next little while, thanks to Mama Bear’s (and the interlibrary loan system’s) generosity. I hope you’re not racist or anything.
*There are so many butts. So, so many butts. So many thongs. So many butts. I mean, I enjoy a shapely male behind as much as anyone, but it strikes me as a terribly impractical uniform for battle. Oh well!