Seven Samurai Review
Of all the popular genres, the action movie is perhaps the hardest to define. On the one hand such a category could encompass the James Bond franchise or anything from Chuck Norris’ eighties output, yet on the other it could also be used to describe the earliest works of the Lumière brothers – moving pictures by their very nature being predisposed towards action of any kind. With this in mind it is worth asking why an established classic of the genre deserves its status, especially from within such a broad spectrum and amongst such frankly overcrowded company.
Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 epic, Seven Samurai, has retained such a status for many years. Yet in order to understand why we must initially ignore this fact entirely: first and foremost, this is a movie (in the manner in which Renny Harlin, say, makes movies as opposed to Eric Rohmer who very much makes films) and one that harbours no pretensions towards greatness. Certainly, the non-Japanese reference points which the director was often criticised for (in comparison to Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi, both of whom offered a more “traditional” Japanese cinema) are present, specifically those of John Ford’s Westerns and Howard Hawks’ male dominated melodramas, and the story itself is geared towards action and pace. Indeed, its tale of a village who hire the eponymous samurai in order to protect themselves from thieving bandits is simplicity itself, and one which utilises a basic three act structure thereby making it easily accessible to a Western audience. First of all the samurai are gathered, then they make their plans to protect the village, and finally they confront the bandits for an hour-long showdown. Moreover, exposition is dealt with immediately and in an almost throwaway fashion with anything extraneous seemingly avoided; though its three-hour running time would suggest otherwise, this is cinema stripped to its very basics.
Such a breakneck pace does produce some misgivings, however, most notably during the early stages. Whilst Kurosawa’s visual sense is never in doubt, the script on which he serves as co-writer would appear to indulging purely in archetypes. Heightened by the theatrical nature of the acting styles (the director’s period pictures always drew on traditional kabuki and Noh techniques), the villagers come across as either cowardly or weak, and the bandits solely evil and single-minded. Even the main characters, the various samurai, each fit into basic categories: leader Takeshi Shimura is pragmatic and intelligent; Ko Kimura, the strong and silent type; Toshiro Mifune, unpredictable and undisciplined, etc. etc. The shock here is that one of Kurosawa’s fortes has always been producing richly detailed, three dimensional characters; consider the industrialist facing up to a crisis in High and Low, the naïve police officer of Stray Dog or the dying old man from Ikiru.
Moreover, this flimsy characterisation puts Seven Samurai on a par with many of the samurai pictures being produced in Japan at the time. As Philip Kemp notes in his accompanying video commentary, these films were hugely popular despite their superficiality and it is likely that Kurosawa was aware of this. Indeed, they seem to have been utilised as a frame of reference for the director, allowing him to build a foundation for the audience upon which he can than build upon. Once each of the main characters has been introduced, Kurosawa moves away from stereotypical caricature and effectively transcends them.
In order to illustrate this consider the character played by Toshiro Mifune. His wannabe samurai is immediately introduced as Seven Samurai’s comic element with the actor using his physicality to essentially act the buffoon (in many respects he’s not too far removed from Rashomon’s alleged rapist) – a source of constant amusement to his colleagues as well as ridicule. As we progress, however, the reason for such ridicule becomes apparent: Mifune is playing a farmer’s son, in other words someone not of the samurai caste. As such he is torn between two worlds, at once denying his own background, yet also unable to make the switch he desires. Of course, Mifune being the great actor that he is, much of the character’s emotion is bottled up until approximately the midway point, upon which he delivers a coruscating speech in which he expresses his ambivalence, at once a diatribe against the samurai and the villagers, and a passionate defence of both.
The speech is also important inasmuch as it marks Seven Samurai’s first use of a close-up. Until now each scene has either opted for a long- or medium-shot and allowed Kurosawa to keep his distance from what is unfolding onscreen; to observe rather than intervene. Yet this close-up marks out not only the importance of what Mifune is saying, but also serves as a wake-up call for the audience: from here on in Kurosawa will astound the viewer with genuinely breathtaking cinema, all the action having hitherto occurred either off-screen or been brutally short (an aspect which even the judicious use of slow motion could not prevent).
Such a promise therefore produces a tension, yet before Kurosawa can reach the big pay-off (and the emphasis is on the word big; the final set piece occupies a third of the screen time and deserves a place alongside the wordless heist from Rififi or The Leopard’s concluding ballroom sequence) he offers two smaller moments, both of which, interestingly, focus on female characters. (Unsurprisingly, Seven Samurai is as male orientated as the Ford and Hawks’ films it wishes to emulate.) On the one hand we have a brief romance which Kurosawa has created the tiniest bit of breathing space for (though this once again has an ambivalence which allows for another exploration of the caste system), and on the other hand we have something of an entirely different flavour. Prior to the showdown three of the samurai head to the bandits’ hideout with one of the villagers. As they watch the camera picks out a solitary female figure in a close-up. Wordlessly she conveys sheer terror and perhaps insanity – a beguiling moment made all the more powerful when we realise later that she was the villager’s wife, kidnapped on a previous raid.
If Mifune’s set-piece speech had provided Seven Samurai with a shift of gear, then it is this strange moment which concludes the build-up to the big finale. Its silence is also decidedly fitting as the hour which follows finds no room for calm, but rather is occupied almost entirely by chaos - and controlled chaos at that, as this hour may also be Kurosawa’s finest. The one predictable element is, understandably, Mifune, but otherwise the director is sticking to a tightly structured plan. During the build-up various elements are put in their place with visual aids being used to guide the viewer. Early on we get a simple map of the village which demonstrates its weak spots and it’s used once again during the battle itself, as is a chart to demark the deaths of the bandits.
All of this is merely groundwork, however, as the battle itself is the important thing. Almost wordless, it is no longer the script which proves most integral to Seven Samurai but the camera. There is a question as to whether these huge, dynamic tableaux require widescreen compositions as opposed to the boxier Academy frame (Kurosawa wouldn’t use the wider ratio until The Hidden Fortress in 1958), yet having taken the pains earlier on to map out his location, such confinement proves to be a benefit. Off-screen space is used just as much as on-screen, showing, for example, a villager chased out of the frame to his inevitable unseen death – the imagination being much stronger, of course – and there’s also a great deal of reliance on Asakazu Nakai’s deep focus photography. Here it cuts through the frame and the atrocious weather conditions (Seven Samurai plays host to Kurosawa’s fiercest ever rainstorm) to pick up the tiniest details, even amongst the confusion. And perhaps this holds the key to why the film still stands up today, and is likely to continue to do so: even whilst providing action cinema in its purest form, Seven Samurai never shirks from providing the minutiae that goes along with it. Certainly, we can be dazzled by nature of its set-pieces, but there’s also plenty more to keep us returning time and again.
The BFI’s disc has been issued twice on DVD. Its initial release (the company’s first foray into DVD production) came in 1999 and since then has been offered a different sleeve and snappier menus (as well as on-screen bios from Kurosawa and Mifune which had previously appeared as part of a four-page booklet). In both cases the image and sound qualities are identical and generally agreeable. The 1.33:1 Academy ratio is adhered to, as is the original mono soundtrack (here accompanied by burnt-in English subtitles). In the case of the former the image is mostly damage free and reasonably sharp. It may lack some of the clarity of the Criterion edition, but is never less than watchable and certainly not disappointing. The same can also be said for the soundtrack which, though demonstrating the occasional crackle, is most clean and crisp enough to enjoy Fumio Hayasaka’s superb score.
As for the extras, the only piece of substance is Philip Kemp’s video commentary. Speaking over only select scenes and moments (which have been edited together for this purpose) he is able to concentrate his discussion more fully on the relevant issues in hand and as such never suffers from long pauses or unnecessary digressions. Indeed, such an approach should be utilised more often as this piece proves an excellent primer for the newcomer whilst also providing enough weight to satisfy the old hand.