Friday, January 7, 2011

#21 Seven Samurai (1954)

Seven Samurai (1954)

"A brilliant epic"

A defenseless village is beset by bandits, who vow they will return in several months’ time to finish the pathetic town off for good. With no soldiers or strongmen of their own, and no means to defend themselves, the hopeless villagers pool all the remnants of their money together and travel to the local town to try to hire a band of soldiers to defend the village for them. With their meager savings, the villagers manage to wrangle together a rag tag bunch of old, scrappy men who, against all odds, manage to finally hold off the attack, saving the village for good. This age-old story is one that is well known to just about anyone with access to a television or modern popular culture, and it is most well done in Akira Kurosawa’s brilliant 1954 film “Seven Samurai”. This epic is stupendously shot, brilliantly acted, and absolutely ranks among the best films of all time.

The story of the film is essentially what was listed above. A gang of bandits attacked a small, poor village, and decided that, since the village has already been raided, the bandits should return in several months’ time after the harvest to take whatever the villagers have left. Destitute and desperate, the villagers turn to the elder, who advise the villagers to travel to a nearby town to collect some samurai to defend them. After many short fallings and failure, the villagers manage to gain the allegiance of Shimada Kambei, a clever, wizened old samurai who has seen his fair share of battle. Through sheer force of will, Kambei manages to enlist the aid of 6 other samurai, all with their own select skills and abilities that make for a formidable force which manage to successfully stave off the numerous attacks of the bandits.

The film was directed by legendary Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa, who was a monumental force not just in Japanese film, but in action film in general, creating many tropes, styles, and methods which would come to be staples in the Western and Action genres even up until today. You can see many of these styles today as the film is just spectacularly shot and directed. There are many cool scenes in this film. My personal favorite is when one of the samurai, Kyuzo duels with a challenger in a scene that has been copied so many times that it is certainly a cliché now. The two samurai stand opposed, gauging each other’s skills, each changing his stance periodically. Finally, the challenger makes his attack, and Kyuzo cuts him down with incredible ease. He then sheathes his sword and walks away. It was a powerful scene, made all the more poignant by the silence that encompasses the whole of it. I also love the minimalism of the film. Another thing I really like about the way the film is shot is the abrupt shifts from scene to scene. At first it’s a little jarring, but once you get used to it, the way Kurosawa shifts from saying what’s going to happen, to showing it happening is very artfully done, and on the whole makes the film all the better.

The film is not just well directed and shot, but is also very skillfully acted. Each of the samurai is very unique in their personalities, and it is all very well shown. From the quiet intensity of the master samurai Kyuzo (Seiji Miyaguchi), to the powerful leadership and gravitas carried by Shimada Kambei, played by Takashi Shimura, to the naïve optimism of Ohamoto Katsuhiro (Isao Kimura), to the doting, almost fatherly characteristics of Shichiroji (Daisuke Kato), all of these actors play their roles stupendously. The real show stealer of the movie, however, was the lowly peasant-born masquerading as a samurai named Kikuchiyo, who is played by the legendary actor Toshiro Mifune. Toshiro plays the role to perfection, showing the cynicism of the character, while also at all times displaying the deep seated loathing of the class from whence he came, and the constant attempts to be something he is not, it is all done so well, words cannot aptly describe the true skill with which this role is played.

What I truly love above all, however, are the themes shown in this movie. I watched this movie at the same time as I was taking a class on the history of the Tokugawa Era of Japan, a time in which the era of the samurai or more specifically, the ronin as is popularly envisaged was coming to an end, and that is what this movie encapsulates. This movie deals with pride versus honor, with the first couple samurai who were approached by the peasants turning the villagers down out of hand because they were peasants and had no money. The samurai who do take up the plight of the villagers, on the other hand, come to their aid out of pity for the villagers, in the case of Shimada Kambei or else a naïve ideal of honor and bushido, in the case of Ohamoto Katsuhiro, or finally, out of desire to fight and test ones skills, in the case of Kyuzo.

At the same time, the film investigates the plight of the villagers, who saw no difference between the robbing of their harvests by the bandits, and the robbing of their harvests by the bakufu, who refused to provide protection when asked anyway. However simultaneously through Kikuchiyo, we are shown that the “honest and defenseless villager” is not as defenseless and honorable as we are led to believe, though the villager is also shown to be justified in his actions.

Ultimately, however, the film is about the death of Japan, represented by the samurai. This film was released in 1954, which was in the thick of the postwar period, a time of deep shame and humiliation for the Japanese, who witnessed the emasculation of their once mighty empire, and their subordination to the Americans. All of these sentiments are displayed in the movie as the real losers in the film are the samurai; four of the seven are killed, but not just killed, but shot down by muskets, a symbol of advancement and changing times; the era of the sword was coming to an end. One of the survivors of the fight, Ohamoto Katsuhiro, the young, naïve, optimistic young samurai who idolizes the samurai he fights alongside throughout the battle, is left jaded and cynical by the senseless killing he witnesses, and by the loss of the love he finds in the village. Katsuhiro represents the jaded sentiments of the generation following the Second World War, and the true defeat of the Japanese people. The final line of the film, delivered by the other two surviving samurai, Shimada Kambei to Shichiroji is the most important:

Kambei Shimada: “So. Again we are defeated.”
[Shichiroji looks puzzled at Kambei]
Kambei Shimada: “The farmers have won. Not us.”

This truly is a remarkable piece of work, and is definitely one of the best I have seen so far. The wonderful directing, combined with the stupendous acting, bottled together into a wonderfully told story make for filmmaking magic. Though the film may seem long , coming in at nearly 4 hours, it is engaging for every minute of it, and by the end, I was at the edge of my seat. The film starts slow, but picks up momentum at such a rate that you hardly notice yourself falling in love with it. This movie is truly a must see for just about anyone, really.

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