Seven Samurai

Seven Samurai ★★★★½

With both Uma and Those Who Make Tomorrow being unavailable through the various methods I use to acquire films, I have now watched every available Kurosawa film. So tonight I made time to revisit the one that I watched first. Seven Samurai has been much on my mind this last month or so, in part because my friend Jer posted a reflection on it that put its main theme of class struggle into a new light and in part because of that video making the rounds singing the praises of Kurosawa's editing, composition, and so on. It's tempting to call this film his magnum opus, but that would be denying the power and perfection he brought to later films. Instead, let us call this his defining moment.

Others have compared Toshiro Mifune's movements to that of a tiger. That's fair, but in this film, it's also too limited a comparison. When he crouches in the tree, he becomes a tree frog. When he scampers over logs, he's a squirrel. When he drunkenly rages, he's a bear. When he determinedly stalks, he's a panther. And when he walks, well, yes, then he's a tiger. I noted as I watched that he spends much of the film nearly naked (those ass cheeks just kinda call to you), and that that was fitting due to his animalistic style. His every movement is a declaration, an expression, a demonstration of some basic physical concept. He is atomic. Auteurists will point to this film as some cornerstone of their theory, but I feel it serves as a distinct counterpoint in that this film would perhaps still be great if all it had were Kurosawa's sharp eye, but it transcends with Mifune's graceful body.

These two aspects--the exquisite direction and the powerful performances--are enough to carry this into the lists of legend, but the aforementioned themes, the careful plotting, and the rousing score all add to it. The film is not, however, perfect; two flaws drag it down, one ignoreable, the other painful. The minor flaw is the script, which seems (if the subtitles are to be trusted) to belabor the film's points and to tell when the acting is clearly showing. Often there's simply no need for dialogue, but it happens anyway. At times, the script works around this. When Kyuzo comes back from his solo raid, it's an amazing moment of what can only be called bad assery; this is followed shortly by a scene where Katsushiro gushing about it, spelling out for us how and why that was awesome. The latter scene would feel awkward if it happened during Kyuzo's impressive return, but that it comes later in a moment of characterization for both Katsushiro and Kikuchiyo (who is motivated through jealousy of it) makes it work. Many other times, however, the film veers off toward overbearing.

The second flaw is much worse, and that's the horrific moment when Shino is shamed by her father. While the actual shaming is in line with what I presume are 16th century values, the scene does not resolve with any outlet of humanity for Shino. It's bluntly sexist, a reduction of a character to nothing more than an object, especially when Rikichi contrasts her "being taken by a samurai instead of a bandit." She is literally a possession here, and in any lesser film, this moment would utterly destroy my goodwill for it. As it is, the theme of class struggle and the epic depiction overwhelm this humiliating moment. Still, Kurosawa's track record with female characters is his one major flaw, and this film doesn't rise above.

Another facet of the film that might have seemed problematic is that the villains, the bandits, are completely without personality. In the most famous remake of this, the bandits are racially identified, but Eli Wallach gives at least a strong dose of personality to their leader. In Seven Samurai, they are at best identified as numbers. I can see where this might put some viewers off, if they could somehow see past the spectacle to care that much, but the more I think about it, the more I feel like it works. The film spends so much time introducing the samurai and laying out the planning stages that there's no room for characterizing the bandits, both temporally and thematically.

The story here is spelled out explicitly by Mifune's rant about how the farmers have been shaped by samurai. The bandits are outside of that paradigm in a way, because there is an implicit assumption that the farmers and samurai work within an accepted system while the bandits do not. This isn't the system of law, but one of tradition and culture (the farmers and samurai both are noted for violating the laws even in the film). Presumably, the bandits are outcasts from the same society, but they create a new power structure by being not weak farmers nor strong samurai, but in between. Part of that is their ruthlessness; there is an explicit contrast between them and the samurai as the farmers discuss their previous efforts against samurai. This is also addressed in the scene of Shino's shaming. The bandits are also implicitly compared to the samurai in their shared motivations--both sides are taking rice from the farmers. One is doing so by force, the other by agreement. That's the difference between them.

Mifune's Kikuchiyo serves as the bridge between all three groups. He was born a farmer, steals an identity as a samurai, and thus is in between the two, much like the bandits. His methods are harsher, even if they are presented as comic relief, and he acts with open lust and base appetites several times. He is the face of the bandits, and it is fitting then that he's the one to kill the most of them (and that he is able to briefly infiltrate them). His role is to speak truth, but also to reveal it in every movement. This is why his performance is so central to the film and so much more outsized and impressive than any of the others. He is the film's themes embodied. He is the product of classism and brutality, a human (a culture--the film opens saying Japan is beset by civil wars) being at war with himself (itself), creating violence and stripping away the codes and traditions that have kept it intact for so long--and that have brought it to this ruinous position. He is both the downfall and the needed change to the system. The samurai intend it ironically when they call him "Lord," but it's appropriate enough that he is given a special spot among them as a leader, even if Kambei does all the actual leading. Kikuchiyo represents the direction of Japan.

To go back to giving credit to Kurosawa for a moment, it's also worth pointing out that his use of rain in this film from Shino's shaming on through the last battle is inspired. Not only does it drive the beautifully shot ending to the shaming scene (as problematic as it was otherwise, it is stunning to watch), but it also provides an infusion of heightened chaos and drama to the final battle. Other transcendental moments include Katsushiro's walk through the flowers while Kambei and Gorobei talk in the background, a shot that shows that even without color, you can capture vibrant life and renewal through scenes of natural beauty, and Kikuchiyo on the hill with the graves, which has a theatrical edge to it that allows for it to feel sparse and empty, emphasizing the hollow grief the character feels. These are just a few small moments in a movie stuffed with them, and I could go on and on listing them.

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