Seven Samurai

Seven Samurai ★★★★½

One of my most shameful "unseen classics" secrets is the ludicrously small number of Akira Kurosawa movies I've seen. This was only my third, which means I've sat down with THE pillar of 20th century Japanese cinema as many times as I've watched Spookies. On top of that, this was the first of his lauded samurai epics I've experienced, making it as daunting in its reputation as in its running time. Well, there may be no better time for the gradual build of a 3.5 hour movie masterpiece than when you're couchlocked from illness, so the coincidence of having planned to watch this ended up the sole highlight of my thankfully brief post-vacation bout with COVID-19. Kurosawa even thoughtfully included an intermission, so I could pause it to make a giant pot of soup I couldn't actually taste until a few days later. As with the movie, it was worth the wait!

Seven Samurai was the #1 title I was looking forward to in this year's DIY film school initiative, and it did not disappoint. It surprised me most by cutting right to the chase, quickly establishing that a bandit gang is tormenting a farm village, whose residents rightfully fear their return once this year's harvest is done. In fairly short order, a group of concerned farmers led by the fervent Yoshio Tsuchiya finds their experienced hero, Kambei (Takashi Shimura). We watch him assemble a team of trusted allies and skilled fighters, including young warrior Katsushirō (Isao Kimura), who begs to become Kambei's apprentice, and a spirited wild card called Kikuchiyo (Toshirō Mifune). While not immediately differentiated, we get to know each of these samurai as they spend months training the meek villagers to fight, strategizing ways to fortify the village, sizing up the opposition and taking initial measures to remove some of the baddies' advantages, such as their firearms and shelter. By the time they're actually fighting off the greedy invaders, they have each endeared themselves to the villagers and to us, and we are anxiously counting along with Kambei as each bandit falls in battle.

I normally don't rate cinema highly for doing things right (a movie is not a Grubhub driver), but Seven Samurai is that rare breed of template setter that is extremely satisfying in its own right. This is a riveting action-drama for any era, with strong characters I genuinely missed once they started dying off, and intricate stuntwork that still inspires awe on massive and intimate scales alike. The impatient trash lover in me is tempted to wonder whether this story would be as impactful if some tangents were trimmed, such as Katsushirō's seemingly obligatory secret romance with farmer's daughter Keiko Tsushima. I already know the answer, though: each precious second contributes to the conclusion's stately swell, in full acknowledgement of the many tolls a victory may take. When "The End" came up, I let out a big, contented sigh, and felt like I was closing the cover of a rich novel that had immersed me for a week. Its immense achievement still echoing around the globe nearly 70 years later, Seven Samurai only feels like it adheres to a familiar formula because it created that formula, and Kurosawa, cinematographer Asakazu Nakai, composer Fumio Hayasaka, the entire cast and every other contributor here kicked every single ass on their way to doing so.

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