Seven Samurai (1954) Directed by Akira Kurosawa. Takashi Shimura, Toshiro Mifune, Yoshio Inaba, Seiji Miyaguchi (141 min.)
Seven Samurai is Kurosawa's most vital picture. It is also ground zero for the American infatuation with Asian martial arts films. G.I.s returning from WWII brought home with them a new receptivity to foreign cultures; one aspect was a rebirth of interest in international film. The silhouetted horsemen galloping over the horizon in the opening shot of Seven Samurai intentionally blurred the distinction between 16th century Japan convulsed by a civil war and the wide-open, lawless spaces of the American West. Three elements, the civilized, the savage and those who live between, define the epic of the Western and the samurai film, as redefined by Akira Kurosawa.
Akira Kurosawa, Japan's most famous director, and Toshiro Mifune the charismatic star of 16 of the directors 30 features died within a few months of each other in 1998. Their collaborations created a series of movies that influenced international filmakers and created an new audience for Japanese film. Many writers do not hesitate to call The Seven Samurai Kurosawa's masterpiece, perhaps the greatest Japanese film ever made.
Akira Kurosawa, was one of the few undisputed geniuses in film history, and Japan's most renowned cinematic storyteller. At times, he was criticized both in and out of his native country for his acknowledged debt to Western art: he had a great admiration for Dostoyevsky, as well as director John Ford. A descendent of samurai himself, he flirted with a career as a painter, much to the disapproval of his army officer father. He accidentally saw a newspaper ad a film studio placed in 1936, seeking assistant directors. After passing the exams (written and oral) he began his long career in film, inspiring such diverse artists as Sergio Leone, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese and George Lucas.
Japan had a long tradition of sword-fighting films, but much as Hollywood-style Hollywood epics often sacrifice accuracy to spectacle, they had no real relation to Japanese history. This film was meant to be different. It is set intentionally during the Sengoku Jidai, or the time of the civil wars. This was a century-long period when the military class struggled within itself for land and political power. Most samurai films are set in the 17th or 18th century, a time when the professional warrior had an entirely different code of ethics and way of behaving. The Sengoku period was a time when the Japanese world had been turned upside down. Class boundaries became fluid, and the warrior class had freedom: a peasant could still become a samurai then. Forces of change were experienced as forces of destruction. The Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood, The Hidden Fortress, Ran and Kagemusha are all set during this era. Kurosawa felt a kinship with his own turbulent wartime and postwar eras, when so much destruction was linked with Japan's creative energies and national change. European and American audiences brought their post-war experiences as well, and for many, Kurosawa's films must have been a gateway to Japanese culture, so reviled in wartime propaganda.
There is no moment in this film where the hero stands as an individual, and that in itself is an enormous contrast to the American Westerns with which it is often compared. The Western deifies the lone hero as a moral man against the mob. Samurai and farmer face each other across a gulf of hatred, but they must work together to fight the bandits, a union possible only in a time of social disintegration. This union offers an escape from war, oppression and class conflict.
Kurosawa insisted that the motion picture should be composed of motion. The motion may be as small as a shot of quivering nostrils or as great as a charge on horseback, but it is always there. He is also careful to show how a thing happens. We hear of plans for the climactic battle, but maps and words are one thing and a vortex of rain, steel, mud and death is something else. Reality is different from illusion.
Every event in the film centers on one basic question: Who will control the rice fields? Rice structures the relations between the classes and has brought the bandits like a plague upon the village. In a country with so little farmable land, rice means everything.
(Photo from 1973 Audio Brandon film rental catalogue; relic of The Golden Age of Repertory Programming)