by Daniel Suddes
Shichinin no samurai (Seven Samurai) 1954 Director: Akira Kurosawa Original Screenplay: Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto, Hideo Oguni Starring: Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura, Seiji Miyaguchi OSCAR COUNT: 0 (Nominated for two; Best Costume Design and Best Art Direction).
Seven Samurai is the film that recreated the epic for the screen. It is also a film whose plot has been borrowed numerous times in numerous films, and whose technique revolutionized the action film. But is this film more than a technical achievement, or something that every other film in existence has been desperate to borrow from?
Absolutely. The film is also among the most effective analysis of class warfare in cinematic history. The core of the film is not the samurai battles or the heroic sacrifices. It is the drama between the peasants and the samurai – both sides detest the other. Yet the villagers must set aside their dislike of the upper class samurai so that their town may survive. And the samurai? They are compelled to help them by their sense of duty, even though accepting the assignment is a sign of how far they have fallen.
Normally, this sort of film would end with a cliché about how every member of society needs to get along. Not so in this film. The films constantly depends on the tension it creates. Kikuchiyo identifies with the villagers, and one of the samurai falls in love with a farmer’s daughter (despite the fact that the film is careful to explain how such love can never work). Ye the villagers are wary of the samurai and what they represent. It was a conflict that was certainly present at the time it takes place. But this film has just as much to say about 19th century and 20th century Japan. There is a victory after the final battle, but it is not the victory for the samurai, as they themselves state. Many think that this is to acknowledge that the peasants had the power to defeat the bandits all along. I don’t believe this is true. What it is was a prediction of Japan’s future. The samurai and the feudal system would not be victorious. After all, the samurai (for the most part) would go back to acting like they had for hundreds of years and eventually fade away. The peasants became the true innovators who helped modernize Japan. Even if they needed the help of the traditions, they would soon outgrow them.
Now, this discussion is how the film found its humanity. In an epic, that is a rare enough accomplishment and deserves praise. But the film would have succeeded on the terms of a Hollywood epic. Each of the scenes are meticulously shot and choreographed, showing off Kurosawa’s talent. My personal favorite action scene involves the initial sword fight between the samurai Kyuzo and a villager who becomes angry when Kyuzo does not concede defeat. One must watch it to fully understand why, but the basic reason is that the death of the loser is granted some meaning. Most action films treat death as a statistic, but strangely to present violence as realistically as possible. Seven Samurai uses its technique to accomplish two goals to do the exact opposite thing. The film plays like the sort of epic that influenced Kurosawa, and each death is given special meaning to each death. There is a sense of tragedy in the film – something that the action films that have copied it never seem to understand. These are humans fighting a battle that, strangely, has kept going into our society.
Seven Samurai is one of the most influential films of all time. It is also among the greatest because of its focus on the human characters and its willingness to confront very deep issues directly without trying to solve them. I put it slightly lower than others have because it is not my favorite Kurosawa film. But what he accomplished with this film officially cemented Kurosawa as Japan’s greatest director.
The best scenes in the film involve Mifune’s character Kikuchiyo. He is the most enigmatic character in the work – a man who wants so desperately to be a samurai, and ends up accomplishing that goal more than the actual elite warriors. But before then, the character is on such a sensory overload that he cannot believe what is happening. The scene above is one such moment. But there is an even greater moment in the film. At one moment, Kikuchiyo comes out dressed as a samurai and offering the others armor. The others chastise him for doing so. Kikuchiyo then gives the most impassioned speech in the film, calling farmers liars and cheats. Only as time goes on do we realize that this is not his actual opinion, but rather a reaction to the life that he is so desperately trying to leave. This speech is one of the finest examples of Mifune’s range as an actor. He is full of rage one minute, full of sadness the next. His character is where the film finds its strength.
Did You Know: The simultaneous production of this film and another Toho Company property almost forced the company to declare bankruptcy. The other film? Gojira, known to audiences around the world as Godzilla.