There are some films which are so famous that their reputation makes them almost intimidating to approach. In fact, one has a sneaking suspicion that far more people have heard about them than have actually seen them. I’m talking about movies like Casablanca, Citizen Kane, Birth of a Nation and Bonnie and Clyde. In particular, I’m talking about Seven Samurai, a movie which is amongst the most influential of all time and directed by the only Japanese director whose name is known to people who have never seen a subtitled film in their lives. What can you say about a film which has transcended its form and become almost mythical?
Well you can certainly say that, first and foremost, Seven Samurai is a bloody good movie. Richly characterised, funny, gripping, moving and exciting, it holds the viewer in its grip for well over three hours without seeming overlong or needlessly slow. Of course, it’s a lot of other things as well but perhaps its value as a piece of entertainment is worth emphasising, particularly for first time viewers who are feeling a bit daunted at the prospect of experiencing it. I think this is a problem, incidentally; some films become so important that they seem like a monument, so watching them becomes more akin to worshipping at a shrine.
It’s basically what we would now call a ‘guys on a mission’ movie and one of the classics of that genre – it did of course inspire another classic in the shape of Magnificent Seven. There is a lot in the film which is very specific to Japanese society but the story is simplicity itself. A group of peasants are threatened by a bandit leader and, knowing that he will return, hire a roving samurai – a ronin – to protect them. This ronin, Kambei (Shimura) hires six other samurai to help him, trains them as an army and they wait for the return. There is some plot complication when one of the samurai falls for a young girl from the village but fripperies are otherwise kept to a minimum. So it’s simple but it works, much as Sergio Leone’s films work, and its hypnotic fascination lies in the brilliance of the filmmaking.
Throughout his illustrious career, Akira Kurosawa was a leader rather than a follower. He experimented with disjunctions between sound and image; made the first Japanese films in ‘Scope’ and subsequently, Panavision and multi-track sound; experimented with long lenses and multiple cameras; and relished the opportunity to bring classic Western texts to Japanese audiences. His revolutionary impact results from this missionary zeal to expand the possibilities of a national cinema and it earned him the undying adoration of the public while, bizarrely, leaving some Japanese and European critics cold. His lasting influence can be seen in the work of filmmakers who saw his movies while growing up. Rashomon, Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, Hidden Fortress and Throne of Blood were taken to the hearts of film school students of the 1960s such as George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Brian De Palma and, particularly, John Milius – and given how pivotal Milius is to 1970s cinema, his worship of Kurosawa is particular significant. You can see much of Kurosawa in their films, even in Star Wars where the tutor/apprentice relationship between Luke and Obi-Wan (and later Yoda) comes straight, if simplified, out of the films of the Japanese director. Yet while Kurosawa constantly broke boundaries, he also looked back to the work of directors whom he admired – Jean Renoir, Kenji Mizoguchi and, most of all John Ford.
You can see a lot of Ford in Seven Samurai. The use of the village recalls the towns in My Darling Clementine and Young Mr Lincoln and the brigands could be Indian tribes in Stagecoach or Drums Along The Mohawk. The way the men are collected together as a group is also reminiscent of My Darling Clementine, a film which Kurosawa regarded particularly highly, and the oddball assortment of character types reminds one of Stagecoach and Long Voyage Home. But the most Fordian element of the film lies in the way Kurosawa portrays his samurai. They are a necessarily insular community within a community, carrying on with their own codes and rituals in the midst of the everyday life of the village. They fight to protect but, more importantly, they fight for honour and perhaps a sense of personal redemption – these are not the aristocratic samurai of earlier films but ronin, masterless and wandering. In this, they are the Japanese equivalent Ford’s beloved Cavalry, another separate society which has its own conventions and seems to exist quite apart from the mainstream. Looking at Takeshi Shimura’s noble countenance, it’s not hard to see Captain Nathan Brittles breaking through – and Kurosawa used Shimura on a regular basis, lending him some of the qualities which John Ford found in John Wayne.
Another film which seems relevant in discussing Seven Samurai, though made two years later, is The Searchers, in which Ethan Edwards, like the ronin of Kurosawa’s film, is forced to walk between the winds neither part of the community nor able to completely divorce from it.
Kurosawa loved westerns and critic Dave Kehr has written penetratingly about how Seven Samurai uses a classic genre structure, along with the character shorthand familiar from Hollywood films. Yet Seven Samurai is quite different in some respects from a Hollywood genre film. For one thing, the pacing is completely unlike anything in American films of the period. Kurosawa, largely freed from studio constraints by 1954, takes his time with each act of the three act structure so that the opening act – the arrival of the bandits, the hiring of Kambei and the assembling of his ronin army – lasts a full hour. Yet we’re never bored because there is always something going on and the characters are rich enough to sustain long scenes which add little to the narrative but add immeasurably to our involvement in the people and the place. Much of this is the building of the tutor/apprentice relationship between Kambei and Kikuchiyo which allows Takeshi Shimura and Toshiro Mifune to repeat the double-act which they first developed in Drunken Angel. Kikuchiyo is turned into a wonderfully comic hero whom we instantly like and who seems to represent the body while Kambei is busy embodying the spirit. Kurosawa employs a dizzying range of techniques to involve us in the characters and sometimes even in a minor character – as in the famous close-up of the kidnapped wife where the camera stays on her so long that we begin to read all manner of things into her steady gaze.
Much has been written about Kurosawa as an action director but I think he is particularly strong on what might be described as the deferral of action. His pacing makes waiting an integral part of the build-up of suspense and his refusal to pander to those seeking non-stop action results in a film which has remarkably few violent sequences until the epic final confrontation which lasts the best part of an hour. These battle scenes – the last act is made up three of them of varying degrees of intensity – are extraordinary, more than justifying the wait. The first is all air and motion, filmed against a verdant landscape and full of space. The second takes place at close quarters, shot intimately and largely within woodland. The last battle is the most famous, an epic slog-down, knockout fight amidst the two elements water and earth; mud everywhere, the combat makes a nonsense of the dubious romance of samurai fighting.
This is dirty, brutal and frightening and it’s quite exhausting to watch. Mention has to be made here of Kurosawa’s superb use of editing, long lenses and multiple cameras. He is doing everything to involve us right in the middle of the fight and the result was unmatched until, perhaps, the final battle in The Wild Bunch - a film which was itself heavily inspired by Kurosawa. We should find room here to admire Kurosawa’s vital collaborator, the DP Asakasu Nakai whose monochrome cinematography is the perfect accompaniment to the tone of each scene.
Seven Samurai is a glorious and exhilarating testament to life and heroism. The ronin represent courage, honour, obligation fulfilled and the redeeming power of heroism. Yet it’s fundamentally a tragedy because it’s about the end of the samurai class and an eternal division which can be bridged temporarily but will finally be confirmed forever. As the ending so eloquently states, they lose and they will always be separate. The home which is such an important part of everyday life for millions and which binds the celebrating villagers together will never be theirs and, like Ethan Edwards, they are condemned to walk between the winds for the rest of eternity. What has gone forever seems to be summed up in the final look which Katsuchiro gives the woman he has fallen for.
Knowing that he can never fulfil his love for her, his gaze is desperately poignant and seems to hark back to that other great moments of loss, the end of Carol Reed’s The Third Man. Moving away from his fellows, Katsuchiro seems poised between one world and another and we never see him go back to them – he is perhaps even more doomed for he is so young and has known what the poet William Empson called This Last Pain – that we should “know the love with which we were not crowned”. Many directors can make a good action film and equally many can make a fine historical film. But very few could make an action movie which is about delayed action, the force of history and the inevitability of change, let alone make it with such humour, sensitivity and sadness. That takes a great filmmaker and that is Kurosawa’s genius.
This is Criterion’s second go at Seven Samurai and although their first release had considerable merit, this time they have got it triumphantly right. The transfer is breathtaking and the special features are wonderfully detailed. This three disc set is spectacular even by Criterion’s high standards.
There is not much I can say about the quality of the transfer except "wow!!!" This is a stunning piece of work, all the more so since the original negative no longer exists. It's crystal clear, devoid of damage and offers blacks which are beautifully deep and pure. Much of this quality is down to the high bit-rate and the decision to divide the film over two discs, breaking at the original intermission point. If you've only seen the original Criterion disc or the BFI release then you are in for one hell of a treat. The picture is, incidentally, window-boxed, an effect which I don't mind at all but which some people find irksome.
The audio is equally good. The original mono track has been cleaned up and is splendidly crisp. Criterion also offer a new 4.0 remix which some may prefer for its increased dynamic range. Personally, I was happy with the mono track.
The extras are phenomenally good. The disc isn’t overloaded with them but what is there is always valuable to enhancing one’s understanding of the film. Firstly, we get two excellent commentary tracks. The first is the same that was on Criterion’s original laserdisc release of the film in 1988 and also on their first DVD release. This is by film scholar Michael Jeck and it’s an interesting run through the important points about the film and its place in Japanese cinema. There’s some excellent information here about Japanese society which will aid your understanding of the film. On the whole, however, I preferred the other commentary track which contains comments from Stephen Prince, David Desser, Tony Rayns, Joan Mellen and Donald Richie. There’s more variation here and a wider range of subjects discussed. I found this track particularly strong on the technical aspects of Kurosawa’s filmmaking. As usual, the commentaries are accompanied by an index so you can jump to bits of particular interest.
The first disc contains, along with the first half of the film, three Japanese trailers for the film and a teaser. Also present is a relatively small production gallery of behind the scenes stills and posters. Disc two includes the second half of the film along with a fifty minute look at the making of the film. As this was produced for the Toho studios Masterworks series, it is is Japanese with English subtitles and it’s consistently interesting, breaking up the production into logical parts.
The third disc contains the rest of the extra features. Kurosawa fans will relish the “My Life In Cinema” documentary in which the great director sits down for an extended interview with fellow filmmaker Nagisa Oshima – best known for Ai No Corrida. Kurosawa has a marvellous face and he holds the camera brilliantly as he discusses his career with enthusiasm and humour. Casual viewers may find this a bit of an endurance test – it runs two hours, there are no film clips and the interview is in Japanese with subtitles – but it reminded me of those superb “Men Who Made the Movies” documentaries made for American TV where the directors were simply allowed to talk without stylistic interferences. “Origins and Influences” looks at the cultural and historical background to the film and features many of the same participants as the commentary track. Once again, this is valuable to someone such as myself who is shamefully ignorant about early Japanese cinema.
The package is completed by the usual stunning booklet which contains new essays from the likes of Peter Cowie and directors Sidney Lumet and Arthur Penn, along with an interview with Toshiro Mifune. The film is accompanied by English subtitles as are the foreign language extras.
I’m well aware that I have barely scratched the surface of Seven Samurai. I hope however that my own love for the film has come through a little bit and that newcomers to Japanese cinema will find the film as exciting as I did when I first saw it twenty years ago. This superb new Criterion edition is the perfect place to start.