Seven Samurai – 1954

Director Akira Kurosawa
Screenplay Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto, Hideo Oguni
Starring Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura, Keiko Tsushima, Isao Kimura, Daisuke Katō, Seiji Miyaguchi, Yoshio Inaba, Minoru Chiaki, Kamatari Fujiwara, Kokuten Kōdō, Yoshio Tsuchiya, Eijirō Tōno, Jun Tatara, Atsushi Watanabe, Yoshio Kosugi, Bokuzen Hidari, Yukiko Shimazaki

The story: a group of heroic and wandering Samurai are pulled together to work for a noble cause of saving a small village from marauding bandits who have been stealing their crops for years. If it sounds familiar, that is because it’s been done numerous times and over several different formats. Star Wars The Mandalorian couldn’t get past its fourth episode before they resorted to the plot. Show runner Dave Filoni had already used the same device in his series The Clone Wars in their second season, though it was done in the honor of the story’s creator, Akira Kurosawa. The Magnificent Seven, The Guns of Navarone, A Bug’s Life and nearly every living dead film use Seven Samurai as a template. It is bedrock.

There is a scene, at 2 hours 22 minutes in Seven Samurai, where we see a shot of the ridge overlooking the town of peasant farmers, getting ready for an assault on the town. This is an iconic shot, used in many films since. This is the first movie that ever tried this particular vantage for an action scene. Imagine how different a movie like The Two Towers would have been without Gandalf at the top of the hill here.

Such is the breadth of the work of Kurosawa. Taken from a germ of a story he heard about samurai being hired by a village to protect them in historic ancient Japan, he made a film that has been like a rock in the river of cinematic time. His epic 1954 masterpiece has affected, subtly or not, many films that followed. I used to think it was just the story that was borrowed. Having watched it 2 times on the 66th anniversary of its release, April 26, 1954, it’s clear that this film is still a living lesson on meaningful entertainment.

Watching this film should feel like a chore. It is 3 hours and 27 minutes long. There is no time to be bored, because the intelligence behind every aspect of the film is on full display throughout. There is not a lot of fat on the bones of this film. So many shots have multiple things happening; one thing ends as another begins. The effective use of the telephoto lens allows perfect visual of those in all parts of the shot. There are no lingering atmosphere shots to artificially set the mood.

Most important, Kurosawa is finally able to control the editing process to avoid the disaster of The Idiot. He edited the film at the end of each shooting day and therefore avoided losing the shot after the crew left the set.

As described above, the story is groundbreaking. The gathering of heroes emanates from Seven Samurai. As does the scene where we are introduced to a main hero (Shimura’s Kambei) doing something heroic and unrelated to the main plot. The break down of characters for Seven Samurai is a wealth of iconic imagery. To my point:

The wise and humble leader, the faithful lieutenant, the comedian, the extremely talented quiet guy, the master planner, the wild card and the coming of age young buck. All characters got off the ground with Seven Samurai.

Leader Kambei, played by the incredible Shimura. His humble self -confidence allows the wealth characters to shine. We see this most effectively demonstrated with the more than occasional rubbing of his newly shorn head. He doesn’t have all of the answers. He’s not afraid to listen either.

The wild card, Kikuchiyo is brought to a triumphant burst of life by Mifune. This could be the defining role of one of our greatest actors. His mercurial wildling behavior, driven by a secret torment is tied to a glee filled heart that takes everyone in to its fold. The character is astoundingly scripted and improvised at the same time. It proves how much the writer/director and actor trust one another at that point.

The one reservation one could have for this film is that the fights look silly at times. It’s tough to think that a perfectionist like Kurosawa would leave this in without purpose. He had a three camera set up to ensure the best possible angle in as few takes as possible. There were few stunt performers then. The set was extremely muddy as it rained through most of the shoot. Footing should be hard in a completely soaked environment. A few times it looks like actors really get whallopped. Akira wants us to understand that war is not pretty or glamorous.

Mifune’s star outpaces Shimura’s for the first time. If anyone else played the role rather than Mifune, this wouldn’t have been the case. This held little relevance to Kurosawa at the time as both actors were finely integrated within his psyche projected from the script. They represent two pieces of the director’s soul.

The expense of the production and Kurosawa’s reputation as a perfectionist were two strikes for the director with the studio. It worked wonderfully for the director after acclaim from Rashomon brought acclaim and foreign dollars for the suits. The third strike would happen over a decade later when the profits dipped. It’s an old story, and it happens to most directors. If they had Kurosawa’s genius, we might be writing about them.

Seven Samurai should be Movies 101 for any serious lover of film. If you haven’t seen it, you should. Then when you’re watching just about every action movie since, you can remind yourself you saw the original.

(***** out of *****)

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