Sunday, July 8, 2012

SHOULD I READ IT? Seven Samurai



           “Seven Samurai” is probably the most famous Japanese movie.  It was directed by the acclaimed Akiro Kurosawa and released in 1954.  It was the most expensive Japanese movie up to that time.  Although Kurosawa was influenced by Westerns like those of John Ford, “Seven Samurai” is more influencer than influenced.  Besides the obvious influence on the remake “Magnificent Seven”, it established several conventions that became common, especially in American Westerns.  One of these is introducing the main character in an early scene involving an action that will be unrelated to the main activity dominating the rest of the plot.  Think “Magnificent Seven’s"  taking the body to the graveyard scene.  Second, the reluctant heroes helping people they at first cannot relate to.  Third, one of the heroes falls in love with a local girl.  Lastly, the wimpy villagers eventually learn to stand up for themselves.  Most important, “Seven Samurai” is probably the first significant movie to have a group of skilled killers recruited for a suicide mission as in “Guns of Navarone” and “The Dirty Dozen”.

                The movie is set in "Warring States" period of Japan.  Because of a lack of central government and constant civil wars, life is very rough for the lower class.    “Land taxes, forced labor, war, drought… the gods want us farmers dead!”  To make matters worse,  bandits are threatening a village.  They will be coming back after the harvest. The village elder convinces the peasants to defend their property and women by hiring some “hungry samurai”.  Samurai were the knights of medieval Japan.  The hungry ones are called “ronin”.  They are unemployed because their lords are dead or out of business.  Some retained the bushido code of the warrior similar to the code of chivalry, others became bandits.
                Some villagers go to town to find ronin who are willing to take on 40 bandits in exchange for a handful of rice per day.  Most laugh at them, but they convince a veteran named Kambei to take up their cause.  We first meet him cutting off his topknot (a symbol of samurai status) and balding himself to disguise himself as a monk so he can rescue a child and kill a child abductor.  Here are the other six:
Gorobei – second in command; smart and likable; expert archer
Shichiroji – old friend of Kambei
Heihachi -  wood chopper, not a skilled swordsman; charming
Kyuzo -  very skilled swordsman; laconic loner
Katsushiro -  young samurai wannabe who wants to be a disciple of Kambei
Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune) – crazy blowhard who insists on coming along

                When they arrive, the timid villagers are hiding, but when Kikuchiyo sounds the alarm they come swarming out begging for protection from the bandits.  Kikuchiyo lays into them for their hypocrisy and gains the respect of the others.  Later, Kikuchiyo takes up for the peasants (he was one himself) when they find out the villagers had killed wandering samurai in the past.  He shames the others by pointing out the buffeting common for peasants.
                The samurai supervise construction of defenses and training of the peasants to help in the defense  (another influential motif).  A romance develops between Katsushiro and Shino.  Her father is anti-samurai, naturally.  Discovery of the affair results in use of the Japanese word for “slut”.  It’s time for action after the leisurely build-up and character development.  First there is the raid on the bandit camp to cut down the odds.  This results in the first subtraction from the seven.
                Soon after, the bandits make their first attempt on the village.  Although they have a technology advantage with their three muskets (all the samurai deaths will be by gunfire), the defenses hold and the strategy of luring bandits to their deaths is effective.  During the night, Kyuzo sneaks off, kills two, returns with a musket and promptly falls asleep.  This dude is one badass.
Mifune as Kikuchiyo

                In the main attack, the strategy is to let in one bandit at a time and allow the peasants to finish them with spears.  Even the women participate.  Ever the glory-hound, Kikuchiyo infiltrates the bandit camp and returns with a second musket.  While he is gone some of the bandits get through his position resulting in a crisis.  Kambei scolds him:  “There’s nothing heroic about selfish grabbing of glory.”
Kikuchiyo and Kyuzo 
                Spoiler Alert:  For the final assault, it is decided to let all the remaining bandits in together.  In a driving rainstorm, there is lots of riding back and forth.  Kambei shoots several with a bow, but the bandit leader hides in a hut and proceeds to kill numbers three and four before being stabbed to death.  As usual in cinema, the death of the leading villain brings the fighting to a close.  The samurai have won the battle, but the peasants are the beneficiaries.  Kambei:  “The victory belongs to the peasants, not to us.”  We leave the village with the peasants in the fields – the men singing, the women planting.
                “Seven Samurai” is justifiably famous.  It is a marvel of film-making.  The cinematography is outstanding with Kurosawa choreographing multiple cameras.  We also see one of the first uses of slow motion violence.  The sound effects are noteworthy, especially the thundering hooves of horses.  The music fits the scenes, but more importantly there are different themes for the various characters and for the peasants and the bandits.  The acting is fine and each of the seven has a distinct personality.  You care about them.   
                The movie is not meant to be historical, but it is an accurate depiction of the turmoil of the Warring States period of Japanese history.  The year is 1587 which is in the middle of that long stretch.  There were many unemployed samurai roaming around and the peasantry did suffer greatly from the lack of law and order.  The rigid caste structure remained which is evident in the gulf between the samurai and the villagers.  It is an uneasy alliance.  Ironically, the movie does not make it clear that the bandits would have most likely been unemployed samurai as well.  Each of the main characters (with the exception of Kikuchiyo – Kurosawa created him for comic relief and told Mifune to run with it) was based on an actual person.
                The movie fits well into the war movie genre partly because of the combat, but also because it is strong on strategy and tactics.  The movie goes out of its way to clearly outline the samurais’ plans.  It is a good study in leadership.  Kambei is a good role model.  He is stoical in the face of crises.  He keeps morale up with humorous jibes.  He rubs his head when pondering problems (a trait Lucas gave Yoda in homage).
                The movie is not perfect.  It is very long (the original cut was 3 hours, 27 minutes).  There is a lot of frenetic running around.  The enemy are not personified.  We know nothing about their leader, for instance.  Some of the acting is a bit hammy, especially by Mifune.  The running and the acting are pretty typical of old Japanese movies.  The love story is left unresolved.  These weaknesses are some of the reasons why I feel “The Magnificent Seven” is a superior movie.
                Should you read it?  If you are ever going to watch a Japanese movie, this should be your first.  It is a must-see for all fans of cinema.

Grade =  B+
POSTERCool design, but it makes it look like the movie is "One Samurai".  The prominent display of Shino greatly exaggerates  her role.  It appears Japanese poster makers are under the same pressure to bring females into the theater as American artists are.  B
TRAILERIntroduces the scenario and the characters well.  Gives away that 4 of the 7 will die.  Promotes Mifune.  Highlights the romance.  Good job covering all the bases.  A

4 comments:

  1. You seem to be in a Japanese mood. Is that warm up to the Ibuse novel?
    I know I watched at least 5 or 6 Kurosawas years ago but I can't rememeber whether Isaw this. It's certainyl a classic of Japanese cinema and I should watch it sooner or later.
    What are these grades at the end of your posts? Is that the in you teacher running amok?

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  2. the war movie buffJuly 12, 2012 at 12:27 PM

    I'm building up to Ibuse and it better not disappoint!

    I have switched to using letter grades instead of a scale of 1-10. I don't know why I didn't use them from the beginning considering my occupation. I think letters will more accurately reflect my feelings.

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  3. Have you seen Derzu Uzala? It's set at the tail end of World War One in northern Russia. A Russian captain is sent out to survey and map the great steppes of Siberia where he befriends a native guide named Derzu. One of Kurosawa's great movies.

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Please fell free to comment. I would love to hear what you think and will respond.