Last week I treated myself to a couple of mini-film festivals at home, watching (mostly re-watching) a few films of a particular director or actor. The honorees included James Stewart (whose birth centenary is next week) and Akira Kurosawa, and the festival high point, apart from re-experiencing the gorgeousness of Vertigo in its restored print, was watching The Seven Samurai after many years. It was like catching up with old friends. Jaded film buffs often tend to undermine a director’s iconic movies in favour of less-discussed works, but I can’t get over what a timelessly awesome film The Seven Samurai is, and how well it holds up to multiple viewings despite its length. So what if this is Kurosawa’s most popular movie: it’s still arguably his most organic and satisfying too. (Dare one say: "best"?)
A confession here: when I first saw The Seven Samurai (the full-length, 3 hour 20 minute version), I was slightly underwhelmed. This could partly be because I’d been expecting a full-blown action movie and didn’t realise that the first two hours would be dedicated to build-up, character development and strategy. Also, being aware that Samurai was among the many inspirations for Sholay, I probably expected a clearer delineation of the heroes and villains and wasn’t quite prepared for the ambiguity about class relations and the parallels the film draws between marauding bandits and noble samurais. (For viewers unfamiliar with class conflicts in 16th century Japan – the mutual distrust between warriors and peasants – it can take a while to appreciate these nuances anyway.) It was only on a second viewing that I was better able to see the film for what it was and everything fell in place. (Later, Donald Richie’s essay in his excellent Kurosawa book provided a deeper understanding of context.)
Among the many strengths of The Seven Samurai are its economy and directness, which the film sustains throughout its long running time. These qualities are evident right from the opening scene, where a group of horse-riding bandits look down at a hillside village and decide that they will attack it once the crop has been harvested. A terrified peasant overhears these plans and reports back to the villagers. After consulting with a wise elder, they decide to hire itinerant samurai to protect them from the bandits, in exchange for food. They travel to a nearby town in groups to look for master-less samurai (ronin), but their offers are rejected. Then they happen to witness a rescue operation performed by a composed, elderly samurai named Kambei; he agrees to help them and sets about assembling a band of warriors for the task. We are introduced to these recruits one by one, and we also meet the swaggering, clownish Kikuchiyo, a man who was born a peasant but is trying desperately to cross over to the warrior class – to become a samurai by dint of his actions. He is eventually allowed into the group and preparations begin for the battles ahead.
I was wrong to think of “action” in The Seven Samurai purely in terms of the actual battle scenes; Kurosawa’s mastery of shot composition and sweeping camera movements bring a kinetic energy to even the quieter scenes. The film is full of superb setpieces, such as the shot of Kikuchiyo sitting on a rooftop with the samurai banner in his hand, suddenly looking up at the hills and seeing dozens of bandits riding down towards the village. But remarkably, each of these scenes also has a built-in intimacy. Never do you get the sense that the action in this film exists in isolation – it is informed by, and enriched by, what we gradually learn about the characters.
Take the master swordsman Kyozu, the most Zen-like of the samurai, a man devoted to the perfection of his art for its own sake, rather than to material rewards or the pleasure of battle. There’s a quietly beautiful scene where Kyozu and the excitable Kikuchiyo are on a stake-out together, waiting to ambush three bandit spies. While Kikuchiyo keeps a lookout from atop a tree, grimacing and making dramatic gestures, Kyozu sits in an almost meditative state underneath, picking a flower and gazing at it. When the bandits arrive, he calmly rises, draws his sword and dispatches two of them with unhurried professionalism while Kikuchiyo elects to play the fool, jumping on the third man clumsily and beating him with his hands. (Note: in a video essay about the film on my DVD, the narrator observes that Seiji Miyaguchi’s’s deadpan performance as Kyozu recalls the “impassive gravity and grace” of Buster Keaton! The comparison makes me giggle, for various reasons.)
Shimura and Mifune
Like Sholay, The Seven Samurai is much greater than the sum of its parts. Still, the personalities of its two most prominent characters, as well as the performances of the actors playing those roles, make for a fascinating contrast: Takashi Shimura as the charismatic, soft-spoken but authoritative Kambei, who inspires and leads the samurai; and Toshiro Mifune as his polar opposite, the loud-mouthed but endearing Kikuchiyo, who constantly betrays his insecurities by trying too hard to impress. If Kambei is the cerebral force of the film, Kikuchiyo is its emotional centre, its beating heart, and Shimura and Mifune (whose roles in the earlier Kurosawa films Stray Dog and Drunken Angel are worlds removed from their roles here) are both exemplary.
As played by Shimura, Kambei exudes integrity and discipline, but he never comes across as humourless or dictatorial. The warm, self-effacing smile on his face is the smile of a man who has learnt, through hard experience, to be stoical about many things, and it’s easy to see why the others hold him in reverence. Mifune, on the other hand, makes the most of the flashiest role in the film – this is one of the greatest comic performances I’ve seen (and one that Dharmendra’s Veeru in Sholay owes a big debt to, as Anangbhai points out in a comment on this old post). Scenes like the one where Kikuchiyo sounds the alarm in jest and then makes fun of the villagers’ panicked response, or when he steals a gun from one of the bandits, or tries to master a recalcitrant horse, all make for superb physical comedy. Time and again, we get evidence of what Kurosawa meant when he observed once that Mifune “could convey in a single movement what it took most actors three separate movements to express”.
A favourite scene
My favourite 30 seconds in the film begin with a shot of Kikichiyo sulking by himself on a rock shortly after he has delivered an impassioned monologue to the other samurai, expressing his ambivalent feelings about both the farmer and warrior class. Now he’s sitting alone, heavily (and somewhat ridiculously) clad in the armour that the villagers have stolen from other samurai in the past, and even as a still image this is a lovely, poetic composition: a bear of a man hunched up in a defensive position, arms drawn tightly around himself, eyebrows furrowed in wrath. (The expression on Mifune’s face is so uncomplicatedly angry here that I can easily picture the shot as a panel in a maanga comic, with a little wisp of smoke drawn over his head to indicate blackness of mood!)
At this point, the young ronin Katsushiro – unaware of what has transpired between Kikuchiyo and the other samurai – approaches, starts to say something in a friendly tone and draws back as Kikuchiyo snarls and waves a spear at him. Kikuchiyo then jumps up and stalks away. The village children come running after him (he is, after all, the most accessible of the samurai and the villagers have become charmed by his constant buffoonery) and in a very judicious use of sound editing, we hear the children’s combined cries of delight before we see them enter the screen from the left. (It's a bit like bird sounds.) Kikuchiyo turns, stomps his feet at them and continues walking away; even though he should by rights seem like a threatening figure here, his movements are childishly petulant, and the scene is a reminder that this is a boy in a man’s body.
There is immense energy in this nearly wordless sequence, made even more forceful by the dust sweeping across the background, a reminder of the strong wind constantly blowing through the village, dramatically heralding the action that lies ahead. (Heavy rain plays an equally vital role in the final battles.) And it defines Kikuchiyo’s character (his internal confusion, his uncertainty about his place in the world) more effectively than pages of dialogue could. But like I said, it's only 30 seconds in a great three-and-a-half-hour film.
P.S. for more about the film’s subtexts – including the story’s relevance to early 20th century Japan – see this lengthy review on the DVD Verdict site. And Donald Richie’s book is a must-have for any Kurosawa fan.
P.P.S. Anyone interested in doing me a good turn many kindly gift me the three-disc edition of the film released by Criterion, which has a treasure trove of supplementary material. The DVD I own only has a shortish video essay.
[A post on Kurosawa's Yojimbo here, and one on Donald Richie here.]