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Saturday 2 March 2013

Cinema on Saturday: Rewatching Kurosawa - Seven Samurai

Four hundred years ago, Japan was a land of civil wars.

Bandits roamed the lawless country, terrorizing farmers.

Finally in this week's revisiting of old personal favourites is Akira Kurosawa's 1954 chanbara classic Seven Samurai.

And yes, Cinema on Saturday is new, I missed my own deadline for Film on Friday, but don't want to leave it a week. Really, I don't know how more regular bloggers manage it...

If you asked me twelve or fifteen years ago what my favourite film was my immediate answer would have been "Seven Samurai," but times change, my attraction to samurai culture (which came about after my first viewing of Seven Samurai) has waned and I've since discovered many other films that I now love. So that now the question of what my favourite films are, is normally met with a long thoughtful silence and then perhaps a tentative mention of some recent films I can remember enjoying.

I can't really remember exactly when I first saw Seven Samurai but I do remember the vivid exciting effect it had upon me. I'd never seen a film like it, but at the time I wasn't even sure of the film's name. This was probably in 1994-1995 (there are some specifics that let me work out this rough estimate) and I probably missed the first ten minutes or so. Without a TV guide, internet access, or any other way of finding out it took me another few years before I learned the name of the film and about the other films of Akira Kurosawa. Having since enjoyed many other chanbara films (that is, sword-fighting samurai films) I've since come to realise that although it was Seven Samurai that helped inspire that love, it is a rather different type of film, not really chanbara at all, as these films tend to be very stylised and have very typical conventions. Indeed, Seven Samurai is often referred to as a Jidaigeki (which simply means a period drama), in order to emphasise the relative lack of sword-fighting action (until the last third of the film), but as with all great films with a period setting it is actually making a commentary about modern life. That is, life for the young Japanese in the 1950s and how roles have or were changing.

In some regards then, Seven Samurai is entirely the wrong film to watch to get one into Zatoichi and Lone Wolf and so forth, as it actively shuns away from showing our heroes as invincible perfect warriors with beautifully choreographed fighting scenes.

The downpour during the final battle.
Instead Seven Samurai, despite the later action, is a meditative stance on how one could live one's life well in such hard, dangerous, and chaotic times. Unlike The Hobbit's thirteen dwarves, the seven samurai characters are sufficiently well-described and complex to call them an ensemble performance. However, of the seven there are three characters that have more of an impact upon how we view the film (how I do, at any rate). These three are; Kambei the leader, Katsushiro the eager student, and Kikuchiyo the reckless wannabe samurai. The master and student relationship between Kambei and Katsushiro is one of the many interrelationships between the samurai and the villagers, however, it is also the most persistent and developed throughout the film. Also, it is a relationship that occurs repeatedly in Kurosawa's films.

(L-R) Kambei, Katsushiro, and Kikuchiyo.

Both Katsushiro and Kikuchiyo approach Kambei as students, but Katsushiro's request (above) is of the traditional kind, whereas Kikuchiyo just walks up to Kambei and says nothing, while pacing around him; either unsure how to ask or unsure whether he'd want to serve him or anyone anyway. Kambei as pragmatic as he may be, is still a traditionalist and finally accepts Katsushiro's request and warns him off the strange and reckless Kikuchiyo. They walk away from this; master and student leaving the vagabond, but later they will be rejoined and Kambei finds that this rogue has something to teach him.

One of the most endearing characteristics about Seven Samurai are the individual performances that help define the separate nature of each samurai. This raises them above the kind of samurai archetype more commonly found in chanbara films (think Western archetypes for a similar comparison) and even the silent swordsman Kyuzo, who is closest to a stock character, is defined by; the excellent performance the actor gives, and his tragic death.

Kyuzo reflecting before combat.

Kyuzo dies from a gunshot wound, even the most skillful samurai is helpless against the power of the guns wielded by the bandits. Heihachi, Gorobei, and finally Kikuchiyo - who dies avenging Kyuzo - are all also killed by guns. Symbolically we could say it represents the power of the samurai being destroyed by modern technology, something that will come to reorganise Japanese society.

It is not just the samurai that have definition, the villagers too are shown to be individual characters with their own fears and motivations. Of greatest importance is the romance that develops between Katsushiro and Shino, a daughter of one of the peasants Manzo (who goes to great length to ensure that this doesn't happen and fails), this is the only other transition between caste roles that we see during film. The other being Kikuchiyo, who is revealed to be the son of a farmer and not a samurai at all. Both these attempts at cultural shift end badly for all involved. Still, it is the tension that these hierarchical roles create and their failed attempts to break free from them that engages us. Kikuchiyo's impassioned speech about the farmers shows this enmity and divide between them and the samurai. When it is revealed that the farmers had stolen samurai armour, the samurai are shocked and then outraged, Kyuzo even says he'd like to kill everyone of the villagers. Kikuchiyo, clad in some of this armour, then berates these so-called noble samurai. If the farmers seem like animals to them and fight and lie and cheat to survive, who made them like this? The oppressive lords and their enforcers the samurai. It is the system of feudal control that has created this terrible situation and whereas this speech helps create some understanding between samurai and farmer, it cannot remove it, nor can it stop the chaotic murderous bandits. 

The incredible Toshiro Mifune as Kikuchiyo

The action scenes are absorbing and kinetic, but also realistic and make great use of atmospheric mist and rain effects. Kurosawa was a master of editing and filming action scenes, with his use of tracking shots and sudden cuts and wipes we are pulled into the action. It is also Kurosawa's use of on-location scenery that helps add believability to the story. The setting becomes another character, the world of feudal Japan.

Interestingly it was originally planned as six samurai, with Kikuchiyo coming about quite late on in the production. Mifune was given free range to improvise and develop his character, this helps give the modern audience unfamiliar with samurai tropes a way into the story.

These samurai are all practical pragmatic career soldiers and not honour-bond devotees to tradition. There is a Zen-Bushido correlation that is shown in Seven Samurai to be one that helps the helpless, this is the doctrine Kambei lives by. It is in opposition to the warped notion of Bushido that pervaded Japan during WWII and led to a suicidally violent nationalism (such as Yukio Mishima also lived and died by). For all their adherence to this 'good' Bushido the samurai are still melancholy figures. "I've got nothing out of fighting, I'm alone in the world." Kambei says early in the film. The constant warfare of their existence only brings them a swift and sudden death (like Kyuzo). At the end of the film Kambei says to his friend Shichiroji, "We've lost again. The farmers have won. Not us." The farmers have something to fight for, their village, the samurai only have their fading ideals.

It is an incredible film, one that belies its 3 hours and 10 minute run time, it is an action film that is anti-violence, it is a samurai film that is anti-tradition, it is funny, warm, sad, exciting, and easily one of the greatest films ever made - I still think.

The village, saved.