What a great pleasure it was to watch Seven Samurai!
Despite the timeless beauty of Seven Samurai, it is when the film is seen in context that the power of its resonance through the ages is best recognised. This is a film made in 1954 at a time when Japan was reeling from the aftershocks of American onslaught. This is a frame by frame film, every image set up with skill and attention to beauty by the great painter turned artist, Akira Kurosawa. While researching this film, I found many extra nuances, particular to the Japanese culture, with which I was unfamiliar, as Kurosawa turns his attention to his wounded people in an attempt to help them remember their history and their pride as he warns against the perils of war. Here is one of the many examples I found from Clayton Ray Randell’s excellent analysis on Where was it now blog:
Someone not familiar with Japan or not very observant may miss some of the hints that are given as to character and narrative. As an example there is a shot in the city where Sitiji meets his old friend Kambei at the stable. When Kambei asks Sitiji if he is tired of fighting Sitiji stoops down and turns his slippers towards the door, signaling his willingness to leave with Kambei for another battle.
Many shots in Seven Samurai are instantly recognizable as becoming staples of the western / action / war genres. I could name so many, but a classic example I found was the scene where the Samurai are talking with the villagers. When the villagers have spent some time training with the samurai and have begun to trust them they are gathered together in the village center. This is the same place where the entire village was earlier lamenting their fate upon news of the bandits plan to come and steal the crops from the village. They have returned and are surrounding Kambei and Sitiji as he speaks to them. The villagers are sitting in an organized circle, shoulder-to-shoulder, and facing Kambei. The camera travels around the outside of the circle facing in on a long dolly shot. We see the sitting villagers and a full shot of Kambei and Sitiji from eye level. It is obvious the point made in this sequence is that the villagers and the samurai have formed a force and have chosen leadership. More striking than this is the fact that each villager has a spear over his shoulder pointing out of the circle. As the camera moves around the circle the points of the spears jut out at the audience almost appearing to stick out of the screen. This gives the previously confused and weak village a menacing and imposing appearance. I believe the intent of this scene is to represent the power of the old system in Japan.
All of the main characters offer an archetypal persona or atypical social stance. Their dialogue with one another is a dialogue within a culture. Kurosawa may be a painter and a masterful director, but for me his standout is always how beautifully written his films are. The most powerful and outrageous character within Seven Samurai is Kikutio. It is impossible to analyze this film without addressing Tosiro Mifune’s orphan turned samurai. Mifune’s performance in the Seven Samurai is canonical. Its success would anchor Mifune’s career in the samurai genre; almost all of Mifune’s roles would express the samurai mentality he originates in this film, a violent, lonely man, proud, tough, and lonesome, regretful of many things that can never be changed and working to lose that regret in swordplay and bluster. Legend has it that Mifune, raised in Manchuria and a veteran of the Japanese air force in World War II, came to Kurosawa as a prospective camera operator, and was mistakenly been asked to audition as an actor. His frustration at the confusion resulted in a performance of hauteur and instantly changing moods, a style which would become Mifune’s trademark. Although he is often remembered as the leader of the samurai band in the Seven Samurai, he is not. (That role goes to another stalwart of Kurosawa’s films, Takashi Shimura, who worked with Kurosawa in 20 films.) But Mifune is so riveting that our attention, like that of his fellow warriors and the townspeople they are bound to protect, always turns toward him.
In another important scene Kikutio explains for Kambei, and by masterful extension, the audience, how the samurai and villagers have coexisted in the recent past. A cache of weapons and armor has been found. The samurai know from experience that the equipment was taken from the bodies of dead samurai or stolen from samurai who were killed while alone and on the run; likely by the very villagers that are now wanting the samurai to save them from the bandits. Mifune handles the dialogue expertly:
Foxy beasts!, They say they have nothing but, dig under the floors… You’ll find plenty. They pose as saints but are full of lies. Farmers are stingy, foxy, blubbering, mean, stupid and murderous!…God Damn that’s what they are,…But then who made them such beasts!?…You did! You samurai did it!…You burn their villages, force them to labor, take their women…
Kikutio then breaks down in tears. Kambei also begins to cry and asks Kikutio if he was a farmer’s son. Unwilling to answer Kikutio stumbles out of the house and escapes down the road.
Again Kurosawa rightly makes the decision to have no musical accompaniment to this scene (and the music is something extraordinary in Seven Samurai). Mifune is allowed and able to carry the entire emotional impact. His impassioned yelling becomes a bray as we see a glimpse into his tortured past. Kambei is wise enough to see through to the truth behind Kikutio’s bravado. Kurosawa uses one edit during Kikutio’s speech. The majority of it is a medium shot of Kikutio’s bust. He has dressed up as though he is a small boy playing at being a samurai. The only break is to show Kikutio throw a handful of arrows against the wall, a moment of unleashed anger and frustration within a context that givers it new meaning. All those who are caught between the shame of their position in life and their pride in that same position share Kikutio’s torment. Wanting to exist on the next level but resenting it at the same time. Kikutio has to find an outlet for his anger and passion. After the death of Gorobei and Yohei, Kikutio finds his place within the ranks of the Samurai – even if he is never to become one.
I can’t talk about all the powerdul scenes in Seven Samurai – it is a long, dense complex film – but one that I can’t ignore is the story behind Rikiti. We know from the beginning that something has happened to Rikiti at the hands of the bandits. He is the most desperate to find samurai and fight back. He is filled with fire and rage that is difficult to understand.
Kyuro, Heinati, Kikutio and Rikiti head off to the bandits hideout to mount a surprise attack. They come down a tight valley and find the bandits asleep in their huts. The samurai set fire to the huts and prepare to kill the bandits as they are smoked out. Peering through the cracks in the hut Kyuro and Heinati see a young woman wake up. Kurosawa uses a soft focus and a medium shot to introduce us. She is beautiful but something is wrong. The woman appears dazed, maybe even drugged. She seems to have woken from a nightmare and realizes she is still living the nightmare. When she notices the flames licking up the walls she nearly yells out in terror, but then stops. Kurosawa gives us a close-up of the woman as she slowly smiles. The fire all around her is reflected in her eyes as she devilishly grins and then quietly lies back down. The samurai kill several bandits as they flee from the burning building unarmed. Just as they are about to make their get away the woman comes to the opening in the burning building. She is laughing at the carnage her captors have endured, when Rikiti sees her.
This woman is his wife. He rushes to her against the commands of the others. Kurosawa, instead of using a series of close-ups to show the emotion of the scene, uses a single full shot of Rikiti and his wife to make the meaning of the scene our focal point. Rikiti’s wife sees him coming and turns and runs headlong into the flames. She is ashamed of what she has become. So much so that she destroys herself rather than live with the shame. I thought instantly of young Japanese women seduced or raped by American G.I.’s after the war. We see someone who believes that now that they have fallen out of their class position they cannot return. Self-destruction is the answer for the hopeless.
The is a film about class, helplessness, honour, pride and all the complex nuances that go into making a human creature what it is when we see it respond to external stimulai. Mostly it is about the perils of war, the futility of the win and the devastation that occurs around it. Wonderful wonderful film.
For additional reading, check out this brilliant essay by Aakash Singh on masters and slaves within the film. Great stuff!