Seven Samurai (1954, Akira Kurosawa)
Just shy of a decade ago, Seven Samurai was, if I’m not mistaken, not just the first Kurosawa film I saw but very possibly the first Japanese film I ever saw. It certainly is a daunting, if logical, choice — the sort of formidable cinematic achievement so often spoken of in hushed tones, including in circles of people that seldom investigate foreign films very deeply. My tastes were well formed even if my understanding of them wasn’t, and I was immediately taken by all the stuff that, presumably, would impress just about anyone: the immaculately beautiful black & white cinematography of Asakazu Nakai, the distant pounding of Fumio Hayasaka’s music, and the sense of being captivated by a great storyteller, one determined to take me someplace distant and deeply unfamiliar. Yet just as impressive was how welcoming and clear it seemed, and still seems, to a modern viewer, because so many of Kurosawa’s tropes have been cribbed and adapted endlessly by subsequent directors of epic period and action films. Beyond its obvious artistic virtues, it’s tremendously accessible. Just the bare facts of its story are enough to grip you: the samurai of the title nobly agree to protect a poor village from a group of crazed bandits who intend to rob them of their crops. Unpaid, unrewarded, these seven painstakingly recruited men fight for nothing more than honor and justice — but Kurosawa has no time for blank hero worship, instead passionately exploring every dark and affirming implication of this matter.
With that having been said, there were a few respects in which I don’t believe I was ready for this movie, and in retrospect I deeply wish I had started with a different Akira Kurosawa film: perhaps Rashomon or Ikiru, or High and Low (which remains my favorite), all three of which are more in my wheelhouse genre-wise, or even Yojimbo, which isn’t necessarily but is quicker, dirtier, meaner. Long, drawn-out, intimately detailed action sequences are far from my favorite part of going to the movies, and the 207 minutes of Seven Samurai, despite all of the variance and the obviously careful character development, overwhelmed me. I could appreciate the rain, the distorted faces, the triumphs, the closing sense of crushing futility, but it was hard for me to sit still.
Perhaps it makes some difference to note that on this first pass, I was seated in front of a 24-inch television screen in the middle of the night, the sound low, watching a VHS tape I had dubbed from TCM. I paused the film once or twice but never actually sat up from it for more than five minutes, and endured the full breadth of its three and a half hours all in one morning before going to work. Though I’m somewhat distressed to learn that I didn’t write a word about the film at the time, my final impression was that it was unquestionably brilliant — and for my tastes, far too long, even repetitive. Further exploring the director’s films in the years to come, my conclusion was complicated slightly by my further feeling that I simply preferred Kurosawa’s straight dramas and thrillers, like those mentioned above, to his action films and (especially) his large-scale period pieces such as Ran. Whereas the dramas of city ordinances and bureaucratic cruelty in Ikiru were riveting to me, as was the harrowing deconstruction of fallible eyewitness testimony in Rashomon, anything involving warriors and their detailed plans of attack faced an uphill battle (…) for me for the same reason something obviously less artistically vital like Lord of the Rings does: action sequences generally bore me, even many of those that are well-mounted, and I especially struggle when they’re paired with complex mythologies or a convoluted historical context. None of which is to say I did not agree that it was an extraordinary and eye-opening film; I did, after all, seek out those other works soon afterward.
Even that awareness, though, could not have prepared me for what a revelation my second viewing of Seven Samurai would prove to be this autumn. You can diagnose the changes as you see fit: I’m older and have seen more movies, sure, but it’s more relevant to this writeup and to anyone reading it that I viewed the film this time on a projector rather than a small screen. It was a home-use LCD projector, yes, thrown in ramshackle fashion upon a white wall in my girlfriend’s bedroom. (Criterion’s transfer, even on standard-definition DVD, stretches to this purpose remarkably well.) For size alone, however, the result was exponentially more absorbing. There was no longer any reason not to allow its soundtrack to envelop us either, so that in the end our senses were filled with Kurosawa’s expansive but strangely intimate, eerily real evocation of a feudal 16th century Japan. One so seldom is afforded the chance to be so entirely transported by a work of art — I urge you to find a way to have this experience with this movie, and I believe you will feel richer for having done so. To say that the film shot upward in my estimation as a result — and I already rather loved it — gives only the faintest sense of what happened.
A second and equally consequential move — and here is where my purists will likely object to my methodology and hit the “back” button — was to avoid attempting to digest Seven Samurai in one arduous sitting. Except in a darkened theater with an audience, three hours is my absolute limit for this stuff; I have plenty of patience, but there’s no point to my attempting to force something like this when I will plainly enjoy it more if I break it up. We spread the film over three days, a division it supports quite logically, taking on just over an hour each time: the first act covers Kambei’s recruitment of the other six Samurai, the second act their training for the battles to come, the third the confrontation with the bandits. This is how I’ve watched Gone with the Wind for most of my life, how movies like Carlos and Mysteries of Lisbon demand to be seen, and it deeply enhances the film’s massive, grandiose storytelling in a big way.
The effect is mostly in the details. The methodical manner in which Kurosawa establishes his seven major characters, their uneasy alliance with the peasants, and the barely-glimpsed menace of the bandits only seems more deliberate and compelling when you add a self-imposed cliffhanger or two. It all becomes easier to process, more familiar, thus more effective, yet so specifically cinematic — so tied to its medium, in other words — that to reduce it to words is to violate it. One can marvel most easily in a quick read at Takashi Shimura (whose facial resemblance to Morgan Freeman will strike modern viewers immediately) as Kambei, the weary and kind leader whose sad eyes and vague humor form a kind of simultaneous audience vessel and a source of our awe; and the outrageous Kikuchiyo, played by the great Toshiro Mifune, who seems to bounce off walls with unprovoked intensity and is obviously the film’s most unpredictable live wire.
But given more room to breathe, the other characters assert themselves beautifully, subtly: the cheerful, seemingly infallible Heihachi (Minoru Chiaki), the naive young Katsushiro (Isao Kimura), and Kambei’s deeply trusted sidekick Gorobei (Yoshio Inaba). We come to know these men well, we think of them carefully as their intricate preparation goes onward, and with the extra time, the loss of each of them and the pain along the way hurts all the more. Kurosawa takes his time and ponders each development in his story like a great chess player, raising the stakes constantly while maintaining a languid but tense rhythm, pressed along by those ever-present drums. Beautiful as the film is to look at and as flawlessly composed and directed as it is, its truest impact is in the sheer art and craft of its pure storytelling, its pacing, and the way it makes every moment — boisterous to near-silent — count.
I can’t entirely disagree with my first impression. The battles do go on for a long time and are overwhelming, though I’d be hesitant to say now that it’s “too much.” A case could probably be made that the large screen, the spacing out into three sessions, and the absorption in the film at the expense of all outside lights and distractions is in fact a greater distortion of the film’s actual virtues than just seeing it unfettered on television, an argument I’m aware I’ve made in regard to films like Fantasia that I believe play with just as much magic on small screens, but it seems that evidence favors my impression that the ideal way to see Seven Samurai and most movies is in the dark with nothing encroaching upon your relationship with the characters and narrative. I was flat on my back on a mattress gazing at a wall, but it was a movie experience I will not forget. I was rediscovering a film as full of indelible images as Rashomon and High and Low, as though it was the first time. I was realizing that this is one of the greatest action films ever made, that it is in fact as much up my alley — as much up anyone’s alley who loves great cinema — as any of Kurosawa’s non-samurai pictures. For all the sadness and slowly unfolding despair at its core, as an operatic odyssey of great moviemaking it is a joy in every respect.