When it comes to film there are a select few that are held in such high regard and receive such universal recognition as masterful works of art that they earn the title ‘masterpiece’. Among this esteemed group of films however Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 action epic the seven samurai stands even higher on a level surmounting even the best the medium has to offer as an incredible masterclass of film and storytelling that can still feels as revolutionary, exciting and thrilling in today’s film climate as it did nearly 7 decades ago.
Being the precursor for Kurosawa’s acclaimed run of samurai films, it is astounding how perfect Kurosawa was able to translate the stoic nature and rich history of samurai into a film setting on his first attempt. Sitting down and watching the seven samurai is a rare treasure of a viewing. The expert filmmaking from the now iconic auteur holds up so remarkably well that it puts countless films today to shame with how little they are able to accomplish with huge budgets and an industry that has refined it’s practices with decades of improvement. Kurosawa was able to achieve something truly masterful in a time with much less equipment and fewer tricks of the trade. Despite its limitations compared to today’s standards seven samurai remains one of the quintessential masterpieces of filmmaking. Every camera angle is pulled off with expert precision and grace, each editing cut is concise and deliberate and every performance oozes charm and passion. Every time I revisit it there’s always more to appreciate, it’s an experience that never fails to make me smile and reaffirm my love for film as an art form.
Among the vast mythos of fighters that we as a species have amassed over countless decades there are none more revered and synonymous with honour, skill and badassery than Edo era Japanese samurai, making them an obvious choice to headline a new genre of Japanese film post world war 2. It’s only natural to be drawn to the media focusing on this brand of swordfighter, there’s something intrinsically fascinating about the lifestyle that these fighters lived and died by. The honour, the unwavering dedication to a single practice, a meditative and focused conduct as well as the larger than life personalities is something we as people have collectively sought to vicariously live through with the art form of motion picture. Kurosawa understands this desire and delivers exactly what the viewer is looking for, adding an intense flare of melodrama to equally exaggerated personas his travelling ronin and Yojimbo’s are draped in. The obvious parallel to be drawn would be the cowboys which grace the cowboy genre and western cinema landscape however for partially successful attempts to translate the reserved and capable attitudes of the samurai to an American outback setting there’s an undeniable casm of quality and attitude separating the 2 in cinematic presence. There’s something about the demeanor, the posture and historic retelling of Samurai that puts them above their gunslinging counterparts when they are portrayed in film. The absolute rule of honour above all, the dedication to one’s improvement through countless trials of death defying clashes all make them the more exciting and cathartic to view on the big screen. Cowboys are iconic for their subdued, mysterious demeanor that never gives too much away leaving the audience infatuated by their mystique adding to the badass lone stranger archetype they inhabit. However the samurai of classic japanese film are outright brash or obtuse in their bold presentation by comparison. While a version of the samurai that directly inspired the Clint Eastwood lone ranger style of protagonist exists in later Kurosawa films like Yojimbo and it’s follow up Sanjuro, Kurosawa chose to make bolder decisions with his characters in his debut of the genre resulting in a more memorable cast of personalities. An assortment of oddballs brought together for a shared goal, a mutual manifesto of ideals and conviction to those ideals.
The roots of character driven action films are found in the rich legacy pictures of cowboys and samurai. Undeniably one of the biggest appeals of cowboy films is the iconic presentation and characterisation of it’s heroes. The monumental presence of Clint Eastwood in classic spaghetti western is mirrored into the vibrant performances of Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura, Seiji Miyaguchi and the rest. Their performances as well the extras that crowd the villages and market place bleed enthusiasm and passion making It impossible to not get caught up in the brisk momentum and energy of the seven samurai. Seeing the streets bustle with the frantic movement of the market place’s busy day to day happenings while travelling Ronin proudly stride up and down the streets with an accentuated swagger and confidence while Fumio Hayasaka’s equally pronounced scores set the scenes with a palpable exuberance in the celebrations of victory or reserved cautionary stillness, preparing for the oncoming danger, wrap you up tightly in the world and conflict of the film.
The means in which the titular swordsmen are characterised are both meticulously detailed in their quiet subtleties and amusing in their overindulgence in the melodrama, bold in the volume in which their mannerisms and exaggerated personalities are conveyed. The wise leader, the loyal young naive apprentice, the old acquaintance, the perceptive traveller, the enthusiastic entertainer for the group, the highly skilled sword fighter and of course. Kikuchiyo, by far the most iconic and beloved of the seven men. Loud, brash, childish, curious, stubborn, ambitious, hilarious, wild and untamed. A beast among men. There is for too many attributes that can be tagged onto Toshiro Mifune’s iconic depiction of a farmer’s son taking up the sword and title of samurai however labeling him as a singular idea or quirk is a disservice to the enigmatic and painfully entertaining character Kurosawa headlines his film with.
The aforementioned style of elusive swordsmen works in the context of the films they reside in however the seven samurai demands each it’s lead be as loud as possible in order to fight for the viewers investment. Although not all of them are equally fleshed out in their ambitions and underlying character they didn’t need to be. Kurosawa understands the ones most important and the ones that aren’t. Some of them work even better with less development. Take for instance Seiji Miyaguchi’s Kyuzo modeled after real life swordsman Musashi Miyamoto, Allowing the conventional idea of mysterious and immensely skilled swordfighter to exist amongst the various other personalities.
An understated aspect of this film that I neglected on initial viewing but became a crucial aspect to my understanding of the film is the political context in which the story is set and how that adds a tragic edge, a more profound subtext to the story. The film starts with a text crawl but instead of introducing the plight of the farmers Kurosawa uses it to educate us about the period of political instability the film is set in. It explains that Japan in the midst of a civil war, civilian against civilian while an indifferent government watches from the sidelines, directly mirroring the conflict of the film allowing Kurosawa to create a microcosm of early Japanese society in the framework of his action film, encapsulating the conflict and harsh civil unrest that the film’s silhouette is cast against, at its core the seven samurai’s conflict is about the cruel nature of people kind instincts falling to the wayside in favour of cruel persecution in times of social uncertainty. When the film starts, the farmers have gathered. They talk about the government animosity towards them with a deep sense of dread, they know their government won’t help just like every other time they’ve been the victims of harassment so they are forced to the conclusion that they need to take matters into their own hands by hiring protection. The story of heroism and bravery is forced into existence by the neglectful society that our unfortunate heroes and civilians in distress exist in. This fear and hopelessness of the time is encapsulated by the antagonists, the bandits and their pursuits of what little the village has. A group of people targeting a poor group of farmers without fear of repercussion, the civil conflict perpetuated by the government that sits idly by allowing this conflict to transpire in the first place. At the end of the film Kambei doesn’t speak of the battle as a victory. They merely earned the right to continue living in this failed system that neglects their plights, their cries of distress. All that was earned that day was a right that should never have been deprived in the first place. Nothing in the world changes, the cogs of a corrupt system continue to turn and 4 men lose their lives attempting to withhold any semblance of honour and unity in a period of unbridled anger, hatred and civil disobedience. However, that’s what makes the heroism of the samurai so inspiring. They were fed very little, the odds were unimaginably stacked against them, however they stepped up and became an unbreakable symbol of protection and justice separating the innocent farmers against the violence of the world. The seven Samurai is a story about innocents fearing that everything they’ve built will be torn away from them however a group of individuals step up to the plate to maintain order in a world that has abandoned the value of kindness and honour. Brought together by the unifying call to responsibility that has been echoed through the halls of fiction. They defy the system that thrives in its own insatiable greed and lust for chaos and win, however small and inconsequential that victory is, they earned it regardless. Proving that heroism always has a place in the stories. It’s undeniable that as a species we are naturally drawn to exciting depictions of Samurai in film however even more so we seek to indulge in the fantasy of heroism, we seek out stories of heroism and tales of individuals embodying the attributes we strive to embody ourselves. There’s a reason superhero stories have been such a prevalent titan in pop culture for over a century now continuing to dominate the mainstream blockbuster scene and I also believe the fact these types of films resonate with so many people is emblematic of something beautiful and important. It’s very easy to be weighed down by all the negative, hateful news and social attitudes we live through daily which makes it even more special, even symbolic of a more hopeful ambience for the future that we still find ourselves gathering in a crowded dark room with a bunch of strangers in order to reconnect with these ideals that we lose sight of amongst the modern zeitgeist prevailing our negative attitudes and behaviour. I have seen many depictions of bravery, heroism and kindness in film but none are as profoundly poetic and marvelously entertaining as the ones seen in the seven samurai. A timeless story of individuals fulfilling the role of hero, a role that our culture is desperate, deeply addicted to reliving time and time again, a role personified in the all important legacy of this timeless tale and the many others like it that succeeded it.