Sunday, March 5, 2017
(November 1956, U.S.)
It's amazing how so many films that we've come to know and appreciate owe their influence to an epic Japanese film that too many people of my generation would have neither the time, nor the patience to watch. Akira Kurosawa's SEVEN SAMURAI has helped shape the stories behind two versions of the western THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, Roger Corman's cheesy 1980 sci-fi film BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS, Disney Pixar's A BUG'S LIFE and even the upcoming comic book film of JUSTICE LEAGUE. It was one of the first (if not the first) film to use a common plot element of gathering and recruiting a band of heroes to perform and accomplish a specific mission against all odds, a tactic used many times in films that also include THE GUNS OF NAVARONE and THE DIRTY DOZEN.
This historical drama and adventure film is simple enough in its story of village farmers that decide to hire seven rōnin (samurais without masters) to defend them against bandits who have vowed to return to the village after their harvest has come in so that they can steal their crops. Since the farmers are poor and have no money, they conclude their best course of action is to find hungry samurai and pay them off with food. The men that are slowly recruited are a varied bunch of men with different personalities. The friendly, the humorous, the quiet, the serious and the even the mischievous. All are wise, though, as well as skilled swordsmen, and weary from battles of the past. Despite the farmer's desperate need for the samurai, the choose to refuse to greet them when they first arrive. However, when the farmer's believe that an attack has come, they come out of hiding quickly enough to embrace the protection they need. Slowly over time, the farmers and the samurai begin to trust each other as they participate in daily training for battle together. One of the samurai even finds himself falling in love with a farmer's daughter, a forbidden love, apparently by both the samurai code and the her father, as well. When the bandits finally do attack, they are confounded by the new developments in the village. As they enter determined to carry out their attack, they are systematically hunted down and killed by the farmers with homemade bamboo spears, as well as the samurai. Despite their dwindling numbers, though, the bandits choose to make one final attack, and as the last battle begins to wind down, a final showdown takes place which inevitably not only defeats the bandits, but also some of the heroes we come to know during this long saga. In the end, three samurai have survived and the villagers share their victorious joy in song as they plant their crops.
Despite the classic legacy this film holds in the history of cinema, I must confess that, in my opinion, one doesn't watch SEVEN SAMURAI for its spellbinding story (despite it's plot influence on future films). With multiple cameras and the rare use of telephoto lenses, the beautifully choreographed action manages to fill the screen and place the audience's perspective right in the middle of it all. This is a film one takes in to experience the black and white technical artistry and drama of Akira Kurosawa. Like RASHOMON, the film is an atmospheric visual experience of light, darkness and elements of the environment, in particular a sequence of torrential downpour. In fact, I've become convinced that no one could shoot action and drama in the heavy rain the way Kurosawa could...
(though I am more than happy to further that credit along to Ridley Scott for his use of rain in BLADE RUNNER).
SEVEN SAMURAI, admittedly, is one of those black and white art house films you find yourself committed to watching because you feel your own personal cinematic education is not complete without it. And while it's surely a brilliant motion picture, it's also surely lengthy and tedious to watch. Even the action of the battle of swords has its limitations in just how much it will thrill you. After all, this is not the action we know by today's standards of movies. It's action driven by art and drama, and the technical magic of the man who was perhaps the greatest Japanese director of all time. You don't want to deny yourself that experience.
Kambei Shimada: "Train yourself, distinguish yourself in war. But time flies. Before your dream materializes, you get gray hair. By that time your parents and friends are dead and gone."