Seven Samurai (1954)
I don't know why I keep saying I don't like Westerns. Maybe it's the ghost of the Saturday afternoon UHF programming of my youth — the trope of the Indian whoop over gunshots that sang out from any TV program playing in the background on some sit-com; the heavily-drawn and un-ironic American exceptionalism; the dopey stunts and breakaway chairs. And contrary to conventional wisdom, I don't hold The Searchers (1956) in as high esteem as I do Lonesome Dove (1989), the best TV miniseries EVER.
But when asked to recommend action pictures with great central conflicts, I find myself including many a Western:Stagecoach (1939), The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (1966), and of course, always, Seven Samurai (1954).
It has been at least 10 years since I watched Seven Samurai, because let's be honest, at nearly 3 1/2 hours it is a bit of a commitment and I have all those episodes of Parks and Recreation to catch up with. But under the masterful direction of Akira Kurosawa, you don't really notice until the intermission that rather a lot of time has passed and that you're glad for the extended set-up.
Like any good Western, we open on a poor farming community set upon by roaming bandits, who, after looting the town, have promised to come back and steal the grain harvest when it's ready, because terrorizing villages takes a lot of effort and bandits gotta eat. Frustrated, terrified, and without any help from their municipal government, the farmers decide to hire protection in the form of samurai...samurai who are hungry enough to work for food. This undertaking is extremely difficult and risky: farmers are not in the same social caste as samurai, they haven't any money, their situation is not unique in these lawless times, and they are ridiculed by people in the city where they search for hungry warriors.
A good portion of the film is devoted to the assembling of this fighting force, a device that is fairly common now, but was not at the time Kurosawa wrote the picture. Because of the time spent recruiting the team, we come to care a great deal about these samurai and since (spoiler alert) they don't all make it, this film can really get you where you live.
The first to join is Kambei (the great character actor, Takashi Shimura), who becomes the leader; Katsushiro (Isao Kimura), his young disciple and eventual love interest of a farmer's daughter; Gorobei, affable archer; Shichiroji, Kambei's former comrade-in-arms; charming morale builder, Heihachi; crazy-good, stoic swordsman and kind of my favorite, Kyuzo (Seiji Miyaguchi); and wildman caste jumper, farmer's son, Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune), who follows the samurai jumping around like a cartoon puppy until they accept him.
The rest of the film explores the tentative relationship between the villagers and the samurai, as well as the planning and execution of a battle plan that will require the farmers to step out of their comfort zone. The relationship is further complicated by the love that develops between young Katsushiro and the lovely young farmer's daughter, Shino (Keiko Tsushima). It's a difficult and uncomfortable social interaction that eventually develops into mutual trust, all of it beautifully composed and directed.
A number of skirmishes lead to incidents of great sadness, cunning, and breathtaking cinematography. The bandits are all on horseback while our heroes are all on foot, so there is much running within the village from one fortification to another; all very tense and quite effective. Also, it seems to have rained a lot in 16th-century Japan. But there are also moments of humor and sweetness in this film, not to mention a little bit of cheesecake in the form of Toshiro Mifune in shortie armor.
The final battle is amazing: fast-paced, bloody (you don't see any), and close, all of it in a torrential downpour. I defy you not to cry at least once during the last ten minutes.
Black and white, gorgeous, epic, Seven Samurai is worth every minute of your time.
This post is my contribution to the CMBA Blogathon: Fabulous Films of the 50s. Please take a look at all the excellent entries, covering everything from THE BLOB to SINGIN' IN THE RAIN. The fifties were a strange and magical time.
5/23/2014 03:55:35 am
I had to laugh at your comment about not liking westerns, because I do exactly the same thing! This is a great example. Excellent review and a good reason to kind of like some westerns....
5/23/2014 05:00:12 am
Right you are. I'm thinking of watching My Darling Clementine to confirm or dispel the bias.
5/23/2014 04:21:29 am
I avoided "Seven Samurai" for years all because, even though I am a huge western fan, I never thought much about "The Magnificent Seven" beyond Bernstein's score. One of my Kurosawa loving sisters nagged me until I couldn't stand it any longer and I gave in. Apparently I fell to my knees and wept. I don't recall it specifically, but that is the report. I've even grown fonder of "The Magnificent Seven" once I realized what they were up against. They were inspired by one of the greatest movies of all time.
5/23/2014 04:49:39 am
You're a good sister, Patricia! I don't think I'd ever balk at anything my sister would recommend (because she's always right), but if she came to me with an unknown nearly-four-hour foreign film, I dunno...
5/23/2014 09:34:47 am
This is one of Kurosawa's best films. It is long, but that's necessary to get all the moving parts together. While I'm not a big fan of battle scenes, the way the samurai and farmers handle the bandits is rather engrossing to watch.
5/26/2014 11:32:00 pm
I'm not a big battle fan either, but you're right about this one: the horses hooves, the muddy village, all the running...so good.
5/23/2014 01:12:57 pm
Great choice for the blogathon, being one of the significant films of the 50s. You make a wonderful point about how Kurosawa builds the action slowly, by letting us watch the samurai recruitment and letting us get to know the characters. Kurosawa himself was influenced by the American Western (I think he admired John Ford), so it's interesting that this film was itself remade as an American Western.
5/26/2014 11:33:28 pm
I think I'll have to take a note from Caftan Woman and see Magnificent Seven again. It's been years. Thanks for the note!
5/24/2014 09:21:50 am
I keep reading amazing things about this movie...but have I seen it? No, and I'm not sure why. But your review has put a sense of urgency into me. Next time I have to chance to watch this, I am dropping E-V-E-R-Y-T-H-I-N-G to watch it.
5/24/2014 11:07:11 am
That's the nicest comment I've ever received! Thank you!
5/26/2014 11:34:23 pm
I wish there were more opportunities to see this on the big screen. Imagine how many others would get hooked on the genre!
Count me in on liking Westerns. Thanks to my dad who is watching Westerns whenever he can find a Television or when my mom isn't going nuts because of it.
5/26/2014 11:31:09 pm
Thanks for reading! Hope you had a great holiday weekend.
Great stuff! I got the Criterion Collection bluray for Christmas and haven't watched it yet. Have seen the movie but it's been a while. Now I have to hurry along and watch it again thanks to your post. I too always say I hate Westerns and love almost every one I watch.
5/31/2014 03:28:20 am
I'm among those well aware of "Seven Samarai" who haven't seen it. It's the daunting 3+ hour run-time, much as I hate to admit it. That said, your review inspires me to get over it and get on with it and finally sit down and watch this masterpiece.
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