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.
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