Lazy Luddite Log


The Seven Samurai

I watch lots of movies both good and bad. Every now-and-then I should review them and what better movie to discuss than the all-time classic the Seven Samurai (1954). The whole family watched it on SBS back in the 80s and I have to say I enjoyed it more now than I did then.

The Seven Samurai is a movie by famed Japanese director Akira Kurosawa and is frequently listed as one of the top five greatest films ever made. I'm hardly a critic but I can see why they keep on saying that. For me every moment of this movie has something to offer over the course of its 3 hours. It could be edited to a more convenient duration while maintaining the story. However it would lose something because every scene is variously charming, intriguing or gripping.

The film is set in the Sengoku Period of Japan (corresponding to the Age of Discovery) and focuses on a small village menaced by bandits. The villagers know the bandits will return following the harvest and the village elder (who lives in the local water mill) proposes that they go to the closest trading town to find some Ronin (freelance Samurai) and preferably hungry ones because all the village has to offer is food. Much of the movie focuses on the slow recruitment of six samurai and one try-hard samurai and then on the time they spend helping the villagers to fortify and prepare for attack. A lot of screen time is also spent on depicting the eventual attacks and counter-attacks. If this sounds like a familiar plot then maybe you have seen The Magnificent Seven (1960) or Battle Beyond The Stars (1980).

It is well-known that The Magnificent Seven was a western that ripped off the Seven Samurai but in some ways it was a case of cultural exchange since Kurosawa had himself been inspired by westerns in developing his movie. Seven Samurai is one of the older movies I've seen and so I'm inclined to compare it with younger movies. I suppose both Japan and the 1950s are foreign lands for me. Much of the enjoyment I get from Seven Samurai comes from observing all the tiny bahaviours that seem unusual. I watch it as a kind of 'comedy of manners' examining the conduct of different classes in Shogunate Japan. The contrast between proud but desperate knights and scared yet secretly prosperous serfs is a key theme of the movie. However Seven Samurai is an action movie and the strategy and combat are also fun to watch.

And then there is a bit of romance. The youngest samurai and the prettiest young woman in the village are inexorably drawn to one another. This is despite the father of the girl anticipating the problem and getting her to pretend she is a boy. I tend to assume that traditional cultures are always very strict on matters of sex and so the controlling nature of the father is hardly surprising. But then it seems as if he is at odds with others. The village elder tells the concerned father that it is foolish to fear the loss of your beard if you are at risk of losing your head (an odd but memorable analogy). Once the one-night-stand occurs the other villagers and Samurai sort of look awkward and then try to joke the issue away. In this part of historical Japan it seems puritanism is mostly given lip-service. The try-hard samurai also jokes before battle that the men had all better love their women a lot that night and villagers of both genders cack themselves.

That try-hard samurai I keep referring to is ostensibly the central character (played by Toshiru Mifune who worked on many other Kurosawa films) but I had to look at an old movie poster to realize that. He is distinctive as a wild survivor of samurai excesses who has responded by emulating the very thing that destroyed his family. He is both villager and samurai and so I suppose it makes sense for him to be the central character. Kurosawa gave Mifune leeway to improvise a lot of his action and it produces some wonderful antics (which I suspect inspired some of the mannerisms depicted much later by Monkey in Monkey Magic). And yet in watching the film I felt as if the elder samurai who recruits and coordinates all the others (played by Takashi Shimura) was the central character. Possibly this is because I was most taken by his depiction and manner - the way he pats his shaven scalp indicates various moods with effective subtlety. One of the virtues of the Seven Samurai then is that it can allow viewers to make these decisions for themselves. And there are plenty of interesting characters to choose from.

An exception to this focus on character however comes with the bandits themselves. We never get any sense of who they are and they barely express much personality. They may as well be wolves or flood-waters - an external and destructive force that cannot be related to other than by resisting it. Newer movies would try and get you into the minds of the enemy but possibly we never need this. We are perceiving life as harassed villagers do and for them bandits are just a force of nature.

I cannot say Seven Samurai is a perfect film. There are things I feel are odd and things I would have done differently. The whole scene involving the bandit enclosure seems somehow inserted into the movie rather than a fundamental part of it. I wish they more blatantly signaled a change of scene from the village to the town. And I have qualms about exactly which characters live and die. Finally there is the matter of millet...

The villagers are giving all their rice to the samurai to eat and having to subsist on millet. Millet was just a word to me so I went to Wikipedia and discovered that millet is far more nutritious than rice. I can only assume that culture had given rice a status at odds with its utility as a foodstuff. Suddenly I was concerned that the samurai were lacking in the energy they needed to fight the bandits. But then I reconsidered this - most of the grunt work is done by the villagers in constructing defenses while the samurai instruct them.

This is a wonderful film. The black-and-white footage is charming. The costumes and sets are convincing. The music alternatives between sparse traditional percussion to swashbuckling orchestrations. Somehow it all just works to bring the viewer something that is at once thrilling and relaxing at the same time. If ever you get the chance then do see the Seven Samurai.