‘Seven Samurai’ brings humanism to the action film
Directed by Akira Kurosawa
Written by Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto, Hideo Oguni
Last Saturday marked the birthday of visionary director, Akira Kurosawa, on what would have been his 103rd birthday. For years, I have known the high regard reserved for Kurosawa but have never seen any one of his films all the way through. I vaguely remember falling asleep during Ran and Rashomon during my early teens. With so many films to choose from, I decided to watch Kurosawa’s winner of the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival nominated for two Academy Awards, Seven Samurai (1954). The film is Kurosawa’s most popular in the West and has spawned dozens of remakes since its release.
This story of sixteenth century feudal Japan is deceptively simple: a poor farming village is terrorized by bandits who threaten to steal their entire crop and raze the village. The villagers cannot fight these bandits off themselves, so the village wise man orders that they find seven samurai to defend the village from the next raid. Finding these samurai proves difficult, as the village can offer nothing but food – just rice – and shelter. For the samurai they approach, this job brings no esteem or money. The seven samurai who volunteer do so because of the sheer joy they take in battle and a desire to do right. These samurai set out to train the villagers how to defend themselves and protect their village with walls and motes. When the bandits arrive once again, the villagers and samurai join together to defeat their enemies.
Even on first viewing, Seven Samurai offers such visual detail and transcends genre. Kurosawa’s quest for realism permeates the film, which has a pervasive dirty, grimy look. From the costumes to the sets, sixteenth century village life is portrayed to perfection. The richness of the production extends from the skull caps worn by the samurai and male villagers to these completely authentic sets. Kurosawa also includes flashes of brief scenes that serve to heighten his realism, shots that you may miss on first viewing. The shot of old woman who tries to kill a wounded bandit with her farm tools is not essential to the plot but adds such character and humanity to the village’s struggle. This points to one of Kurosawa’s greatest achievement: his unification of action and commentary in one film. On one level, Seven Samurai is the story of the epic battle between villagers and bandits. Yet the film is also an exploration, an allegory of the nature of society. The villagers and their saviors, the samurai, are two different castes, and even after their enemies are destroyed, they cannot mix. This truth prompts the lead samurai, Kambei, to lament, “We lost this battle too,” for the samurai were unable to overcome the villagers’ ingrained fear and mistrust of them.
What is most striking in Seven Samurai is Kurosawa’s camerawork and, specifically, Asakazu Nakai’s cinematography. The two employ a deep focus technique reminiscent of Orson Welles’ treatment of Citizen Kane. This succeeds in capturing action in the fore, middle, and background simultaneously. Kurosawa exploits this capability particularly well in crowd scenes. While it is daunting to essentially have seven protagonists, this deep focus technique makes individual character development much easier. Action continues normally in the foreground while little stories play out in the background.
Considering the sheer span of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, one cannot help but be in awe of his visual achievement. The film is at once an epic, a romance, a historic period piece, and a philosophic study of society. In over 200 minutes, the film depicts scene after scene of violence and action, the inspiration for half a century of action films, but is truly an exploration of duty and social roles couched in a thrilling tale of feudal Japan.
– Katherine Springer