When I graduated high school, I naturally received congratulatory checks from friends and family, Baby's First Nest Egg to ease the transition into the adult world (or, to speak more accurately of college, the transition into the transition into the adult world). I saved most of it but took a small amount for a minor spree to celebrate graduating with honors. One of the things I bought was Criterion's re-issue of its Seven Samurai package. To this day, I'm unsure why I spent the money; it was expensive, and I knew not a damn thing about the film. But I wanted to watch the only film then in the top 10 of IMDB's voter poll* that I had not seen. Maybe it was just fate, some inexorable pull that lured me away from the modern, cookie-cutter blockbusters into the grandfather of the action extravaganza. More than any other movie, Seven Samurai is the reason my small but greatly humbling audience is reading this blog right now.
What stood out for me the first time I saw Seven Samurai and continues to stand out today is its subversive element. Made only a decade after the conclusion of World War II, a time when the government coerced filmmakers into making propaganda pictures, many of them jidai-geki movies, Kurosawa Akira's epic slashes the ideal image of the samurai to tatters. The samurai here, collected by poor farmers to defend their village from bandits, fight not for honor nor rank but a bowl of rice a day. That is all the farmers can afford, which is less surprising than the fact that the samurai, even if they won't say it aloud, can expect no better. For a nation told to see itself in the noble tradition of the samurai, Kurosawa offers a cynical bit of reassurance after their grand defeat in the war: "Don't feel so bad, guys," he seems to be saying. "We actually have a long tradition of being downtrodden and defeated."
Kurosawa, who embraced the West as much as Ozu feared its cultural implications, forges Seven Samurai into something of a postwar propaganda piece not on behalf of the occupying American forces but as a means to inspire change in those who felt their entire way of life had been upended. The villagers who face the wrath of marauding bandits come every harvest splinter to protect their own farms, only to be forced into subservience. If they unite, however, they can repel the force. Strange, then, that the most influential of Kurosawa's pictures upon Western filmmaking, and the one most inspired by the Hollywood epic, should be perhaps his most Japanese, both in terms of historical accuracy and its open call for the downtrodden Japanese to set aside their self-pity and stand up for themselves as one people. Patriotism does not necessarily equal nationalism, and just because Japan could not, would not ever attempt to be an imperial power again didn't mean it couldn't at least be its own state.
Of course, this is extrapolation that becomes more plausible with each viewing, and may well be interesting more to myself than others. What is universally appealing about the film is its nearly perfect sense of pacing and editing. Almost exactly one hour and 13 minutes pass from the start of the film to the moment where the belligerent wannabe samurai, Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune) enters the central village just behind the real ronin and sounds the alarm, panicking the farmers who treated the arrival of the samurai with fear and disdain, only to run for their help at the false sign of danger. It is that moment that marks the true end of the first act, as it earns Kikuchiyo his place in the fold and completes the titular seven. That first act consists of nothing but character introductions, backstory and setup, yet the hour and change feels no longer than 30 minutes. The next hour, preparation for the upcoming battle, passes as swiftly. And when hell erupts in a rainstorm with gale winds, hell, you stop looking at the clock altogether.
Yet it is precisely the amount of detail that Kurosawa inserts into the frame and the narrative that moves the film so fluidly. Kurosawa neither burdens us with such plot that we lose interest, but he also inserts enough to give the audience, even the characters, an emotional stake in the proceedings. To save time, the director avoids redundancy in the dialogue where his ever-immaculate imagery tells the story, relying on Japanese knowledge of tradition to advance the whole of the first act, knowing damn well his film would play in art houses around the word. The peasants head to a local village to find samurai to recruit, but they have no luck initially. Then, they spot a crowd gathering with hushed awe around an aged ronin, Kambei (Takashi Shimura), who cuts off his topknot and shaves his head to pose as a monk in order to save an abducted child. To lose one's topknot was a grave dishonor, inferring punishment and humiliation. This samurai cuts his hair in plain view of the villagers, who stare at him as if he were possessed. Who could do such a thing? Even for Western audiences utterly unaware of the significance of Kambei's actions, the mise-en-scène and angling of the actors' faces communicates their awe until it becomes ours. To have a character speak of the moment would kill its power, halt the film, but as it is this extraneous bit of information involves the audience more deeply even as it displays several layers of Kambei's personality without him speaking a single word. We see his capacity and cunning as a strategist, as well as a dismissive sense of the honor codes that bind samurai who can no longer even feed themselves. The peasants follow him reverently after the incident to recruit him, but two other samurai tag along as well, and Kambei tries to send them away because he can not even afford to care for himself, much less take an apprentice.
Kambei cannot keep them at bay, however. Kikuchiyo hangs around like an unpopular kid circling the cool table, while young, inexperienced Katsushiro is so reverent there's no hope of getting rid of him. Kambei finds four more warriors for the villagers, silently testing their abilities by having Katsushiro lunge at them unexpectedly. All true samurai will be prepared and move to parry the blow. The way each ronin responds says something about them: the first warrior enters, successfully blocks, but leaves in a combination of personal offense and unwillingness to help farmers. Another, Gorobei, realizes the game simply by looking at the shadow the young samurai casts before he enters. Later, Kambei makes him second-in-command. (Of course, when Kikuchiyo lumbers in to join, he gets smacked square on the head with a log as the others sob with laughter.)
At last assembled, the samurai arrive at the hamlet they are to protect, only to be met with aforementioned disdain and fear. The only samurai farmers have ever dealt with have been as rapacious and thieving as the bandits who ransack them each season -- and at least the bandits work out an arrangement rather than simply tearing the place apart. For their part, the samurai are furious when they discover old battle gear and swords taken from ronin the farmers killed. And just as Kikuchiyo dissolved the farmers' tension upon the samurais' arrival, so too does he cow the pride of the ronin. "Who turned them into such monsters?" he screams. "You did. In war, you burn their village, trample their fields, steal their food, work them like slaves, rape their women and kill any who resist. What do you expect them to do, anyway?"
This interaction becomes the dominant focus of the film, and what I notice more and more with each viewing is how much more invested I become in the characters and the implications of their dynamics than I am by the masterful action. As I have become more acquainted not only with Kurosawa's canon but the works of the other two titans of Japanese cinema, Ozu Yasujiro and Mizoguchi Kenji, I must admit that the director who introduced me into the wider world of cinema does not have the same compositional genius of the peers he greatly outlived. Yet Kurosawa is a master in his own right, and his chief ability as a filmmaker is his capacity for moving through immaculate mise-en-scène faster than anyone without losing the power of the image. That does not make him superior to his more modestly (or in Ozu's case, glacially) paced peers, of course, but in an age in which the audience is denied even a coherent progression of events in action cinema, the evocative compositions of Kurosawa's mise-en-scène are an absolute delight. It is his editing of them, however, that carries the most weight.
Kurosawa understood the power of editing in implanting emotion in an audience, and Seven Samurai is, if nothing else, a masterpiece for its editing. Every cut carries a psychic weight, more so when the action explodes at the end. Each shot holds long enough to give the audience a chance to take in the mise-en-scène, to give us something to care about so when a peasant dies or a hut gets burned, we feel it. The intelligence of the cuts compound even the longer, calmer takes. We are introduced to the master swordsman Kyuzo as spectators to a duel between him and a belligerent ronin. Kurosawa communicates Kyuzo's discipline through long takes that cut only as the agitated samurai gets restless waiting for Kyuzo to make the first move. At last, he lunges and the two connect their wooden practice swords. The one ronin declares it a draw, but Kyuzo correctly notes that his blow would have been lethal while the other fighter's would simply have been an injury. Enraged, the other challenges to a real duel, and the pacing cools further. The camera pulls back and pans between them, holding until the man at last runs at Kyuzo, who moves so fluidly you know the cantankerous ronin made a mistake he won't live to regret.
These touches are brilliant, but the most remarked-upon aspect of Kurosawa's style with the film is his transition to frame-flattening long lenses, which he would use for the rest of his career. Yet he introduces them gradually here, using depth of field in the beginning to emphasize the distance between the samurai and the peasants, and even between the unlinked samurai themselves. As the characters come to trust each other and the stakes raise, the frame tightens, bringing the tragedy closer to the audience. Kambei realizes that if the peasants are to have any shot at fending off the bandits, the outlying houses must be sacrificed to maintain a strong defense of a smaller perimeter. When the bandits set fire to those huts in a rage, Kurosawa frames the blazes in a way that stresses how far away the houses are for anyone to save them yet flattens the composition enough that the arson feels closer. We get inside the peasants watching their homes burn so close, yet so far away. That sense of tragedy pervades the film, from Kikuchiyo, the orphaned farmer-cum-samurai discovering a baby left orphaned by the bandits and seeing himself in the child to a peasant being reunited with his wife, stolen and raped by the bandits, only for the women to throw herself into a fire rather than face her shame.
The director balances this sense of horror with gallows humor. When the village elder sends the handful of peasants to find warriors to defend them, some note that all they have as payment is some rice. "Find hungry samurai," responds the old man without hesitation. The farmers face mass indifference and derision in their quest, but Kurosawa slyly inserts a Fool in the Shakespearean tradition, laughing at the farmers in their cheap living area but shaming the samurai who arrogantly turn them down, pointing out the gruel and millet the peasants eat just to be able to provide rice to the samurai. When the samurai arrive, one farmer cuts his beautiful daughter's hair to make her resemble a man, hoping to prevent a warrior from ravishing his girl. Ironically, the young samurai Katsushiro wrestles Shino to the ground and accidentally rips open her robe because he does mistake her for a man and finds her behavior suspicious. Because of the father's actions, the two young lovers meet and enter into a relationship that provides a light relief in the film's darkest moments. Even the casting suggests a humorous bent: Bokuzen Hidari, the teetotaler comedian who gained fame for his convincing drunken pantomimes, is hilarious as the constantly sobbing old man whose grief and terror is so incessant that at some point you just have to laugh, then you find you never stop laughing.
No one, however, makes as big an impression, comic or severe, as Mifune, who pours the totality of his physical expression into Kikuchiyo. I confess that, Mifune fan that I am, I find aspects of his performance in Rashomon to simply be too much, too broad and farcical for a rapist-murderer. But here, he is something else entirely. The spirit of the film imbues him, uses him as its messenger: his Freudian sword and galloping trot are pure comedy, while the moment of anguish he has over an abandoned baby who's parents just died captures the pain and despair that links these characters. Mifune's tics could make Woody Allen look centered and calm: he scratches restlessly at his beard, randomly rears back and laughs in a booming, fake tone and does not run so much as bound like a bipedal antelope. But his drunken caterwauling has an innate charm, and as much as he might be the clown of the group, it is precisely his goofiness that softens the samurai.
His clothes are always ragged, not frayed and torn but merely left open in animalistic threat. But it also links him to the farmers, who can barely afford the clothes they themselves probably made. When the bandits finally attack, they burn the outlying homes beyond the defensive perimeter. Kikuchiyo finds an abandoned baby by the site, and suddenly sees his own life in this new orphan. "This baby is me!" That barely concealed pain explains Kikuchiyo's erratic behavior and his ability to unify the samurai and the farmers, but Mifune plays that pathos less as psychological backstory than its own competing force for Kikuchiyo's behavior. Mifune excelled at playing characters with extreme confidence (whether they deserved to display it or not), but when a close-up catches his eyes, Mifune communicates a deep insecurity and a desire to please. He laughs and boasts constantly, but when the others have even a light chuckle at his expense, he looks devastated. The tough front dissolves, as does the comic inversion of that front. All we see is the man, a man who runs headlong into any situation to try to outpace his own insecurity. Small wonder, then, that he dies with his bare ass in the air.
Seven Samurai is, without a doubt, a Western, backed up by an epic score filled with pounding drums and brass that makes every shot bombastic. But it also contains some of Kurosawa's more trenchant views of society, as piercing as his more modern films. The use of the musket as a device in the film has a slight anti-Western/technological bent, but Kurosawa goes to great pains to dispel any sense of honor in classical fighting: the peasants, the overwhelming numbers of the army in feudal society (modern society, too, if you check the link between poverty and enlistment), fight savagely with spears, unstoppable monsters being directed by social superiors. But even these noble warriors do not seem so superior to send these people to their deaths: Kambei projects an aura of authority and wisdom, but the sighs in Shimura's line deliveries belie an unspoken pain and defeat. Unlike a typical Western, Kurosawa doesn't eulogize the past, instead using it to show how far we've collectively failed to come since then.
When I finished watching Seven Samurai for the first time, I felt drained. Three and a half hours had passed quickly, too quickly, for me to account for all that had happened, and the ending drained me. It still does, a comedown that's too sobering to bring tears. Some might accuse Kurosawa of having his cake and eating it too by devoting most of the last hour to all out war just to get to a dénouement that denounces meaningless fighting. Yet it's the sort of wisdom that comes from those who've been to the other side and returned. And in the aftermath of World War II, who in the world, especially in Japan, didn't have firsthand experience of what war could do?
The end equalizes the peasants and samurai in death, the flattened image crushing the lower placed peasant mounds just in front of the bigger tributes at the top of the hill. As the three surviving samurai stand before it, Katsushiro slinking away from Kambei and Shichiroji to be with Shino, the old friends find themselves contemplating the sight before them. "Again we are defeated," Kambei sighs, to the confusion of his old lieutenant. Looking out at the farmers merrily planting their rice crop that they will finally enjoy themselves, Kambei sadly notes, "The farmers have won, not us." Kambei is left back where he was, a respected general without a home, even if he makes one with the villagers. A lord goes to war to protect his land, or to expand it. A peasant fights to keep what meager scrap they have. But a samurai? A samurai just fights until he dies, and whether he's serving as a vassal or as the savior of farmers, he's left alone once more when the fighting is done. From that perspective, the end of every battle is a loss, regardless of who is declared the winner.
*I WAS YOUNG, OKAY?!