Seven Samurai

First of all, there is a new edition of Kurosawa’s masterpiece out now from, of course, Criterion.  It’s rather staggering in its quality.  If you’ve never seen the movie, you’ll never have a better chance to experience it than now.  Even if you own the previous edition, just go out and buy the new one, I’m serious, it’s just rather staggering.

Plenty of words have been spent talking about this movie so I’ll keep this brief.

It’s post-civil-war Japan and the social order has broken down.  Samurai, who used to be organized warriors who worked for feudal lords, are now all out of jobs.  Some have become ronin, some have become bandits.  Nobody anywhere has any money anymore and nobody knows which way is up.  I mention this because, as I watched this movie for the fourth or fifth time it occurred to me that, on one level at least, it’s about matters of role and identity.  The movie is called Seven Samurai, but no one in the movie seems to have a clear idea what a samurai is and how one acts.

Kambei (a career-best performance that made me fall deeply in love with Takashi Shimura) seems to have decided that a samurai is something like a warrior monk.  When we meet  him, he’s actually disguising himself as a monk in order to root out and kill a desperate, kidnapping thief.  Later, when a group of penniless farmers ask him to assemble a team to aid their village in battling an army of vicious bandits (also ex-samurai), Kambei accepts the job even though there is no money and no glory involved. 

The farmers constantly complain about how poor they are, but in a land where no one has any money, they are the ones under attack because they have the only thing worth anything: food and land.  The samurai, once a wealthy, influential class, are now in the same boat as everyone else, and Kambei has apparently decided that when no one has any money, what is valuable is one’s actions, one’s code, one’s behavior.  In his case (he is in the minority among samurai) he seems to think that being a samurai involves helping desperate people in need for free.  His altruism inspires four other samurai of various background and experience to join the team.  One is an old friend, one is a genial goof, one is a remote, opaque killing machine, all represent, again, greatly differing ideas of what a samurai “acts like.”

Then there is Katsushiro, a teenage samurai who attaches himself to Kambei out of fawning idealism, and Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune, in a brave, off-the-rails Depp-like performance) as a drunken fraud who’s only pretending to be a samurai.

Kikuchiyo, we learn, was once a farmer himself, and has promoted himself to samurai out of shame for his background and the supposed glamour and class elevation of samurai.  But once we get to the village, we learn that the samurai are despised and reviled by the farmers, who don’t trust the very people they’ve hired (for nothing) to guard their village with their lives.  In fact, we learn that the farmers have actually killed other samurai who have passed through, out of fear and supposition of how a samurai acts.

And so Kambei and his team of samurai, wanting nothing but to be helpful and good, encounter nothing but dishonesty, greed, trickery, fear, suspicion, small-mindedness, theft, short-sightedness and stupidity.  Given all that, Kambei has every reason to a) say “The hell with this” and leave the village, or b) join the bandits and destroy the place.  But he does not; with each affront, he merely gives a discouraged look, rubs his shaven head and gets on with his work.  It’s all he knows how to do, and something inside of him tells him that it will all somehow be worth it.

In the end, whether it has, indeed, been worth it, is the movie’s lingering question.

And so the samurai train the farmers to become samurai too, further blurring the distinction between samurai and non-samurai.  And soon, everyone in the movie starts questioning their roles, wondering what it means to be a farmer, a father, a man, a woman, a wife, a patriarch.  In one key scene, the teenager Katsushiro is romping in a sylvan glen with his farmer girlfriend, and she literally throws herself in front of him in sexual frustration, demanding “Damn you, why can’t you act like a samurai?!” and poor Katsushiro can only stand and stare in trembling fear.  And who can blame him?  He hasn’t got the first clue how to “act like a samurai.”

(Later on, when Kikuchiyo sits mourning the death of one of the farmers, Kambei chides him by saying “What are you doing?  This isn’t like you.”  Kikuchiyo has let Kambei down by dropping his facade, by not pretending to be a loud, cockeyed brazen fool for once.  I’m reminded by Vonnegut’s quote, “We are what we pretend to be, so we have to be very careful about what we pretend to be.”  I’m also reminded that having courage and pretending to have courage are actually the exact same thing.)

One of the samurai paints a satirical banner intended to make fun of Kikuchiyo, but in the end it is Kikuchiyo, the one who admittedly isn’t even a samurai at all, who pulls the team together and turns them into a fighting force.  When one of the samurai is killed in a raid, he grabs the banner , climbs to the top of a house and plants it.  It whips in the wind and suddenly everyone sees “Yes, this is what we are, the hell with all the suspicion and misunderstanding, we are samurai, no matter what the hell our doubts are, and we’ve got a job to do, so we’d better get our minds together and do it.” 

When the bandits finally show up on their murderous rampage, Kambei does not seem fearful or tense; rather, his sense of relief is palpable: finally,  a battle, something he actually knows how to do.

When Katsushiro finally gives in to the girl’s demands and “acts like a samurai” on eve of the final battle, the results are devastating.  The girl is thrashed by her father for being a slut and Katsushiro is mortified by his actions, even though he was motivated by tender love instead of brutal lust.  When the battle against the bandits is won and the farmers go back to their simple, happy lives, Katsushiro is caught in a double bind: his girl no longer needs him, his destiny as a samurai will lead him elsewhere and he still has no idea what he is supposed to do. hit counter html code