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


27 Responses to “Seven Samurai”
  1. greyaenigma says:

    Even if you own the previous edition, just go out and buy the new one, I’m serious, it’s just rather staggering.

    This makes me sad, because I’ve never even watched my current DVD of it. On the other hand, it makes me happy, because better quality! Now, if only I were happy on balance.

    • Todd says:

      It comes in a nice box, too.

      • greyaenigma says:

        That is the equation!

      • craigjclark says:

        Yes, I was about to say that. It’s been out for two weeks and we still haven’t received our copies in work, so this is actually my first chance to see the cover. Very nice, very subtle, very… Criterion.

        • Todd says:

          Yeah, it was late all over town here. I should know, I drove to three different places on its release date to try to find it. Had to wait a week and still most places don’t have it.

          • craigjclark says:

            As I half-expected when I was typing the above, we finally received our two copies of Seven Samurai (and the other Criterion titles that were due out on the fifth) today. I would definitely put one aside and buy it if I were in the position to buy anything. (The fact that they upped the price ten bucks doesn’t help matters, but I know it’s probably worth it.)

            Now if only we would get Murder a la Mod in. I saw The Black Dahlia the other day and I’m anxious to see more De Palma — especially early, virtually unseen De Palma with William Finley in it since he has a small but pivotal role in Dahlia.

        • mikeyed says:

          i really would like to get a poster version of every Criterion box ever made, but if all I could get was this one, that’d be fine.

  2. seijiwolf says:

    Now they just need to re-master Grand Illusion

    As long as it’s anamorphic, it’s all gravy.

    • Todd says:

      Re: Now they just need to re-master Grand Illusion

      Unless I’m very much mistaken, both films are 1:33.

      • seijiwolf says:

        Didn’t Kurosawa not even shoot in widescreen until the late 60s?

        I was more referring to the fact that when played on a widescreen TV, the original Criterion DVD looked like it was playing in an oversized postage stamp.

        Unless that’s what you were referring to. I’ll just seal myself in an oil drum now.

        • Todd says:

          Re: Didn’t Kurosawa not even shoot in widescreen until the late 60s?

          Criterion has preserved the film’s original aspect ration, which yes, means that on a widescreen TV there are the black bars on either side of the picture.

          I’ll check, but I’m pretty sure that 1958’s The Hidden Fortress (my personal favorite) was his first anamorphic picture. Criterion’s edition of that is also a stunning print.

          • mikeyed says:

            Re: Didn’t Kurosawa not even shoot in widescreen until the late 60s?

            Speaking of favorite kurosawa, Stray Dog is an excellent critique of post-war youth and captures an almost modern sense of samurai-hood.

            • Todd says:

              Re: Didn’t Kurosawa not even shoot in widescreen until the late 60s?

              I love Stray Dog.

              • mikeyed says:

                Re: Didn’t Kurosawa not even shoot in widescreen until the late 60s?

                Even after seeing a good portion of Kurosawa’s work in the past few years, Stray Dog is the one that feels the most personal and poignant to me. Mifune is so perfect as this lost soul.

  3. thunder24 says:

    Awesome review of an truly epic movie. Very insightful with the Vonnegut quote. Will have to pick this up.

  4. eronanke says:

    I like the movie, and I recognize its greatness, but I can only look into the sun for so long- about 2.2 hours in I just want to nap.

    Hence, I enjoy “The Magnificent Seven” more, as it is lighter, and shorter.

    • Todd says:

      Luckily, the new edition preserves the “intermission” moment at about 90 minutes, so you can nap all you like between discs.

      Myself, I watched it in four goes this time around. I only have so much time for leisure viewing, and this film is not directly related to a project I’m working on.

      • eronanke says:

        Can I get some info on THAT? (The new project!)

        • Todd says:

          Oh, so many new projects.

          I find that if I’m to make any kind of steady living in the screenwriting business I have to have eight or ten different projects going on at once, hoping that one of them will move forward toward production. At this point I’m not at liberty to discuss them. I will say that one of them is an adaptation of Moby-Dick, but you already knew that.

          • eronanke says:

            Are you contractually bound not to discuss them? I have no idea how the logistics of screenwriting works.

            • Todd says:

              I don’t like to “talk out of school” about studio projects for two reasons: one, they plan expensive, elaborate promotional schemes for these things and you don’t want to be the one to give secrets away, even unintentionally; and two, I don’t wish to look like an idiot, talking about projects I’m involved in that never get made (which describes 90% of everything I work on) or get made without my name on them (which describes the other 10%).

  5. gazblow says:

    First off, thanks for this amazing description of one of the greatest movies of all time. This premise has been stolen and co-opted so many times and yet still never loses its power even in other iterations. I don’t know if you’ve been watching the episodic anime version “Samurai 7” (on IFC). Its narrative takes much longer to develop (obvious when you’re creating about 12 hours of film versus 2-1/2) and spins off the rails after a while as it devolves into a soap opera but it is another interesting conception of this story.

    • Todd says:

      This premise has been stolen and co-opted so many times and yet still never loses its power even in other iterations.

      When Pixar lifted the plot for A Bug’s Life, I thought “Well, I guess if you’re doing it as a comedy, it makes sense that you’d make the samurai performers who only pretend to be warriors,” but after watching it again last night I realize that they were closer to the spirit of the original than I originally gave them credit for.

  6. mr_noy says:

    Nicely done on the review, as usual. What did you think of the new special features? I don’t have an HDTV so I really won’t benefit from the new HD transfer, but more behind the scenes with Kurosawa might make this worth buying.

    • Todd says:

      What did you think of the new special features?

      I haven’t had time to get to the special features yet. The movie itself is three and a half hours long and there are only so many hours in a day.

      I’m not savvy to the technical specifics of digital technology, so I can’t speak to the HD qualities of the transfer. What I’ve noticed is what used to look like a grey, faded, scratched-up movie now looks like a crisp, shaded, brand-new movie. And that, in and of itself, transforms the experience for me. When a movie looks “old,” I have to make an extra effort to imagine myself in the world of the movie. When it looks the way it did when it was released, it’s like I’m seeing the movie for the first time.

      I still remember seeing, a few years ago, a new print of His Girl Friday. This is a movie I’d seen many times on TV as a child, but always in a crummy, many-times-duped print that practically made it look like it was shot underwater. Imagine my astonishment when I find that it’s actually crisp, bright and full of texture.

  7. mikeyed says:

    Ikiru is an amazing display of Takashi Shimura’s understatedness.