Friday, February 11, 2011

Seven Samurai (1954)

Shichinin no samurai, Japan, 207 minutes
Director/editor: Akira Kurosawa
Writers: Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto, Hideo Oguni
Photography: Asakazu Nakai
Music: Fumio Hayasaka
Cast: Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura, Keiko Tsushima, Yukiko Shimazaki, Kamatari Fujiwara, Daisuke Kato, Isao Kimura, Minoru Chiaki, Seiji Miyaguchi, Yoshio Kosugi, Bokuzen Hidari, Yoshio Inaba, Yoshio Tsuchiya, Kokuten Kodo, Keiji Sakakida, Shinpei Takagi, Haruko Toyama

Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai was probably even more revolutionary to popular Japanese cinema and the samurai culture on which it is based than it proved to be ultimately to world art film—and it has been a pretty big deal in those circles. Made shortly after the end of the American occupation following World War II, during which samurai films had been virtually banned for their democracy-undermining messages, Kurosawa practically reinvented the form for a new time, one that corresponded with his own brief period of optimism about the fate of the Japanese and more broadly about humanity itself.

Where once samurai culture had concerned itself with accomplished warriors of honor owing debts of fealty to feudal lords, Kurosawa repositioned the historical focus from their glory years of the 17th and 18th centuries to the time just before that, in the late 16th century, the Sengoku period, known as an era of constant civil wars. With this one stroke—augmented, to be sure, by many dozen more shrewd decisions in the composition of the story and in the filmmaking itself—Kurosawa found the key that enabled him to make one of the richest, most deeply involving epic tales ever concocted, one that has lost nary a jot of its power in the nearly 60 years since its release.

Known as a terrific action picture, I was surprised on my initial encounter by how quiet it can be, shot in a prim, workmanlike black and white, with numerous static setups, as nearly inert as pictures from the '30s, when technology more severely limited the range of dynamic choices open to filmmakers. Long takes, medium shots, silence, pained gazes— practically the only thing energizing the picture in its first 90 minutes are the wipes that mark transitions, as the story structure is painstakingly erected.

Kanbe Shimada (played immaculately by Takashi Shimura, one of the most reliable actors in Kurosawa's stable) is approached by representatives of a village of farmers threatened by bandits. They seek his protection at the next harvest. Kanbe is a man in his late 40s or early 50s, a fallen samurai—technically a ronin, a samurai without a lord, as are most of the warriors Kanbe assembles. With two exceptions: Katsushiro Okamoto (played by Isao Kimura), the youngest of them, a wannabe apprentice and the runaway son of a wealthy family; and Kikuchiyo (played brilliantly by Toshiro Mifune in perhaps his signature role), a blustering, drunken, hot-headed egotist who forces himself on the project, a mysterious figure who obviously has no training of any significance, let alone understanding of samurai ways.

Yet even this meticulous preamble, setting up the story and Kanbe's subsequent determination of a strategy and marshalling of forces, is punctuated with brief bursts of action, and always a pleasure to let oneself fall into. Kikuchiyo from the first is a constantly dynamic element, as only Mifune can do it, prowling the frame haphazardly like a man possessed and caged, hopping up and down, rearing back for harsh peals of taunting finger-pointing laughter, and slapping at insects alighting on his limbs and torso. (He is also often very funny, prone to incidents of carefully calculated slapstick pratfalls.) And there is the chilling battle between the quiet, exacting, and pious swordsman Kyuzo (played by Seiji Miyaguchi) and a challenger who overrates his own abilities, the fight artfully staged and completed with a tiny but effective flourish of slow-motion.

The alliance here between samurai and farmers (better known perhaps as peasants) is not without historical support but nonetheless remains an unusual flouting of typical Japanese understandings of class distinctions, then and even now. In fact, it's arguably the prima facie evidence of Kurosawa's deliberate recasting of samurai from dedicated weapons of feudal lords to something more like saintly helpmeets of The People. It's a shift accomplished subtly and realistically, with full knowledge among the samurai of the ramifications of their choices. Most of them shake their heads ruefully at the prospect of themselves working for food and little glory, choosing to focus rather on a philosophical, abstracted notion of the rightness of their actions in order to avoid too close consideration of the humiliation of their diminishments in class status. One of the best aspects of the film, indeed, is the sharp characterizations of the samurai. Each is established as an individual, with unique motivations, and most are extremely likeable in one way or another.

It turns out that the first half absolutely needs to be as slow and careful as it is, establishing all the complexities that come to very nearly perfect resolutions in the final hour, in and around its spectacular battle scenes: The geography of the setting and scenes—the village, the mountains, the terrain approaching it from every direction, are made to feel so familiar that I still suspect I may sometime have dreams at night set in this place. The farmer Rikichi (played by Yoshio Tsuchiya), who flies off into strange rages whenever anyone casually jokes with him about his need to find a wife and start a family. The true origins of Kikuchiyo, revealed one small detail at a time, until the final piece emerges in a shattering scene at a mill stream with a roaring conflagration in the background. The strange and ever-shifting terms, more generally, of the lives of the farmers and samurai, their all too understandable distrusts and revilements, loyalties and dishonesties, between and among one another. And a love story that develops between Katsushiro and Shino (played by Keiko Tsushima), a daughter of one of the farmers, a romance that would appear to have nowhere good at all to go, in spite of the evident sincerity of the lovers.

Once seduced into this complex world, the ending pays off with a series of battles that feature Kurosawa's great innovation for the action picture, the use of multiple-camera setups. From a slow affair of long takes and contemplative silences we are gradually plunged into a film of sharp editing, montage, and indelible scenes of war taking place across the relatively brief stretch of the village center, massed with horses and flailing swords and a chaos of human figures against a pristinely gray canvas of mud and pouring rain, rain being one of Kurosawa's specialties and here perhaps never better. It's so crisply imagined and presented that the muddy scenes of rain, particularly in the final battle, nevertheless deliver tremendous detail. It is all brilliantly framed and shot and edited, utterly so, absolutely riveting and a beautiful thing as one finds oneself all at once caught up and contemplating, wide-eyed and mesmerized, its sheer magnificence.

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