Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954) was perhaps one of the first ‘world’ films to really break out. Especially 5-10 years ago this was a film that budding cinephiles yearned to see and talk about. It also inspired the much loved American-west set remake The Magnificent Seven (1960) which would further cement the film’s ongoing legacy. However the intimidating run time (well over three hours) and the fact there are just so many damn films to get to, meant I only recently checked this one out for the first time.
Seven Samurai begins with a plot structure the film innovated, but which by now you would have seen a million times. A village, under repeated assault from bandits and realising the existential danger a post-harvest raid would pose, sends representatives into the city to attempt to locate some samurai and convince them to defend their homes. Though not without its charms, this opening section is a bit of a slog, laboured to the point it can feel a little boring. There are some nice comedic moments though and Kurosawa excels at establishing the sense of a land of great poverty which establishes the stakes for the entire film and the importance of the central task. However once the recruitment starts picking up steam so does the film, and things really start to zip along. This first act also establishes a social dynamic that is one of the film’s two sources of tension (the other, more obvious one being the crew of murderous bandits). The villagers are in a bind. They are utterly reliant on the samurai, needing to pay them for protection. But they are also terrified of them with fears of a murderous or sexual assault rampage sweeping through the village. The titular seven are a fun, unique crew. Makes the viewer want to see how they will interact and if their attitudes can co-exist enough to achieve the task at hand.
The script is responsible for establishing a lot of this, achieving the difficult task of bringing out the dynamics of the individual members and how they function as a troupe. These individual aspirations and group dynamics also evolve really well as the film progresses. Similarly, the writing of the long battle stretches, especially how the tactics evolve under pressure as the situation changes, makes for some of the best ‘war’ sequences ever. The second half of the film is a succession of military style training, tactics and brutal fights that makes plain why this film deserves its classic status. It’s also quite a vicious, murderous film. A great example of how a film foes not have to be bloody to be really violent, and at times barbaric. It’s also a film about process. Preparations, tactical planning, back and forth discussions of strategy. Again all written with a clarity that makes it super engaging and immersive. The writing is responsible actually for it being a much more immersive portrait of war than any other example of the genre.
The film also operates on numerous levels. As a siege film it is tense and genre heavy. It is saying societal level things about militarisation, as well as the role of a government to protect, to lift up and also to tax. But then it is also charming, featuring witty jokes and commenting on new love and the maintenance of it. Much of the film is stylistically way ahead of its time, still feeling fresh today. The use of slow motion when someone dies is an incredible flourish that has been mimicked ever since. Even just the use of close-ups during conversation, adds so much to the weight of individual scenes. As well as the style, the entire film is enhanced by the presence of Toshiro Mifune. Here he proves why he was one of the greatest movie stars that ever lived. He had a presence to him onscreen that transcended, though was heavily reliant on, mere acting ability. Able to balance the hero and fool elements of this character like few others would have been able to, Mifune’s Kikuchiyo becomes the clear charismatic anchor point of the film.
Verdict: Especially after the first 45 minutes, Seven Samurai is a feat of very crisp, clear storytelling. Time has not blunted the film at all over the past 60 years. It is still a vicious, cerebral and immersive examination of warfare and community that deserves its place in any canon of truly great cinema. Longneck of Melbourne Bitter