I’m been meaning to get this Series of movie posts started for while but with Corona Virus/Wuhan Virus panic in place it seems the best time to start recommending movies to buy and watch at home that perhaps folks have not seen.
Common sense tells you that a movie that runs over three hours and twenty minutes would have a slow moment or two that you can or want to take your eyes off the screen.
However that is only common sense if you’ve never watched the Seven Samurai.
There is not a shot, not a performance and not a line not even a glance in the picture that is wasted. Everything plays to the story. It’s everything that a movie is supposed to me.
If you are firm in the quite rational belief that The Godfather or Casablanca or Gone With the Wind or Citizen Cane is the greatest movie ever made nothing will challenge it more than watching this movie.
In theory the movie is about Seven Samurai who are hired come to save a poor village from bandits.
The reality is it’s really about how the process of doing so saves them. I find it one of the most Catholic movies I’ve ever seen. It’s all about responsibility, sacrifice and being one brother’s keeper and the costs that come from it.
In the beginning we see the bandits arriving at the village and noting that the barley harvest has not yet taken place and deciding to come back later when it does. The villagers frustrated by the cycle that all of their labor going to feed others without recompense look for a solution. The old man of the villege suggesting hiring Samurai. When they insist they have nothing to offer expect for food he replies “Find Hungry Samurai”.
Thus begins the 1st of three distinct phases of the picture
- The quest to find Samurai
- The preparing of the village
- The Actual Battle
For the modern viewer ignorant of history the culture shock of the caste system whereby a Samurai has the authority to kill and the villager is nothing and where rice is a currency in itself is striking, but this group of poor farmers attempt to approach Samurai who consider themselves far above them is really something. Eventually they get lucky when they encounter Kambei Shimada (Takashi Shimura) a wandering rōnin, (masterless samauri) who saves a young boy taken hostage by a bandit who considers their problem and agrees to help, they also get in the bargain the young and inexperienced Katsushirō (Isao Kimura) who, impressed by Kambei’s rescue of the child begs to be his disciple. Meanwhile Kikuchiyo also impressed by Kambei’s ( Toshirô Mifune ) actions starts shadowing them .
This entire sequence of Kambei attempting to find and recruit men to go on this quest that offers no glory or reward could easily stand alone as a movie in its own right. In fact if this picture was made in 2014 instead of 1954 it would likely have without a doubt been a trilogy and a whole franchise. Eventually Kambei recruits an old friend Shichirōji ( Daisuke Katô ), Gorobei ( Yoshio Inaba) who is fascinated by Kambei, Heihachi ( Minoru Chiaki) whose real skill is morale rather than the sword ; and Kyūzō ( Seiji Miyaguchi ) the master swordsman interested only his his craft.
These six (followed by Kikuchiyo ) head to the village where the 2nd part of the movie begins. The interaction between the villagers and the Samurai, the preparation for the attack and the bonding of them as a team and dramatic contrast as the villagers deal with both their fear of the Samurai and the sacrifices that they come to realize this entails. There is also the drama of Rikichi one of the farmers who went to recruit the Samurai who has a painful history unknown to them. It is also a time of comic relief provided mainly by Kikuchiyo & Heihachi who never passes up a chance to needle him.
The climax of this idylic scene comes shortly after the encounter between Katsushirō and Shino ( Keiko Tsushima ) whose father Manzo ( Kamatari Fujiwara ) has disguised as a boy to hide her from the Samurai he fears. They spot three scouts for the bandits coming to spy on the village and the transition to the final phase of the movie, The Battle, begins.
The initial repulse of the 1st attack fills the villagers with confidence that they will be left alone for easier pickings but when they discover that the bandits are in worse shape than them and need to conquer or starve comes the realization that it is a battle to the end. Here we see the real costs of war as the villagers and the samurai both take losses up to the climax.
Ironically director Akira Kurosawa was constantly going over budget and Toho films tried to kill the project repeatedly. Kurosawa who wrote as well as Directed the picture however reasoned that the investment in the picture had been so great that they were unlikely to let it die and successfully argued fought for its completion.
While the movie was a success the critics in Japan were not as impressed but upon foreign release it reaped rewards and directors far and wide would be inspired by this storytelling. The film would be remade in the US as the Magnificent Seven replacing samurai with gunfighters with Mexico as a setting over Japan but the reach of this film, it’s cinematography is perfect, the performances (particularly Mifune & Shimura ) are outstanding and complement some of the best writing and storytelling you will see in a movie.
Social Isolation from the Corona / Wuhan Virus might not be pleasant, but if it means that you and millions others will discover this classic it will certainly not be wasted.