Seven Samurai (1954)

Dir. Akira Kurosawa. Starring Takashi Shimura, Toshiro Mifune, Isao Kimura

Of all the lines spoken in Seven Samurai, none is more piercing than the Old Man’s (Kokuten Kodo) advice to the men who venture into the city searching for ronin. “Get hungry samurai,” he tells the little troupe. His meaning is probably limited to the literal hunger of the samurai, who are no more immune to hard times than the farmers. The translation (which I can only imagine puns similarly in Japanese) is highly effective, though, for it implies that they would do well to find samurai who have something to prove. Duty or rice only go so far when it comes to protecting peasants who can offer little more than food and some simple shelters, and in fact they find out how hard it is to convince one hungry samurai to demean himself. The men they come to rely on are ones who have the right combination of needs. Shimada (Shimura) rescues a child from a bandit through trickery. Pretending to be a monk, which requires shaving his topknot, he kills the bandit and returns the child to his parents. He has the right stuff. (Shimura, incidentally, is a better actor rubbing the back of his stubbly head than most actors are with their entire bodies.) Okamato (Kimura), amazed by Shimada’s beneficence and cunning, begs the older man to let him become his disciple. Shimada pulls in a couple of other men like him, the canny Katayama (Yoshio Inaba) and the stout(-hearted) Shichiroji (Daisuke Kato). Each of those men is brought along because there’s noblesse oblige at work, combined with the promise of food and shelter. The other three are more difficult cases. One of them, the buoyant Hayashida (Minoru Chiaki), seems more hungry than anything else. Katayama finds him chopping wood as the latest in a series of odd jobs that he hopes will win him a meal. Another, hatchet-faced Kyuzo (Seiji Miyaguchi), seems more than happy to prove his technical prowess in a duel with a hot-tempered samurai. While fighting with bamboo, Kyuzo claims a victory; his opponent, thirsting for victory, challenges Kyuzo again with steel. Kyuzo warns the man that he’ll die and then fulfills his promise. Before the other man can land his blow—and while Shimada looks on, murmuring that someone ought to stop the fight before the noisy man gets killed—Kyuzo fells his rival. No samurai is as cold-blooded and effective as Kyuzo, who refuses to extricate himself from a fight which he knows will end lethally. How much he genuinely has to prove is up in the air, but he’s not shy about doing just that.

The movie is nearly three and a half hours long, and it is the fastest movie at that length which I have ever seen. Virtually every movie with a cast this size has, in some way, borrowed from this movie’s “getting the team together” strategy, but there are not many which are brave enough to give each person his own establishing scene or two. About half the film is spent on the establishment of the villagers’ troubles, the collecting of samurai, and the return to the village. There are some action sequences in there—Shimada’s rescue, Kyuzo’s duel—but for the most part scenes are limited to talking and the slow build of tension. For example, there’s some dark humor when Yohei (Bokuzen Hidari) loses track of the precious rice the villagers have, and there’s a runabout paranoiac sequence where Manzo (Kamatari Fujiwara) cuts his daughter’s hair to make it seem like she’s a boy in the face of the samurai arriving. The occasional presence of a nameless man calling himself a samurai—he carries around a sword that looks to be twice the length of anybody else’s and a scroll of his family history which he claims ends with him and would simultaneously put him around 13—is at first a humorous sideshow, then a surprisingly insightful screamer, then a goofball again, and then a tragic hero. Kikuchiyo (Mifune) is a blustering, bilious sort. He fails the samurai test that Shimada has divined as the first step for all other comers; Okamato, poised in the doorway with a stick, is waiting to smack prospective samurai for the village on the noggin. (Katayama gets within ten feet of the door and then shouts “What do you take me for?” at Shimada.) Kikuchiyo is no samurai. He is too drunk to sense the danger, but once Okamato fells him, he spends the next couple minutes chasing him around. Later on, he proves his lack of horsemanship on Yohei’s old nag; he rides around a corner and only the horse emerges. Later on, when some of the samurai make a preemptive strike on a bandit hideaway, Kikuchiyo insists on going but is relegated to the old horse again, who he fights with for much of the journey. The horse stops without warning. He gets off to prod it a little, when, of course, it bolts. “No! Come back! I apologize!” he cries, chasing after the the horse. The horse is my favorite character; the movie is so long that there’s time for slapstick and it doesn’t feel out of place in the least.

The villagers, although largely unnamed, are a fascinating group. They’re like human sheep, living in fear and made daffy by it. They send a few hardy villagers to the city to try to pick up samurai; when they come back, they are terrified again of the men who have, historically, dominated and exploited them. It is Kikuchiyo, the go-between, who manages to smooth over an indignity. The samurai arrive with Rikichi (Yoshio Tsuchiya), the most daring and outspoken farmer, leading them back. He cries out that the samurai have come, but the town hides, scared by Manzo’s terrified and baseless reports. Shimada and the other samurai are meeting with the Old Man when the alarm goes off: the bandits have come. The town is suddenly emptied into the square, and the screaming villagers are only just contained by the samurai, who ask for a report. Kikuchiyo finally cops to sounding the alarm. You were scared before, but when you think there are bandits, he scolds, then all of a sudden you beg for the samurai! It’s the moment that earns the wild man Shimada’s trust, as it shows that he has some good sense stored up in his hirsute head. It is not the only time where the samurai try to take charge of an awkward situation. A bandit is captured and the townspeople, triggered by his presence and about to tear him apart, can only just be held back by their superiors. The samurai are terrified by the vigor of this lynch mob, one which even the Old Man and his pitchfork-totin’ wife are loath to break up. They have bravery, but it is the bravery of cowards who need to outnumber their attackers before they’re ready to strike. The villagers are victims of the bandits, but they are no saints either. Kikuchiyo shows up one afternoon where the other ronin are, wearing samurai armor and bearing enough weapons to arm the entire town. The samurai are disgusted, offended, morose: they are proof that this town has killed samurai in the past. Kikuchiyo chews them out. Farmers are tricky little pests, he cries. They have hidden stores and will stab you in the back. But it’s samurai who have made them so fearful, he shouts at them. It takes everyone a moment to recognize the truth in his words: the farmers are not tricky and treacherous by nature, but out of fear. It’s a striking moment, one which hits home at the social relationships in feudal Japan with greater effect than any other in the movie.

One expects the samurai to be picked off in some order, although if I had guessed at which ones would still be alive at the end of the film at the outset I would have gone one for three. Two of them are killed in quick succession after it seems the battle has been all but won, and fittingly, it is musket fire that does it. (The game within a game of the bandits’ attack is for the samurai to appropriate the three muskets the invaders have brought to the party.) With swords and bows and Shimada’s superior plan, the village has the upper hand; it is only the brash use of gunpowder which truly evens the odds. The end of the movie is thus surprisingly bittersweet, even with the predictable deaths of several major characters along the way. Rikichi bangs out a rhythm on his drum and sings as the women of the village plant new rice to the beat. The three surviving samurai look on. It’s not our victory, one says to another. When his companion is surprised, he explains: the villagers won this battle. And as a new season begins, the living samurai look on at the burial mounds of the departed, swords up in the air. Kurosawa, who uses deep focus like a madman (and to great effect!) throughout the movie, shuns it here. The camera pans up, away from the surviving samurai staring at the mounds and focusing on the dead themselves. They aren’t the only ones who died in the battle to protect the peasants, but they are the ones who end there. The peasants have children, homes, grains of rice which promise to continue the line. The samurai, in a manner of speaking, have only one heir apiece, and those swords go to earth with them.

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