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Ten movies I love for their style
2001: A Space Odyssey
La Dolce Vita
The Third Man
Ten movies I love for their stories
The Big Lebowski
The Man Who Wasn't There
A One and a Two
Roger and Me
The Royal Tenenbaums
Shichinin no samurai (1954)
A gentle, funny movie
The Seven Samurai has lived up to the hype. The anime fans and the Internet recommended it. Andrei Tarkovsky recommended it, the great movie poet that he is. The Barenaked Ladies even recommend in a song. And now I recommend it. Director Akira Kurosawa was well ahead of his time, even well ahead of our time. This 1954 epic has influenced countless Westerns, war movies, gang movies, and Hobbit movies, but it still hasn't been surpassed.
The plot is straightforward. Roving bandits attack a Japanese farming village, so the villagers hire some roving warriors (samurai) to defend them. The samurai are noble and colourful creatures, who work for food and no money. We see the villager and samurai worlds collide as they prepare for the bandits' attack. Three hours later, there is a majestic battle. Some characters live and some die; it is all part of being a samurai.
To call the film an epic fails to do it justice: The Seven Samurai is too gentle to be an epic. Although it can be intense at times, the overall tone of the movie is light and friendly. Ultimately, this movie is a small-scale story. Seven title samurai, forty bandits, and a hundred villagers make up the whole cast, and the characters' actions and influences are confined to the one village. In some ways this is as important as the Battle for Middle Earth or the Battle for Europe, but in other ways it is more harmless, more human. This the Battle for Some Fields and Horses. The simplicity makes it easier for audiences to identify with the characters, and for Kurosawa to explore them.
The film is humorous for an action movie. It does not have the flashy one-liners of a James Bond movie, but it has the sort of light moments that are used in Reader's Digest magazines. An important secret is blown in a minute as people keep walking into the room. A crazy man poses in the enemy's uniform and steals guns. An old lady "avenges" her son's death by hitting a prisoner with a rake. These moments of strange humour catch us off our guard, much the same as the "comic relief" in Shakespeare's plays. There is a time-out from worrying and everyone gets to be playful and human for a minute.
Of course, the opposite of humour is the "visual poetry", the delicate images in which our story is told. Like humour scenes, breath-taking shots can change the pace of the movie, although they deliver a very different catharsis, an opportunity for peaceful reflection. Kurosawa went to painting school, after all, and it shows here. Here we see horses fall in the mud. Here we see a man's face peering through some leaves. Here two friends chat in the light of a camp-fire. Here the view from a hilltop reminds us how small the village is. The actors are well-chosen for their expressive faces. Jarring fast-motion battle scenes exist in the Seven Samurai, but so do languid Japanese glimpses of nature. This movie runs the visual gauntlet without ever losing its flow.
The movie follows a different structure from most action flicks: for the first two hours, we do not see the bandits. The samurai spend a long time planning for the enemy's arrival, and the battle itself lasts just a few harsh moments. This is a more accurate and interesting sort of war story than we usually see.
The movie has an abundance of re-watching potential; I feel that there were many patterns and moments and silences that I missed the first time around. I felt like every line two or three meanings, and I was often tempted to rewind a scene and watch it more closely.
The Seven Samurai deserves its place in movie history. I can now understand the endless praise it receives from great directors and cool people alike. Although the film was made fifty years ago and it used only black and white, it is still an experience to watch. Akira Kurosawa has told this story so richly that it continues to be the benchmark for films today.