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Shichinin no samurai (1954)
Kurosawa's Magnum Opus
What can be said about Seven Samurai that hasn't already been said at this point? Ever since its release in April of 1954, it has been considered one of the greatest films of all time. And deservedly so in my opinion. I must admit that I am biased: Seven Samurai is my favorite movie of all time and I consider Akira Kurosawa to be the greatest director of all time. That being said, I have tried to keep my review from being too effusive even though I would give this film the strongest possible recommendation. While I do not believe a "perfect" film exists - nor do I believe will one ever exist - I believe Seven Samurai is as close to perfect as a film can get.
The film is set in the 16th century and Japan has been devastated by decades of political instability and almost constant military conflict. As a result, bandits roam the countryside unchecked, wreaking havoc on whatever small farming villages they encounter. Aware of a forthcoming bandit raid, one village decides to hire the titular seven samurai to lead the defense of the village and train its inhabitants in the ways of war. Sure enough, the bandits arrive, setting the stage for a decisive battle that will decide the fate of the village.
While fairly straightforward as far as plot summaries go, the film's narrative is extremely engrossing and rich in subtext. Seven Samurai is one of the few films with an epic duration (almost three-and-a-half hours) that uses its runtime to its advantage. Not only does the film explore each of the seven samurai in depth, it also takes the time to highlight some of the villagers, giving its cast of characters the kind of depth rarely seen in standalone films. Because of the time spent getting to know these characters, the audience naturally grows to empathize with them and become more invested in their story.
The class differences and accompanying social inequality between the samurai and the villagers, who are all poor farmers, is also a major focus throughout the film. When the samurai first arrive in the village, the inhabitants hide in their homes and refuse to meet their new protectors, afraid that they have exchanged one oppressor for another. Even after the villagers become more comfortable with the samurais' presence, there is palpable sense of uneasiness to their interactions. It is later revealed that the villagers hunt down and kill samurai from defeated armies in order to take their equipment. The samurai are infuriated until one of their number - a peasant masquerading as a samurai - points out their hypocrisy. The villagers may be treacherous and cowardly, but they are the way they are due to centuries of oppression by the samurai, the ruling elite in 16th century Japan. In fact, many of the bandits terrorizing the village are themselves samurai whose clans have been destroyed. Even at the end of the film, with the bandits defeated and the villagers joyously planting their fall rice crop, the social divide still remains. The samurai have defended the village, but only three of them have survived and they grimly realize that the victory does not belong to them for their code prevents them from adopting a farmer's lifestyle; they are doomed to wander the countryside until they find a new master to serve or a new cause to take up.
Written by Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto and Hideo Oguni, the story manages to be epic while retaining a focus on detail. This keeps Seven Samurai from feeling bloated or overlong; each section of the film feels necessary in telling the overarching story and each scene feels like it illuminates either a character or a major theme such as class, duty, or identity. This also grounds the narrative and avoids the common pitfall of epic movies by overwhelming the audience with the vastness of the story it's trying to tell; inundating them with too many characters and events to keep track of.
Kurosawa's direction is bold and dynamic, displaying his trademark mastery of movement and blocking. Even static shots are interesting to look at due to his excellent use of mise-en-scène or mood lighting. Of course, when discussing his direction, I would be remiss not to point out the battle scenes which are staged in a way that conveys the chaos and confusion of armed conflict while being shot in a way that the audience can still follow what is happening.
Acting wise, we get the usual trope of Kurosawa collaborators. The legendary Toshiro Mifune plays Kikuchiyo, a fiery and turbulent samurai pretender whose character serves as the emotional heart of the film. In a sense, he is the link that keeps the samurai and the villagers together due to his innate understanding of the later and his desperation to be considered one of the former. Ironically, for one of his most iconic roles, Mifune is actually playing against type somewhat. Typically, the characters he played were laconic and stoic, ruled by a strong sense of justice. Kikuchiyo is loud, obnoxious and impulsive. This freedom of expression gives Mifune's performance a sense of energy some of his more typecast roles would lack, and I find it to be the strongest performance of his career. Takashi Shimura plays the leader of the samurai, Shimada Kambei, and gives the character a sense of gravitas while also displaying great humility and empathy. Mifune as Kikuchiyo might be the emotional heart of the film, but it just wouldn't work without Shimura's stalwart persona.
Amongst the supporting cast, the highlights are Seiji Miyaguchi as the formidable Kyuzo, the most skilled of the seven, and Yoshio Tsuchiya as the impassioned Rikichi, the farmer in charge of recruiting and hosting the samurai. Miyaguchi - relegated to minor roles for most of his career - gives an understated delivery that helps Kyuzo feel authentically badass. Tsuchiya plays his part with a boldness that belies desperation, owing to the fact that his character's wife has been abducted by the bandits.
The score is provided by Fumio Hayasaka. While I generally prefer the work of composers who worked with Kurosawa later in his career such as Masaru Sato and Toru Takemitsu, Hayasaka's score is a personal favorite of mine. It perfectly encapsulates the melancholy yet stubbornly hopeful mood of the picture, particularly with its haunting main theme. Asakazu Nakai also does an excellent job with the film's cinematography, particularly with regard to depth of field and shadows. As was always the case, Kurosawa edited his own film and manages to synergize his expert direction of motion with his editing, creating a kind of rhythm that keeps the film moving at a brisk pace. Kurosawa has sometimes been called the greatest editor who ever lived and Seven Samurai is a testament to that accolade: it's a three-and-a-half-hour film that has never felt like a three-and-a-half-hour film when I've watched it. Rounding out the miscellaneous aspects of the film, the production design is fantastic. The sets and costumes look authentically lived in (in fact Kurosawa had several cast members wears their costumes prior to filming to achieve this effect) which greatly aids in the believability of the setting. This feels like pre-modern Japan and not just a facsimile of it.
In conclusion, Seven Samurai deserves its reputation as the one of the greatest films of all time. I cannot recommend Kurosawa's magnum opus enough to anyone interested in film whatsoever. Regardless, of whether your interest in film is based on its artistic aspects or on its ability to entertain, the film delivers on almost every level. In the film, the victory may belong to the farmers; in reality, the victory belongs to all of us for having the privilege of being able to watch it.