(The Seven Samurai)
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Production: Toho Productions (Tokyo); black and white, 35mm; running time: original version: 203 minutes, international version:
Producer: Shojiro Motoki; screenplay: Shinobu Hashimoto, Hideo Oguni, and Akira Kurosawa; photography: Asakasu Nakai; sound engineer: Fumio Yanoguchi; art director: So Matsuyama; music: Famio Hayasaka; coordinator of wrestling and sword stunts: Yoshio Sugino; archery masters: Ienori Kaneko and Shigeru Endo.
Cast: The Samurai: Takashi Shimura ( Kambei, the leader ); Toshiro Mifune ( Kikuchiyo ); Yoshio Inaba ( Gorobei ); Seiji Miyaguchi ( Kyuzo ); Minoru Chiaki ( Heihachi ); Daisuke Kato ( Shichiroji ); Isao ( Ko ) Kimura ( Katsuchiro ); The Peasants: Kuninori Kodo ( Gisaku, the old man ); Kamatari Fujiwara ( Manzo ); Yoshio Tsuchiya ( Rikichi ); Bokusen Hidari ( Yohei ); Yoshio Kosugi ( Mosuke ); Keiji Sakakida ( Gosaku ); Jiro Kumagai, Haruko Toyama, Tsuneo Katagiri, and Yasuhisa Tsutsumi ( Peasants and farmers ); Keiko Tsushima ( Shino, son of Manzo ); Toranosuke Ogawa ( Grandfather ); Noriko Sengoku ( Wife from burned house ); Yu Akitsu ( Husband from burned house ); Gen Shimizu ( Small master ); Jun Tasaki and Isao Yamagata ( Other samurais ); Jun Tatari ( Laborer ); Atsushi Watanabe ( Guardian of the stable ); Yukiko Shimazaki ( Rikichi's woman ); Sojin Kamiyama ( Singer ); Eijiro Igashino ( Bandit chief ).
Award: Venice Film Festival, Silver Prize, 1954.
Kurosawa, Akira, Shinobu Hashimoto, and Hideo Oguni, The Seven Samurai , New York, 1970.
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* * *
From its opening shot of silhouetted horsemen galloping across a horizon line, The Seven Samurai announces its sources. The setting may be a 16th-century Japan convulsed by civil war, but those wide-open, lawless spaces are immediately recognizable as those of the Hollywood West.
Kurosawa has made no secret of his debt to the Western in general and John Ford in particular: the small farming village of The Seven Samurai , nestled between mountain and plain, might be the Tombstone of My Darling Clementine . The marauding brigands who wait in the woods could be the vicious Clantons of Ford's film, and the seven samurai hired by the villagers for their defense could be the band of deputies, saloon girls, and alcoholic hangers-on assembled by Henry Fonda's Wyatt Earp. There is, no doubt, a broad and general resemblance between the American Western and the Japanese samurai film—in terms of the themes both genres treat, and in the historical setting they choose for their work—but in The Seven Samurai the correspondences are strict and specific. We recognize the rules of the game that Kurosawa is playing in The Seven Samurai , where in a more arcanely Japanese samurai film such as Hideo Gosha's Bandits vs. Samurai Squadron , we do not.
Like Ford in his Westerns, Kurosawa organizes the action of The Seven Samurai around three different elements: the civilized (the villagers), the savage (the brigands), and those who live in between (Ford's soldiers and lawmen, Kurosawa's samurai), defending civilization by savage, violent means. (This three-point, triangular structure is something personal to Kurosawa; it pops up in different contexts throughout his work, most decisively in Kagemusha .) By placing his samurai in the same mediating position as Ford's lawmen, Kurosawa is self-consciously breaking with the traditions of the genre, in which the samurai represent civilization at its most refined, entrenched, and aristocratic. The heroes of Kurosawa's films are masterless samurai, no longer attached to a royal house (and hence no longer entitled to be called samurai—masterless samurai are called ronin ). Both Ford's lawmen and Kurosawa's samurai are profoundly marginal figures, prevented from fully entering society by the possession of the same skills they must employ upholding it. But where Ford in his middle-period films searches constantly for the ways to reintegrate the lawmen in to society (before resolving, in his late work, that such a reconciliation is impossible), Kurosawa in The Seven Samurai emphasizes the unbridgeable differences between the villagers and their hired defenders. Though the townspeople and the samurai can fight in temporary alliance, they can never fight for the same goals: the villagers fight for home and family, the samurai for professional honor. The only society allowed to the samurai is their own; if civilization has no place for them, they must make a place of their own. The formation of the samurai's separate, self-enclosed society—the professional group—is the subject of some of the finest passages in Kurosawa's film: once a suitable father has been found, in the form of the veteran warrior Kambei, the other members of the family fall into place, down to a wifely companion for Kambei (Shichiroji, an old comrade-in-arms), a dutiful son (the apprentice Katsushiro), and a black sheep (Kikuchiyo). The remaining samurai are distributed like the Three Graces—Wisdom (Gorobei), Skill (Kyuzo), and Hope (Heihachi). As schematic as this arrangement may sound, Kurosawa never lets it solidify; there is no flat sense of allegory here, but rather an open vision of different talents and attributes brought into harmony. To distinguish between the members of the group, Kurosawa gives each a defining gesture, much as Walt Disney differentiated his seven dwarfs: Kambei's reflective rubbing of his scalp, Kikuchiyo's leaps and whoops, Katsushiro's imploring eyes, etc. This, too, is classic Hollywood shorthand technique, in which a ritual gesture completely subsumes a character's psychology. And there is a pleasure in its repetition: each time Kambei scratches his head, he is reassuring the strength and constancy of his character. The gesture never changes, and neither does he. He is permanent, and in this one movement we know him and trust him.
At least one-quarter of The Seven Samurai is devoted to the relations between the townspeople and the professional group. Kurosawa seems to be looking for a stable, workable relationship, but he rejects each possibility in turn; there is always a dissonance, a contradiction, between the two groups. The samurai take charge of fortifying the village and training the farmers to fight, yet because they are, in the end, mere employees of the villagers, they are never in a position of genuine authority. The samurai tell themselves that they are fighting on behalf of the poor and helpless, but the cozy paternalism of this relationship is undermined by the suggestion that the farmers have been holding out—that they have secret reserves of rice and sake they refuse to share with their protectors. Two of the samurai have ties to the villagers—Katsushiro, who falls in love with a village girl, and Kikuchiyo, who is revealed to be a farmer's son—yet neither of these bonds is allowed to endure. By insisting so strongly on the absolute separation of the groups, Kurosawa departs radically from the Western archetype: the lawmen can no longer derive their values from the community, as they did in Ford and Hawks, but must now define those values for themselves. This sense of moral isolation— fresh and startling in the genre context of 1954—eventually became Kurosawa's gift to the American Western, his way of giving back as much as he took. Even before The Seven Samurai was officially remade as a Western (John Sturges's 1960 The Magnificent Seven ), Kurosawa's variation had been incorporated in the genre, giving rise to the series of "professional" Westerns that runs from Hawks's optimistic Rio Bravo to the final cynicism of Sergio Leone.
Separation is also the subject of Kurosawa's mise-en-scène. Using both foregound-background separation of deep-focus shots and the flattening, abstracting effect of telephoto lenses, Kurosawa puts a sense of unbridgeable space in nearly all of his shots. Even in what should be the most intimate and open scenes among the samurai themselves, Kurosawa arranges his compositions in distinct rigid planes, placing one or two figures in the extreme foreground, two or three more in a row in the middle, the balances lined up in the background (this will also be the design applied to the burial mound at the film's conclusion). The primary visual motif is one of boundaries: the natural ones formed around the village by the mountains, woods, and flooded rice fields, the manmade boundaries of fences, stockades, and doorways. The extreme formality of Kurosawa's compositions also emphasizes the boundaries of the frame; there is only occasionally a sense of off-screen space, as if nothing existed beyond the limits of the camera's eye. The world of The Seven Samurai is carefully delineated, compartmentalized; not only are the characters isolated in their separate groups, but in separate spaces.
The compartmentalization reflects Kurosawa's theme, but it also works (more originally, I think) in organizing the film emotionally— in building its suspense and narrative power. Three hours pass between the announcement of the brigands' attack and its arrival—an impossibly long time to keep the audience waiting for a single event. But where most filmmakers would try to fill the interval with minor flurries of action, Kurosawa gives us only two: Kambei's rescue of a child and the guerilla foray into the brigands' camp. These incidents are so widely spaced (misplaced, even, in terms of conventional rhythm) that they don't serve at all to support the structure of crest and valley, crest and valley that the long form usually depends on. Instead, Kurosawa sticks to a strict linearity: the narrative has been divided (compartmentalized?) into discrete acts (the posing of the threat, the recruitment of the samurai, the fortification of the village, the battle), separated not by strongly marked climaxes but by the slow and subtle transitions. The rigorous chopping, dividing, and underlining of space is the only constant factor through these transitions: no matter what the characters may be doing, the visual style is bearing down on them, forcing them further into immobility, isolation, entrapment. The suspense builds visually, subliminally, until we long for the final battle with its promise of release.
The battle in the rain is the most celebrated passage in Kurosawa's work, justly famous for its overwhelming physicality—the sense of force and texture, of sensual immersion, produced by staging the sequence in the mud and confusion of a fierce storm. But the rain also accomplishes something else—it fills in the spaces that Kurosawa has so carefully carved off, creating a continuity, an even density, from foreground to background. The rain begins the night before the battle, during the greatest moment of divisiveness between the townspeople and the samurai—the confrontation over Kikuchiyo's right to love a village girl. By forcing the two groups to fight more closely together, the rain closes this gap during the battle. And suddenly, all other boundaries are broken open: as part of their strategy, the samurai allow some of the brigands to cross the fortifications (cut off from support, they can be killed more easily in the village square) and the camera loses its fixity and formality, panning wildly to follow details of action within the struggle. It is an ineffable moment of freedom, and of course it cannot last.
For his epilogue, Kurosawa returns to divided space. The surviving samurai are seen in one shot, standing still before the graves of those who fell; the villagers are seen in another, singing and moving in unison as they plant the new rice crop. There probably isn't a more plangent moment in all Kurosawa's work than this juxtaposition of two different tempos, two different worlds. They are separated only by a cut, but they are separated forever.