Friday, July 05, 2024

Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai

It is not just The Magnificent Seven. Just about any film the follows the recruitment of a rag-tag team for a daunting mission (like The Dirty Dozen) owes a debt of gratitude to the classic chanbara-jidaigeki film. It is also the film that converted so many fans to the samurai genre, thanks to its lofty rankings on so many critical polls. Seventy years after its initial release, it still holds up as a masterpiece. Anyone who has yet to see it should take advantage of the new 4K-restoration of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, which opens today in New York, at Film Forum.

As in
The Magnificent Seven and scores of imitators, a peaceful village of farmers is beset by a nasty band of bandits, who cruelly leave the peasants just enough to carry on, so they can return a few months later to plunder them again. Rikichi is so fed up, he convinces the village, with the ancient headman’s blessing, to pool their resources to hire samurai. Most scorn their meager offer. However, crusty but commanding Kambei Shimada is sympathetic but reluctant to commit. Yet, when he hears the other crude hostel tenants mock the farmers’ misfortunes, it shames him into agreeing.

Slowly but surely, Shimada enlists six more samurai who are willing and able—or at least willing. His former lieutenant Shichiroji recruits Heihachi Hayashida, even though his skills are “barely mediocre,” because his sense of humor will raise their spirits, which Shimada appreciates. They are not even all samurai. Kikuchiyo (as they call him) is clearly a pretender, whom they reject several times, but he keeps following them like a stray dog anyway. Of course, technically none of them are samurai, except maybe the young and high-born Katsushiro Ojamoto. The other five are ronin, or masterless samurai, but definitely close enough for government work.

The first half hour, out of its epic three and a half, is a bit slow, but then Kurosawa methodical approach really starts to pay dividends. As Shimada tours the village and plans the defenses, the audience gets a preview of the battle that will come. We also meet many of the villagers, particularly, the virginal Shino, whom Katsushiro falls in love with, and her hotheaded protective father Manzo. However, unlike the classic John Sturges western, the bandits are never given much character development, so there is no strong equivalent to Eli Wallach. Instead, we are watching everything from the inside, according the perspective of the samurai and farmers.

The battle sequences remain quite spectacular. Even if it was not a direct source of inspiration, Kurosawa’s big climatic battle laid the foundation for that in Miike’s
13 Assassins and other such action films, from around the world.

Takashi Shimura (who was in the #1 and #3 top-grossing Japanese films of 1954,
Seven Samurai and Godzilla) is a true joy playing Shimada. Arguably, he also establishes the template for the grizzled but wise senior action figure that stars like Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood would embody for decades to come. Seiji Miyaguchi is also nearly iconic and influential as the stoic swordsman/gunslinger Kyuzo.

Plus, Toshiro Mifune is a crazed force of nature as Kikuchiyo. He seems almost comical initially, but there is a deep sadness beneath his manic wildness. Ladies take note, you get many opportunities to ogle Mifune’s butt cheeks, so there’s that.

As a work of cinema,
Seven Samurai is a dynamic and big-looking in most respects. Kurosawa employs techniques that were rarely seen prior, like the “visual swipes” that Lucas borrowed for the real Star Wars films. You always know you are watching an epic, but Shimura keeps the drama human and approachable. There are many reasons why filmmakers keep remaking, reconfiguring, and otherwise cannibalizing this film. It is not just a classic, it is a great watch. Very highly recommended, the restored Seven Samurai opens today (7/5) at Film Forum.