Seven Samurai (1954)

After seeing Seven Samurai, I now consider myself a Kurosawa fan. I was first impressed by the groundbreaking Rashomon, most noteworthy for its visionary storytelling techniques. While Seven Samurai follows a more straightforward narrative, it is an excellent epic rich with meaning and emotion, earning its hearty 3 1/2 hour length.

First and foremost, Seven Samurai just tells a great story. The basic premise is that a rural Japanese village is being ransacked by bandits, and upon the advise of the town elder (the Old Man), they seek the aid of samurai to defend them.

As the film’s title suggests, it is as much about the samurai as it is about the community. Each man brings a different set of experiences to his mission, and the ways in which they mesh or conflict with the townspeople are what bring the movie its true fire. We experience issues like class conflict, and the tension between loyalty to one’s own versus the community.

We are given an extraordinary performance by Toshiro Mifune (star ofRashomon), as a wild and coarse samurai. His acting is consistently entertaining and, while his role is not as twisted as that in Rashomon, he is still very fun to watch and he really gets a chance to prove his emotional range through this film.

While the script’s structure is not as groundbreaking as Rashomon, the overall atmosphere and mood Kurosawa establishes is often dark and unsettling, creating a distinct and somewhat surprising mood. (Granted, as someone who is used to the classical Hollywood tradition, most Japanese films surprise me.) The treatment of women, for one, is often a very unique element throughout the film; there is a difficult scene in which a farmer forcibly cuts the hair of his daughter, for fear that she be found by the bandits and captured, or worse. When the bandits do come to town, the male villagers round up the women and essentially cage them, forcing them to watch their husbands, brothers, fathers, and sons fight the more aggressive and better-equipped bandits from the sidelines.

These battle scenes are particularly unsettling, as they are very realistic and un-glamorous, providing a fresh interpretation of the often too-sleek samurai story. There is no glory in these battles, filled with cheating (even the most honorable samurai steals a musket from the bandits) and desperation as both sides are crawling through the rain and mud fighting for their lives.

That is what is so extraordinary about this film; the setting may be another time and place, but it was impossible for me to watch without wondering what I would do in that situation. We see ordinary people pushed to do what they have to do to protect themselves and their own. At the end of the day, the townspeople are able to reclaim their land back as their own. The samurai, tragically, do not, as the survivors stand in solace at the graves of their fallen brothers. The leader says the victory is the townspeople; the samurai, however, have failed.

Seven Samurai is full of profound statements and often difficult emotions and situations to grapple with. The film may be easy to follow, but it is anything but certain how to weigh the moral uncertainties Kurosawa presents us with. This Japanese epic is an extraordinary film that is worthy of its ambition.

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