Film Review: Seven Samurai

six circles for the real samurai, a triangle for 'Lord Kikuchiyo'
One should never have a battle without a flag.

When my husband told me he’d never seen the Kurosawa classic Seven Samurai, my jaw practically hit the floor. Looking back, I’m really not sure how many times I’ve watched this film; I do know that the first time I saw it was for my Analysis of Film class during my senior year of high school. I eventually bought a VHS copy as a gift for my father (yes, I really did just say ‘VHS’) and I may have watched that copy more times than he did. For Joel’s viewing pleasure, I got my hands on a copy of the Criterion Collection edition, and let me tell you, reader, if you’re going to invest in a copy of Seven Samurai, the Criterion Collection is the way to go, if for no other reason than the superior translation quality of the subtitling. As someone who has seen three different subtitle translations of the same Japanese, I will say that the Criterion text catches more nuances and provides more subplot details than either of the other two. While I doubt that I have anything to say about this masterpiece that has not already been said, I’m still going to offer my two cents about it. Note that this review probably contains spoilers, but give me a break, Seven Samurai came out in 1954, I should be able to discuss it freely.

Plot

There's a reason Kikuchiyo is in the foreground.
The old man said to find hungry samurai.

The premise is simple, yet compelling: some starving farmers decide to fight the bandits who want to steal their entire barley harvest, by hiring samurai to defend the village. Much of Act One is devoted to the process of finding the samurai who are willing to do this, and their tactical decisions upon seeing the setup of the village. Act Two is battle time. Subplots include the question of just how low the villagers have stooped in their past bargaining with the bandits, and also the question of what intent the worldly samurai have toward innocent village girls, but really, Seven Samurai is a primitive, small-scale war movie. I know that Kurosawa was inspired by the Western genre (which is why the Hollywood response of The Magnificent Seven feels so ironic) but Westerns tend to bore me, while war movies, I adore… see one of my previous posts,my review of Apocalypse Now. And I do adore Seven Samurai. My one criticism of this film has to do with pacing. Because the plot is so simple, I’m not sure about Kurosawa’s choice to linger so lovingly on details and turn this into a two-act film. It just moves so slowly! And I like to think of myself as having a longer-than-typical attention span. We broke this viewing in a couple of places, to deal with phone calls and food, and with the Criterion Collection material present, it ended up taking more than four hours. That’s a pretty big demand to put on today’s viewers. Maybe when Seven Samurai came out, people were less busy, or at least more patient.

Characters

He hasn't had a good day in a really long time.
If your wife had been sacrificed to the pleasure of bandits, you’d be pretty sore too.

In previous viewings, I was drawn to the character of Heihachi, samurai “of the Wood Cut School.” His genial nature, gentle humor, and attempts to balm the spiritual wounds of his comrades won me over. Heihachi wasn’t any less of a great guy this time through, but I actually found myself drawn to someone who hadn’t really caught my eye before: the intense, simmering farmer, Rikichi. Rikichi is the first farmer willing to take a stand and fight the bandits, and pretty much the only one for most of the story’s length (until after the samurai have trained the farmers to defend themselves and have instilled confidence). According to several passages of dialogue, Rikichi should really be considered an aberration, as it is the farmer’s way to (depending on who’s talking) endure, to grovel, or to two-facedly deceive as an act of self-preservation, certainly not to fight! The question becomes, would Rikichi still have thought to attack the bandits – his original plan being to do it himself, not to involve samurai – if his wife were still with him? To what extent is the aggression he exhibits part of his spirit and identity, versus to what extent is it the result of scarring and trauma? He does not get enough focus in the script for the answer to this question to be clear, but I would be willing to guess that it is mostly due to the trauma… because if he had been so aggressive before losing his wife, the villagers would have picked another woman to sacrifice, to avoid angering him.

Acting

"It's time for The Speech... You know the one..."
Mifune gives The Speech.

No review of Seven Samurai could be complete without discussing the performance of Toshiro Mifune as Kikuchiyo. I have heard that Mifune had a background in kabuki theater. I can’t find much information on the Internet to give credence to this, but neither can I find anything definitively disproving it, and whether or not Mifune was actually trained in kabuki, his exaggerated facial expressions and expressive gestures smack of the art. He chews the scenery, but the kicker is, he makes you enjoy him doing it! You want to see more of the scenery chewing! I’ve never seen another actor grandstand so effectively. And Seven Samurai, as a film, seems to have a conflicted soul regarding the simple question of whether it is an ensemble performance, or a vehicle to showcase Mifune’s bombastic talent.

Seven Samurai is a hallowed piece of cinema that has stood the test of time. I could grasp and appreciate its themes as a teenager, but re-watching it with adult eyes was a pleasurable experience and fresh mental exercise. Be warned, if you embark on its journey, you should probably block out a full afternoon of time. It’s worth it. Believe me.

Overall Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

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