Blogger's note: this week's post was scheduled to be from Grumpy, but she's not feeling well, so I'm filling in.
Discussion of Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, which I have not seen, a few weeks ago made me curious about the two Kurosawa films I have seen: Rashomon and Seven Samurai. I was not particularly taken with either of them. It was probably twenty years ago that I saw them, on VHS tape, and probably late at night, and they just didn’t make a big impression on me. The only specific thing I remember is trying to stay awake during Seven Samurai, which is three hours long. Considering Kurosawa’s reputation, and the reputations of these two films in particular, I thought I’d give them another try. I started with Seven Samurai, for no particular reason.
This time I watched it on DVD, during the day, and in multiple sessions. (I do this frequently because I watch movies on my lunch break, which I try to keep under an hour, although I no longer have an externally-enforced requirement for that.) Ideally two sessions would be about right, as there’s an official intermission about halfway through. At any rate, it is a fairly slow-moving story, and I found that breaking up not only did not detract from the experience, but probably enhanced it, because I didn’t get restless.
I found, as with certain other Japanese movies I’ve seen, that the foreignness of language and expression presented a certain barrier initially. As was mentioned in the Yojimbo discussion, the acting style in this film may be more than just a cultural difference: Kurosawa may have been trying to produce an archaic effect. But my difficulty decreased as the film went on and I got more used to the style.
In 16th century Japan, a farming village is menaced by bandits. They decide to hire a group of samurai to protect them. The story builds slowly and powerfully. The villagers take some time to decide about even making the unlikely to attempt to hire samurai from a nearby town. Once the first warrior agrees, it takes some time for him to recruit the other six. Then there is a long period of preparation—decisions about tactics, construction of fortifications, the evacuation of outlying parts of the village which can’t be protected, having the men of the village make and learn to use bamboo spears. The characters of the individual samurai and some of the villagers are explored. The leader of the samurai appears to be the oldest and most experienced. He’s wise and patient but no less capable than the others. One of them is a boy, not really even a full-fledged warrior, extremely eager and impulsive. One is himself the son of farmers and has experienced first-hand the depredations of bandits, which gives him conflicted feelings about the warrior class. One is quiet and modest but also the deadliest swordsman of the group. And so on.
The cumulative effect is quite powerful. It’s a study in nobility and courage. This is one of those movies that I appreciate more than like—for sheer enjoyment it would not be among my very favorites. But it certainly passes my informal test for classification as first-rate work: I would like to see it again, and possibly more than once.
Here is a trailer of sorts for the Criterion Collection edition. It gives you a good sense of the style and atmosphere.
You can view the original Japanese trailer at YouTube. I’m not including it here because it gives away rather more of the story than I would. But these words from it establish a cultural context for the samurai’s actions which I didn’t entirely get from the film itself, and which makes the story even more powerful:
In a mad age obsessed with ambition and glory, seven samurai turned their backs on fame and wealth and fought to protect a village of oppressed farmers. This is their story. They disappeared, nameless, with the wind. And yet, their kind hearts and courageous actions are spoken of to this day. They are the true samurai.
As most people who pay attention to cinema probably know, a famous Hollywood western, The Magnificent Seven, is a sort of remake of Seven Samurai. The basic story is identical, but the place is the American southwest and northern Mexico, the time is the late 19th century, the farmers are Mexican, and the samurai are gunslingers. It follows the model of Seven Samurai quite closely for the most part. There is the older and wiser leader, very effectively played by Yul Brynner (never mind that he’s from eastern Russia, not southwestern America). There’s the kid who wants to join the glamorous crew. Many specific incidents from the original are mirrored with appropriate cultural and technological modifications.
The biggest difference I noticed is in the treatment of the bandits. Kurosawa’s bandits are hardly seen as individuals at all. They’re a mostly faceless malevolent force sweeping down on the village. But Sturges (John, the director of The Magnificent Seven) gives the leader of the Mexican bandits a very definite face and personality, and the struggle against him has a definite personal element, on the part of both the villagers and the “samurai”. And from the point where the gunmen arrive at the village and the real conflict with the bandits begins, there’s more of a difference: there’s less planning and strategy in the defense of the village, for instance.
But The Magnificent Seven just not as good as its model. I think the problem is less the director’s fault than the limitations of Hollywood movie-making at the time: too much of it just isn’t entirely convincing. The actors are charismatic stars or future stars: in addition to Brynner, there are Steve McQueen, James Coburn, Charles Bronson, and others. But for reasons that I can’t put my finger on—how much is the acting? how much is the script?—their characters don’t seem as fully real as the samurai do, despite the foreignness of the latter. The gunplay features that weird Hollywood mannerism in which the shooter often seems to be trying to fling the bullets from his gun rather than aiming and firing. In general there’s a sense that one is not seeing a heightened version of reality, but a cruder version of it.
It’s not a bad movie at all; as Westerns go, it’s probably one of the best, and I enjoyed it. It just isn’t on the artistic level of the Kurosawa work. But one thing must be said for it: the score, by Elmer Bernstein, must be the best score of any Western. Well, ok, maybe Morricone is in the same class, but he’s totally different. Bernstein’s is sort of the archetype of the American Western score.
The music in Seven Samurai is good, too, by the way.
--Mac is the proprietor of this blog.