Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Seven Samurai: A Black & White Masterpiece

I Watched Akira Kurosawa's (1954) masterpiece "Seven Samurai" recently on TCM channel. Wow, memories revisited! The black and white film takes patience to watch (200 Min.), and even had an old-fashioned "intermission" in the middle (run to the john or snack bar!). The English sub-titles can be tedious, but Kurosawa's images and brilliant actors almost tell the story without them! The characters' facial expressions, body language, and exaggerated motions remind one of the silent era films.

The tale of a village of helpless peasant farmers, in 16th century rural Japan, who hire 7 Samurai to protect them from a ruthless band of thieves who annually plunder their crops, abduct their women and murder them, is captivating. The task of hiring Samurai who view the farmers as socially inferior, is heightened by the fact they have no money to pay and can only offer room and board. "Find hungry Samurai!", the village elder instructs.

However, when the Samurai Kambei, masterfully played by Takeshi Shimura, hires on in sympathy for the plight of the farmers, he takes it upon himself to enlist the other six.

Last to join is Kikuchiyo, played by Toshiro Mifune, who steals the show. He is the orphaned son of a farmer, a wannabe who aspires for the respect and adultation the Samurai class will afford him. A clown, impassioned and crude, his character is tragically lovable. The dignity, humanity, courage and fears of each Samurai is powerfully conveyed.
When the Samurai arrive, the villagers, terrified of the mercenaries, rush to hide their daughters, and fail to greet their saviors, scattering like scared mice. One even shears his daughter's hair, and dresses her like a man to "protect" her from the Samurai!

In the months before the harvest, the Samurai transform a rag-tag band of farmers into defenders of their village and families. Kambei, is the military tactician. After studying the geography surrounding the village, he predicts the routes of attack and plans a defensive strategy, but warns "We cannot win by defense alone."

Kurosawa skillfully weaves sub-plots into his tale; most interesting is a love affair between one farmer's daughter and the "Kid", the youngest of the Samurai, that climaxes in a forbidden sexual encounter, disgracing her before the entire village. The night before the long-awaited battle, Kikuchiyo jokingly advises: "Men, love your wives well tonight!". When one of the Samurai finishes sewing a battle flag, he points out to Kicuchiyo, "Each circle on the banner represents one Samurai." "But there are only six circles", Kicuchiyo complains. "See here, the triangle? That is you!" Tragi-comedy abounds in the film.

Best, are the battle sequences as the relentless thieves mercilessly attack the villagers on horses, many with muskets. But the villagers are armed with bamboo spears, bows and arrows, barricades and bravado rallied by the Samurai. Because of the barracades,the thieves have been limited to only one entrance to the village. The villagers allow one or two horsemen in at a time, quickly closing ranks, while the others, including women, finish off each thieve. The action shots are superb and rank with any contemporary film. The final battle is fought in the rain. The streets are thick with mud. The viewer is dazzled by incredible camera work and editing which Kurosawa does himself.

During the battle which lasts several days, many villagers including four Samurai lose their lives, but the thieves are decimated. As the farmers return to their fields to plant rice, in the closing scene, Kambei, "The Kid", and another Samurai pay their respects to their fallen comrades before a makeshift cemetary on the outskirts of the village, Kambei turns to look at the farmers in the nearby fields: "The victory is theirs, not ours", he says sullenly.
Sorry, I gave away the ending! Yes, I know a Hollywood version "The Magnificent Seven" was released in 1960 starring Yul Brynner, Eli Wallach and Steve McQueen, roughly (very roughly) based on Kurosawa's story; now it is poor Mexcian villagers who hire seven Gringo gunslingers to defend them from thieves, but believe me, it doesn't hold a candle to the original Japanese version!


#167 Dad said...

Great review, Rick. I've been planning to see The Seven Samuri for something like 30 years. I loved The Magnificent Seven. Which did you prefer?

Rick Rivers said...

Dad: Gracias. You will love the Japanese version. Kurosawa's work and his actors and characters are world class.