Criterion // 1954 // 203 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Erick Harper (Retired) // October 3rd, 2000
The Mighty Warriors Who Became the Seven National Heroes of a Small Town
Akira Kurosawa (1910-1998) is undoubtedly the most influential and highly skilled filmmaker to come from Japan. Seven Samurai is his masterpiece, and is considered to be the greatest Japanese film ever made.
In Hollywood original ideas are often seen as risky. It is always much safer to emulate an existing, proven formula than to take creative risks and create something truly memorable and worthwhile. Thankfully, some filmmakers are not so limited in their thinking. The list of Kurosawa's Hollywood offspring is long, and in some cases distinguished. His innovative Rashomon, with different characters recounting different explanations and different points of view of a crime, has been copied mercilessly, most recently in 1998 as Brian DePalma's mediocre Snake Eyes. The Hidden Fortress proved a major source of inspiration for a young filmmaker named George Lucas as he conceived his fresh take on the space opera. Yojimbo became A Fistful of Dollars. Seven Samurai was remade as The Magnificent Seven and elements of it have been used in many other movies, including humorously in Three Amigos. Hollywood continues to use many of Kurosawa's plots, characters, and techniques as reliable formulas to this day. This film shows us why he is regarded as such a master, and why he is so widely imitated.
It is a time of civil war and disorder in Japan. Heavily armed bandits are raiding the small, peaceful farming villages throughout the countryside. In one isolated village the people weep and wail, bemoaning their plight. One young man among them stands up. He is Rikichi (Yoshio Tsuchiya), and he has a plan: the villagers should hire samurai to protect them. After consulting with the village patriarch (Kokuten Kodo) a small band departs for the city to find samurai willing to work for three meals of rice a day.
After much fruitless searching, the villagers find Kambei (Takashi Shimura), a wise old samurai who agrees to join their fight. He is joined by Katsushiro (Isao Kimura), a young, naïve man from a wealthy samurai family who wants to learn from Kambei. The villagers tell Kambei their situation, and he determines that it will require seven samurai, including himself, to defend the village. In a sequence that was unique at the time but has since become a cliché, Kambei sets out to recruit a team of samurai. Four others soon join him and Katsushiro, including the master swordsman Kyuzo (Seiji Miyaguchi). These six soon leave the city for the peasant village. Along the way they encounter Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune), a cocky, wisecracking rogue who soon joins them as their seventh samurai.
The samurai reach the village, and set to work preparing proper defenses. The villagers know that time is short, for the harvest will come soon and then the bandits will descend upon the village to demand tribute. The samurai arm the villagers with bamboo spears and drill them as soldiers. They block key roads and construct defensive barricades. In the midst of these preparations there still exists a good deal of mistrust between the villagers and their new protectors. This comes to a head in two memorable situations, one involving the evacuation of an indefensible part of town, and the other involving Katsushiro's love of a peasant girl. Finally the harvest comes, and the bandits attack the village in a climactic showdown.
It is hard to single out the elements that make Seven Samurai a great film. Kurosawa's meticulous attention to detail and dynamic direction ensure that every shot in the film conveys important information. While some of the film seems to move at a leisurely pace, there are no extraneous scenes; there are not many 200-minute pictures of which this can be said. Every shot in the film is perfectly composed, and Kurosawa makes great use of deep focus to give information on several different planes and depths at the same time. It is amazing what Kurosawa can communicate with a split-second cut, an eyeline, or a camera angle. Although the print has suffered the ravages of time the black and white cinematography still stands out, crisp and beautiful.
While the plot, direction, and cinematography are excellent, perhaps the greatest strength of the film lies in the performances of the actors. Their characterizations almost make the actual battle story secondary. Whether it is the admiration for Kambei that we see in Katsushiro's eyes, or Kyuzo's quiet, gentle pursuit of perfection with his sword, these characters make an impression that lingers long after the actual story fades. Some of the acting performances may be hard for Western audiences to get used to, as the characterizations are notably unrestrained, and appear to reflect stylized kabuki influences. The commentary track mentions that many of these performances would be out of place if it were not for the grand images that they occupy.
Standing above all the others is Toshiro Mifune's Kikuchiyo. Mifune is probably the only one of the cast that American audiences will recognize readily, having become an international star and appearing in such American movies as Midway and 1941. George Lucas, once again borrowing from Kurosawa, originally wanted him to play the part of Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars. Mifune and Kurosawa had a long-running collaboration that ran through many of Kurosawa's greatest films, and it is said that their partnership brought out the best in each of them. Kikuchiyo stands in this film as Kurosawa's voice, expressing a strange mixture of sympathy and contempt for the peasants. His is also the most difficult role, running from silliness and blustering bravado to rage to bitterness and remorse, and finally to incredible valor.
As a counterpoint to Kikuchiyo, Takashi Shimura's portrayal of Kambei provides emotional stability and dignity. He plays Kambei as a wise, war-weary general called back to one last battle for honor. He is the center of the group of samurai, their leader. Shimura plays him as a wonderful blend of good humor, cunning, and serene reserve.
Extra content on the disc is limited, and consists of a commentary track and a theatrical trailer. I found the trailer painful to watch and very long at just over four minutes. The commentary track features Michael Jeck, an expert on Japanese film and culture. It was originally recorded for Criterion's laserdisc collection in 1988. It is very informative, and Jeck obviously knows every frame of this picture. He gives an amazing amount of information, often discussing the construction of a given scene with rapid-fire descriptions that sound more like a sportscaster than a movie critic. His insight into Japanese culture and the deeper significance behind many of the events in the film is invaluable, and contributes greatly to understanding and enjoying Kurosawa's masterpiece.
I can find no fault with the film, but the disc leaves something to be desired. I understand that this film is almost fifty years old, but the print used for this transfer was in somewhat less than perfect shape. Criterion did a lot of work in digitally restoring this movie, so I can only imagine the shape it must have been in before they worked their magic on it. As it is the print is badly scratched in places, and in other shows signs of what appears to be water damage. The picture shakes badly at times, but I am unable to tell if this is indicative of problems with the existing print or the transfer process. Also, there is a lot of flickering and jumping light levels. The picture appears to have been artificially brightened in many spots, with light or white areas tending to sparkle and glow. A lot of the picture does look very good, with razor-sharp definition, but darker scenes tend to be murky. Whether this is a problem with the transfer, the cinematography, or the film stock of that era is unclear. There is also some evidence of edge enhancement and associated haloing, but it is not severe. The English subtitles are printed in white, which makes them hard to read at times. I would have preferred to see them in yellow, which stands out better and is easier to read, especially when dealing with a black and white movie.
The sound is adequate, and while the mono Japanese track does not have the life that a modern soundtrack would have, it is mostly free of hiss and other distortions. One gets the sense that creating a new stereo mix would be tantamount to putting old wine into new bottles.
The only other objection I have is the relative lack of extra content. This is not surprising, given the age of the film, and is somewhat alleviated by the well-done commentary track.
Seven Samurai is a must-see film, just as much as Citizen Kane or Casablanca. It is one of the greatest movies ever made, by one of the greatest directors that ever lived. Kurosawa draws the drama, the visuals, the characters, and the action together in a package that approaches cinematic perfection.
The film is acquitted, and Akira Kurosawa is released with the humble apologies of the court for bringing him to trial in the first place. Criterion is commended for their difficult restoration work. They are guilty of giving us a disc with very few extras, but we are inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt based on their previous record with great films. Anyone refusing to watch this film simply because it is three and a half hours long, black and white, and in Japanese with English subtitles is sentenced to solitary confinement until they grow up.
We stand adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Japanese)
Running Time: 203 Minutes
Release Year: 1954
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Theatrical Trailer
* Commentary Track
* Akira Kurosawa Database