Appellate Judge Dan Mancini recommends you hire Seven Samurai to protect the rest of your DVD collection from bandits.
"Japanese films all tend to be simple and wholesome, just like green tea over rice. But I think we ought to have both richer foods and richer films. And so I thought I would make a film which was entertaining enough to eat, as it were."—Akira Kurosawa
By 1953 Akira Kurosawa was an established director of art films. He'd made fourteen pictures, including 1950's Rashomon (which introduced the world to Japanese cinema by winning the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival), and the first of his top-shelf masterpieces, 1952's Ikiru. Nearly all of his pictures were set in contemporary Japan. Most had a contemplative, literary style. For most Japanese living in the early Fifties, the idea of Kurosawa making an action picture would have been nearly as anathema as Yasujiro Ozu making a crime-thriller. But Kurosawa was determined to employ his flair for camera movement and gift for writing taut screenplays in an entertainment spectacle.
The resulting film—1954's Seven Samurai—shattered the formulas of the jidai-geki (period film) and chambara (swordplay film) genres by offering a rich, epic landscape peopled with complex characters; by deconstructing and reassembling the samurai code of Bushido; and by peering through the lens of history at Japan's postwar struggle toward democracy, capitalism, and a new social and cultural identity. In the process of bending Japanese genre forms to his own proclivities, Kurosawa also managed to irrevocably change international cinema by making one of the most influential movies of all time—a movie many critics consider the greatest ever made.
Facts of the Case
Sixteenth-century feudal Japan is a time of intense civil war as feudal lords vie for political dominance. Amid the chaos, bandits exploit farmers, pillaging their villages and stealing the fruits of their hard labor. Fed up with this cycle of brutality, one village hatches a scheme to hire a group of samurai to protect them. Farmers Rikichi (Yoshio Tsuchiya, Destroy All Monsters), Manzo (Kamatari Fujiwara, The Bad Sleep Well), and Yohei (Bokuzen Hidari, The Lower Depths) leave for the city in order to find warriors before the bandits return at barley harvest.
In the city they meet with scorn and rejection as proud samurai rebuff their offer of food in exchange for protection. As luck would have it, though, they meet Kambei Shimada (Takashi Shimura, Ikiru), a wise, humble, and even-tempered ronin whose compassion for their plight moves him to accept their offer. A recent act of derring-do in which Kambei saved a child held hostage by a thief has attracted two potential disciples for the warrior: Katsushiro (Isao Kamura, Stray Dog), a naïve young man from a wealthy family venturing out on his own to join the samurai class, and Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune, Throne of Blood), a brash hellion who carries an outsized sword and embodies everything a samurai ought not to be. Kambei methodically assembles the rest of his team:
• Gorobei (Yoshio Inaba, Samurai Assassin)—a steady,
experienced, good-natured ronin who becomes Kambei's right-hand man.
Once back at the village, the samurai train the farmers to fight back against the bandits. But interpersonal tensions boil beneath the surface of the ostensibly amiable relationships between the warriors and the villagers. Manzo forces his daughter Shino (Keiko Tsushima, Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice) to disguise herself as a boy in order to stem any possible romantic entanglements with the ronin, but it doesn't stop the young woman from falling in love with Katsushiro. Rikichi is tormented by his unmarried status, but refuses to reveal the source of his pain to Heihachi. And Kikuchiyo's comic bullying of the feeble, cowardly Yohei is a smokescreen for the ronin's painful past.
But all personal differences are put aside when the bandits return. The ronin and farmers unite in their struggle to protect the village—at least until the battle is over.
I had the privilege of seeing a theatrical exhibition of Seven Samurai in 2004 when it was touring American art houses in celebration of its fiftieth anniversary. Though I'd seen the picture countless times on VHS and DVD, I was surprised by the experience of watching it communally—surprised by its astounding ability to reach across decades and cultures and entertain as effectively as any big-budget Hollywood blockbuster. The theater was filled to capacity with all manner of people: college students, locals who hadn't seen the picture in years or had never seen it, academics, regular Joes, even some officials from the local Japanese consulate. Had you been standing outside the theater that evening, you'd have assumed we were watching a Spielberg flick from back when Spielberg could bring the noise—Jaws or Raiders of the Lost Ark, maybe. We laughed aloud at Toshiro Mifune's comic exchanges with poor, wimpy Yohei; applauded when Kyuzo emerges from fog on his return from a covert mission, tosses a musket he's taken from the bandits to Kambei, and casually announces he killed two of them (he's easily as badass as any Clint Eastwood tough guy); and gasped when death came swiftly and unexpectedly to characters we'd grown to like or respect or both. My point, I guess, is that before disassembling Seven Samurai for critical analysis, it's important to remember how well it works as pure, unadulterated entertainment. It is a film whose whole is greater than the sum of its exquisitely constructed and perfectly balanced parts. In that way, it is emblematic of its team of seven heroes.
At the time Seven Samurai was made, setting a period picture during the sengoku jidai (a period of civil wars from the 15th to the 17th centuries) was highly unusual because the tumult and chaos made ignoble mercenaries of many samurai. Generally speaking, Japanese audiences didn't want to see such depictions of the warrior class that, for them, symbolized the height of the nation's culture. But Kurosawa's instincts were correct. The six-year occupation of Japan by Allied forces came to an end the year before production began on Seven Samurai, and the newly independent nation found itself in the midst of an identity crisis. Traditions of the past had led them down the path toward aggressive militarism, war, and defeat. American GIs brought with them to Japan the idea of the intrinsic value of the individual, but also a decadent self-indulgence. Many Japanese felt caught between two worlds, neither of which was entirely attractive or fulfilling.
Seven Samurai addresses this tension by presenting a tale of samurai at war against one another. One group of ronin (the bandits) selfishly exploits the nation's indentured farmers; the other group (our seven heroes) selflessly defends those farmers. Through this vicious internal conflict within the samurai class, Kurosawa expresses the importance of collective action while never allowing us to lose sight of the individuals who make up the collective. In Kurosawa's eyes, Western modernism and Japanese traditionalism, and their divergent definitions of what it is to be fully human, aren't mutually exclusive but cyclical and interdependent: The purpose of the individual is to serve the collective even as the purpose of the collective is to nurture and respect the individual. Kurosawa (at least in this phase of his career) rejects the notion that the Japan of 1954 should seek to create a new rigidly defined culture by somehow resolving the tension between the groupthink of Japan's past and America's radical emphasis on the primacy of self. Kurosawa presents an alternative: living in the narrow noble ground within that tension.
Kurosawa has something in common with Italian filmmaker Luchino Visconti (The Leopard), who was born in the aristocracy but became a Marxist who rejected class privilege. Visconti's films deride the land-owning Italian moneyed class even while lamenting its extinction. Because of his unique perspective on all strata of Italian life, his films defend the poor and exploited without reducing the wealthy and powerful to caricatures of self-serving evil. Kurosawa came from a samurai family (a point his father repeatedly emphasized during his formative years). As a result, his critiques of cultural and economic disparities during the feudal period tend to be more complex and nuanced than those of, say, Masaki Kobayashi (Harakiri) or Kihachi Okamoto (The Sword of Doom). While Kurosawa has no qualms about savaging the all too common degradation of Bushido, its reduction to a bureaucratic code used to protect the power and influence of samurai-politicians, he also celebrates the ideal represented by true Bushido: a singular, unflappable devotion of self to the betterment of the larger Japanese culture. He unflinchingly tilts at samurai hypocrisy even as he laments the fading away of the nobility embodied by the best members of the class. He views the samurai, then, less as a class than as a collection of human beings, some base, and some noble.
No character in Kurosawa's entire body of work better exemplifies the realization of samurai potential than Kambei Shimada. The leader of the seven samurai stands in a long line of stable, avuncular characters played by Takashi Shimura in Kurosawa's films. A bit of a sadsack samurai whose years of loyalty to clan and daimyo have resulted in a series of lost battles and the ignominy of life as a wandering ronin, Kambei's stoicism, even temper, and resolute kindness to others in the face of his own dire circumstances make him a magnetically likable central character. When we first meet him, he's helping a woman whose child is held captive by a thief. His calm, assured handling of the situation leaves us in awe of his prowess as a warrior. Later, when he initially refuses the farmers' offer of employ (albeit with a greater kindness than the other samurai who have turned down the gig), then changes his mind when the farmers' façade slips and he sees their heart-rending despair, we are left in awe of his moral conviction. He is the embodiment of the Bushido ideal, yet he is roundly human. For Kurosawa, these two characteristics—often set in opposition to one another in traditional ceremony-focused jidai geki—are inextricably linked. Kambei is so warm and kind that we can't help but admire him and maybe even love him. But he's so noble, it's difficult to relate to him.
Seven Samurai was the fourth film in which Kurosawa contrasted Shimura's air of quiet moral authority with Toshiro Mifune's raw, almost animalistic screen magnetism (the other examples of this style of pairing can be seen in Drunken Angel, The Quiet Duel, and Stray Dog). It was the last and most successful teaming of Shimura and Mifune in this way. After Seven Samurai, Shimura would occupy smaller roles in many of Kurosawa's films, while Mifune continued to blossom into the biggest star in the history of Japanese cinema. If it's difficult for us to relate to Shimura's Kambei (despite our admiration for him), we immediately connect with Mifune's Kikuchiyo. He is us: the common person who wishes he could be as noble and heroic a warrior as Kambei. On first blush, Mifune's performance may seem overblown, laced as it is with broad comedy and wild exuberance during the action sequences. Watch closely, though, and you'll see that Mifune delivers a careful balance of comedy, pathos, suppressed rage, bravado, and naïvete in a performance that is astounding for its sustained intensity. One of the most compelling and touching threads in the film's dense tapestry of drama is Kikuchiyo's organic transformation from a blustering fool to a true samurai in the noblest sense of the word. The transformation is Kurosawa's repudiation of the idea that true Bushido is linked to anything as arbitrary as class. It is a matter of personal character. Kambei embodies Bushido. The bandits do not. Through his actions, Kikuchiyo, though not born into the samurai class, eventually comes to embody the samurai code just as Kambei does.
If you've never seen Seven Samurai, you may be intimidated by both its foreignness and its three-and-a-half-hour running time. Don't be. Despite all my talk about Bushido and postwar Japanese angst, Kurosawa's central theme is universal: cultural customs and codes of behavior are dangerous when they cease being mechanisms for a fuller realization of our human potential and become themselves objects of our devotion. Since complex humanity is so thematically important, the lengthy running time is necessary because it allows Kurosawa to flesh out the characterization of each of the seven samurai, as well as a large number of the villagers. At least a dozen characters are major players in the film, and the motivations of each feel psychologically true. We relate to all of the characters, and empathize with their problems and failings.
This is true both because Kurosawa gives himself the time he needs to develop his characters, and because the epic length serves to create the illusion that Seven Samurai's fairly conventional narrative set-ups and payoffs read as the organic intersection of people and circumstance. Consider that the comic relief provided by Kikuchiyo's verbal abuse of Yohei has dramatic payoff when Kikuchiyo's abandonment of his post in his quest for personal glory has dire consequences for the old farmer. Yohei's fate, in turn, transforms the immorality of selfishness from an abstract concept to a concrete reality for Kikuchiyo, establishes his need for redemption, and sets up his final fate at the movie's climax. Yet, the relationship between the events I've just described isn't immediately apparent on a single viewing of the film because the events are spread across a long running time and they're mingled among many other similar narrative threads. The movie is a dense tapestry of interrelated character action whose causal connections are effectively hidden the size and scale of the tapestry. Seven Samurai is a rigorously structured narrative film that reads like an organic, realistic examination of a multitude of individual human lives. Kurosawa's meticulous union of the film's many plot and character elements, and his astounding control of the ebbs and flows of narrative pacing envelop one so completely in his fantasia that the picture never feels more than two hours in length and always seems to end too soon. I don't believe that there is any such thing as the greatest movie ever made, but I know for a fact that I've never seen a film as artful, profound, and just plain fun to watch as Seven Samurai.
If you own Criterion's original release of Seven Samurai and are on the fence about investing in an upgrade, get off the fence now. The improvement in audio-video quality on this release is so startling, it would be worth the price even if this set weren't packed with magnificent supplemental material. According to Criterion's liner notes, the brand new high-definition transfer was sourced from a new negative created from a fine-grain master positive (the original camera negative no longer exists). In addition, the folks at Criterion used a whole mess of digital tools to remove dirt, damage, and age-related flaws. In order to maximize bit rate, the lengthy movie is broken at its five-minute intermission and spread across the first two discs of the set. The result of their diligent work is a revelation. The presentation is full frame, and slightly window-boxed to compensate for overscan on some displays. Contrast is luscious, and detail is sharp. The film is consistently stable in the gate, and the flicker that marred sections of the previous release is almost completely absent here. The harshest, most damaged shots from the original release still contain flaws like fine emulsion scratches and occasional density problems, but these flaws are shadows of their former selves. This transfer is so much better than I've ever seen Seven Samurai that it is essentially perfect when one takes into account that the film was made in Japan (whose studios didn't make film preservation a priority) over fifty years ago.
I've included some screen captures to give you an idea of the vast improvement in image quality the new release offers. First, here's the title screen from Criterion's original release:
The title screen looks like this on the new release:
Here's a shot from a scene with a bravura piece of acting by Mifune, as rendered in the original release:
And here's the exact same shot from the new release:
Needless to say, that's quite a difference.
The original mono soundtrack has also been remastered. It's a significant improvement over the soundtrack on the previous DVD release. The source's limitations are still present in the form of cramped dynamic range and sometimes tinny and sibilant dialogue and sound effects, but hiss and other flaws have been noticeably reduced. More fascinating, this release offers a brand new Dolby Surround mix of the soundtrack. On first blush, this may sound like a bad idea, but the track is no half-assed expansion of a narrow optical recording over a half-century old. It was meticulously constructed from the original optical tracks, separate sound effects masters, and stereo masters of Fumio Hayasaka's score, all of which were previously hidden away in Toho's vaults. The end result is a track that is surprisingly immersive. The expansion of the mix occasionally highlights source limitations, but overall the track is impressive. It's fully recognizable as Seven Samurai's soundtrack, except fuller and richer.
This three-disc set not only treats us to a spectacular audio-video remastering of Seven Samurai, it also delivers a boatload of supplements. First, there are a pair of commentary tracks. The first is Michael Jeck's excellent track from the earlier DVD release. It's a rich, detailed track whose inclusion ensures this set is definitive. The second track is a new "Scholars' Roundtable" commentary, with contributions from Stephen Prince (The Warrior's Camera: The Cinema of Akira Kurosawa), David Desser (The Samurai Films of Akira Kurosawa), Tony Rayns (The Jang Sun-Woo Variations), Donald Richie (The Films of Akira Kurosawa), and Joan Mellen (The Waves at Genji's Door: Japan Through Its Cinema). The contributors were recorded separately in 2005 and 2006. But rather than a mix-and-match track, each scholar handles his or her own 40-minute section of the film in the order I've listed them above. Each participant did thorough homework, and the tracks are precisely organized and coordinated so that there's little overlap of content—not even with Jeck's original track. The end result is two full-length commentary tracks—with a nearly seven-hour combined running time—that offer an incredibly in-depth clinic on Seven Samurai and Kurosawa's artistry. Most importantly, gathering a total of six scholars to analyze and admire Seven Samurai is Criterion's way of tipping its hat to the size, scope, and enormous cinematic importance of the film.
In addition to the first half of the feature and the two commentaries, Disc One contains three vintage theatrical trailers and a teaser for the film. There are also two photo galleries. A "Behind the Scenes" gallery contains 21 production photos. "Posters" offers 12 theatrical posters and one-sheets from all over the world.
Disc Two houses the second half of the feature and commentaries as well as an episode of Akira Kurosawa: It is Wonderful to Create, a documentary series produced for Toho's DVD releases of Kurosawa's films in Japan. At 50 minutes, this particular episode is slightly longer than those presented on Criterion's releases of other Kurosawa pictures, but its style and substance are the same. It's packed with information about Seven Samurai's production, and includes contemporary interviews with members of the film's crew.
Disc Three contains two additional documentaries. The first is My Life in Cinema, a two-hour video conversation between Kurosawa and director Nagisa Oshima (In the Realm of the Senses, Taboo). It's a surprisingly low-key and amiable affair considering the radically left-wing Oshima has often been critical of Kurosawa's jidai-geki, asserting that they pander to culturally illiterate Japanese, justifying and romanticizing the old feudal status quo. The documentary (produced by the Directors Guild of Japan) is marvelously comprehensive. The conversation begins with a discussion of Kurosawa's early work as an assistant director and proceeds pretty much chronologically through his entire career. The piece is likely to become tedious for the Kurosawa neophyte, but fans will find it enthralling.
The second documentary on Disc Three is called Seven Samurai: Origins and Influences. It collects video interviews of the participants of the roundtable commentary and a few others in order to present a detailed examination of the cultural, literary, political, and cinematic influences that informed Kurosawa's shaping of Seven Samurai. It's a fascinating piece of work.
In addition to the onboard extras, this package comes with much-improved package design (a gatefold digipak in a tasteful slipcover) and a 56-page insert booklet loaded with content. There are brief essays by six scholars and critics entirely different from those who participated in the roundtable commentary. Between them, Peter Cowie, Kenneth Turan, Philip Kemp, Peggy Chiao, Alain Silver, and Stuart Galbraith IV look at Seven Samurai's narrative structure, relation to the American western, historical setting, cultural and political influences, visual style, and place among the many great Japanese films released in 1954. The booklet also contains brief tributes from American directors Arthur Penn (Bonnie and Clyde) and Sidney Lumet (Network). Finally, "Toshiro Mifune: In His Own Words" is an adaptation of a 1993 conversation between the actor and Kurosawa's longtime assistant Teruyo Nogami in which the production of Seven Samurai is discussed.
One of the grandest achievements in all of cinema has finally been given the DVD treatment it deserves. Criterion delivers a splendid presentation of the film, coupled with an orgy of extras with contributions from a boatload of scholars, critics, film historians, and filmmakers. This set is comprehensive and definitive. It's a must-own.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary by Japanese Film Expert Michael Jeck
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