Seven Samurai

Seven Samurai ★★★★★

The blockbuster to end all blockbusters. A sweeping, thrilling, heartening, gleeful saga in every sense. A story that blends art with entertainment, Western technique with Eastern mythology, converging into one of the most visceral adventure-stories ever made. Is this the closet Kurosawa ever came to making a larger-than-life, Spielbergian epic? This puppy has everything: spectacle, showmanship, unforgettable characters, layered history, ideological complexity, kinetic performances, the hope of solidarity, the beauty of sacrifice, and the soul-cleansing warmth of the unquenchable human spirit. 

I laughed, I cried, I felt so connected to Kurosawa's seven samurai, each with a specific, tangible personality and convincing air of humanity. These characters weren't written. They've always lived in this world, and they'll continue to do so long after we turn our gaze to other films. 

The film is well over 3-hours, but don't be alarmed. It flies at the speed of spears and arrows hurled at muddied bodies, always piercing us with its charm and wildcat intensity. The torrential rain of RASHOMON has returned. No, it doesn't signify a fog of illusions and lies, but summons a daring environment in which seven heroes will protect the lives of repressed, vulnerable people, proving the notion that heroism is selfless; heroism will always fight in stormy, rain-drenched conditions to look after those on the margins. 

Speaking of heroes and vulnerable types, SEVEN SAMURAI presents a layered community of three classes —farmers, bandits and samurai —that tangles each group in super interesting ways, at the same time developing their personas and individual philosophies. Bridges are drawn that blur the dynamic between them, but Kurosawa also makes an effort to show how ideology and power separates their social differences. Bandits, for example, rule by force and brute strength. These savages burn, rape and plunder the harvest of desperate farmers too weak to protect their own crop, but the bandits may have also formerly been noble samurai warriors sworn into a strict Bushido code. Whatever the reason for their disenchantment, the samurai-turned-bandit would help explain why the farmers hold such fear and mistrust against both groups. As victims of a lower class struggling to reclaim what little power is left, even they, the exploited farmers, have turned to murder and cowardly ways, sometimes out of survival, other times out of repressed rage. As Mifune, the farmer-turned-samurai, reveals to us: it is the samurai class who have caused the farmers to become savages themselves. 

"Who made animals out of [the farmers]? You. You did —you samurai. Each time you fight you burn villages, you destroy the fields, you take away the food, you seduce the women and enslave the men. And kill them if they resist. You hear me —you damned samurai."

Criterion thinker Philip Kemp continues: "[Mifune] can see both sides: yes, he rages, the farmers are cowardly, mean, treacherous, quite capable of robbing and killing a wounded samurai —but it's the samurai, with their looting and brutality, who have made the farmers that way."

In the eyes of the farmers, the distinction between bandits and samurai has reached a blurred parity, making it difficult to discern good from evil. Kurosawa played with similar shades of grey in STRAY DOG, another film that obfuscated the line between three types of classes —cops, criminals and disenchanted war veterans. All this relating and conflating serves an important purpose in SEVEN SAMURAI, as well as Kurosawa's work generally. It reinforces a narrative throughline in which Kurosawa's humanism sees people from all angles, seeks to understand the circumstances that molded them, and invites us, the viewer, to withhold judgment until we've become them. 

No character better complicates the notions of class, and for that matter understands all sides of the war, than Mifune. 

A farmer's son whose parents were killed by bandits, Mifune is the film's comic relief, and wow, he sure is funny as hell in this. The humor of his character though is an irony straddled between two worlds —the world in which he came from (farmer) and the world in which he aspires to (samurai). He understands the longstanding hatred between both worlds, maybe because as a child he, too, had confused bandits with embittered samurai, not knowing exactly which may had taken the lives of his family. Skepticism aside, he believes in the purity of Bushido, or at minimal some earthly force that can train him to avenge the death of his parents. He's not Batman by any stretch, bravery is not at all natural to him. He's an awkward, drifting soul stuck between past and future, someone who desperately wants to prove both his manhood and courage to the other samurai. 

Mifune wants to be the good samurai, not the samurai-turned-bandit, but he needs a purist like Shimura and the rest of the troupe to guide him. This point merits a little unpacking, as it's the same thing that makes his character in STRAY DOG so interesting. In a different universe, born from different circumstances, Mifune could have easily become the criminal in one film, the bandit in the other. Instead, he retains the identity of cop in that film, and becomes the samurai in this one. Kurosawa's interest is entirely in the reaction, what do people make out of the forces that surround them? It's a question he's explored as early as NO REGRETS OF OUR YOUTH, a story that watches a bourgeoise woman turn into a peasant activist; or DRUNKEN ANGEL, where an unredeemable gangster becomes an anti-hero. As Richtie contends: "[Kurosawa] is not at all interested in what forces have made people what they are; he is completely interested in what people make out of what the forces have made of them." This is a cool thought to consider in light of Mifune's character in SEVEN SAMURAI, because indeed, Mifune is the lynchpin between farmer, bandit and samurai, someone whose identity gets shaped by each class as he struggles to find himself. 

You would think with all these differing social ideologies and competing classes that get ensnared into one bandit-farmer-samurai homogeny would open the door to RASHOMON's scary relativism, but the result here is quite the opposite. Through all the heavy rain and hand-to-hand combat, there is a brand of samurai out in the world that the farmers can actually trust, and who will fight side-by-side with them to reclaim their rights and humanity. There is fear and suspicion along the way as to whether the farmer's faith in the samurai will hold out, but over time, as these Zennish warriors teach the farmers how to fight and defend themselves, a living bridge is drawn between farmer and samurai, friend and enemy, in a way that affirms Kurosawa's most optimistic portrayal of humanity to date. Shimura and his bunch gradually teach the farmers that the blade can represent honor and solidarity, as opposed to fraud and selfishness. It's a beautiful, anti-RASHOMON emblem of the film's strongest themes and preoccupations. 

SEVEN SAMURAI is an invigorating inspection of humanity at its most hopeful and heroic. A sweeping epic with enough warmth, humor, action and kinetic philosophy to last the ages. There's a reason it's stuck around for so long, and will continue to inspire future generations. It transcends the limitations of its own culture and genre. It speaks in universal terms, compelling the human heart to believe in the higher good. 

PS: For an equally resonate and seminal experience, I encourage all my readers to check out my friend David's review on this extraordinary film. David captures the depth and energy of this film better than most, and dives far deeper into the story, its history, and philosophical threads than I have. It's a beautiful companion piece to film, one that everyone should read and be enriched by.


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