Seven Samurai

Seven Samurai ★★★★★

Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai is a cornerstone of cinema, raising storytelling and formal technique to a very high bar. There are films that are trying to be artful and deep, and films which are experimental in style. There are flawed films that I love more. Yet, as a film that is neither experimental nor an overt artistic statement, Seven Samurai is likely the best crafted story-based film in history. There's nothing that doesn't work overall, and the only criticisms are tiny nitpicks. It is never once boring, and simply doesn't feel like a three-and-a-half hour movie. The music, like the beating of war drum, is commanding and memorable. The action is fantastic; controlled, naturalistic, sometimes fast, sometimes slow. With dynamic, roaming cinematography and editing cut perfectly on action, it feels like a continuously moving story. No wonder it created and established so many tropes.

The characters in Seven Samurai are iconic legends. The leader of the titular samurai, Kambei, is tired of fighting and seeing death. He is strong and consistent, aged and dignified, and his humbleness is the glue that holds everything together in Seven Samurai. His survival ensures that he will continue to see the suffering and sacrifices around him. As he says in the epilogue, "in the end, we lost this battle too." However, the real standout character is Kikuchiyo, played by Toshiro Mifune. He has possibly the best arc in all cinema, growing from a laughable fake with an oversized sword (a triangle among circles) to an honourable man given a samurai burial. Not only that, but he develops all the way throughout the film and in two ways. Not only does the character have a change of self, the attitudes of those around him become more accepting and respectful. Yet the character remains fairly consistent, the changes don't fundamentally alter his personality, just who he is in the world. At one point, there's a crying child next to a burning house, and Kikuchiyo realises the disparity between where he came from and who he now is. Kikuchiyo's defining moment is a heartfelt speech about samurais and farmers (a high point in an already fantastic movie). His declaration gives the film a moment a clarity in its violent world. It rips apart notions of responsibility and freedom in a time dominated by class and oppression. Not only is it one of the best speeches in movie history, it is a devastatingly good moment for understanding Kikuchiyo's character. Kikuchiyo is one of the finest characters ever created, and Mifune's gurning, mischievous face is an absolute joy to watch.

Although the characters are great, Seven Samurai is not a movie about individuals. It is a story of groups, teams, and classes. The farmers vs the bandits vs the samurai. Early on, we see many points where samurai act elitist. There's also snobbery and a class dynamic between other characters and the peasant farmers. It's no wonder the peasantry distrust samurai. It's not their hunger and cowardice that makes the farmers suffer, it's the indignity of being treated as lower. Sometimes this manifests in ugly ways, with a subplot involving a father being afraid that samurai will defile his daughter. These were stricter, more patriarchal times but it highlights the follies of class and privilege. The characters are expected to fit into their roles in society - a samurai, a bandit, a farmer, a wife. In this world, both bandits and samurai are responsible for the cycles of violence that hurt the impoverished. Even those with seemingly pure motives often prove to have murkier intentions. Seven Samurai is a film of movement. Kurosawa utilises natural movement from the wind and rain, but he also uses the chaotic, yet controlled, movements of a crowd. He makes whole groups move together and unify, or split apart and separate. He controls the movement on the screen and emphasises the roles of the groups over those of the individuals. In Seven Samurai, individuals are often vague and indistinct. But it doesn't matter, even when for example many of the titular samurai are fairly undefined, as Kurosawa makes us understand the group as a whole and sometimes there's more to be gained from many unified voices than a bunch of disparate ones.

Seven Samurai is a story of heroism. It is a traditional hero movie in every sense. There's nothing truly special about the samurai, but their moral character turns them into heroes. True heroism comes at a cost, but it is a cost they'd all gladly pay. Often in Seven Samurai, heroic action isn't seen, and many times it is accompanied with a loss. But that doesn't matter, as love and heroism always finds a way. A loss is nothing, as protecting others can save yourself. The task they face is very difficult, like trying to pick hundreds of pieces of rice from the crumbs on floorboards. Yet this epic tale has a very small scale - just the protection of one village. It feels like a legend, a myth. The story of seven samurai who did so much for those who had so little. It is a timeless tale stuck in our cultural consciousness.

Seven Samurai has everything a great story needs. It has great characters, a simple but inspiring plot, and a relevancy to a specific time and place. It's an absolute masterpiece that constantly holds up to scrutiny. Most importantly, it is a film that is fun and entertaining from beginning to end. An undeniable classic.

Akira Kurosawa Ranked

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