Seven Samurai

Seven Samurai ★★★★★

Three-and-a-half hours have never felt so short. This film pretty much single-handedly shaped the modern action epic, but I wish even a fraction of them took the real lessons from it, that you can give an audience effectively all relevant information and setup within an hour and use the rest of that time to deepen our understanding of the characters, their growing relationships to one another, and even the spatial layout of the central set (by the time things pop off in the second half, you have a complete understanding of the village and its surrounding areas, which only adds to the drama of knowing how each wave approaches and is beaten back). This film feels widescreen, but constructing the village at the base of rolling hills beautifully scales the frame vertically from the outset, and even the most laterally crowded shot makes extensive use of the height of the frame as much as the width.

There's plenty of on-the-nose dialogue here, whether narratively expository or centered on openly discussing character traits and arcs (the more I learn Japanese the more I've come to understand that this is as much a function of the structure of the language itself as an artistic tradition of Japanese or more broadly SE Asian art). But Kurosawa communicates so much through the camera, cutting on movement and making even the most somber, talky scenes dynamic with angled character blocking or background and foreground elements of shoji screens and shadow to create a propulsive sense of movement. There are also moments of wonderfully subtle, character-driven direction, as when the taciturn badass Kyuzo resolves to obtain one of the bandits' muskets for study and the camera calmly watches him recede into the night before cutting to him calmly returning the next morning with a rifle. When Kikuchiyo decides he has to get one too, the camera of course, of course, follows his every move, turning things into a brief picaresque not unlike the way Kurosawa filmed Mifune's tale in Rashomon, to show him blithely riding off for an unnecessary and costly raid. Even the moments of overwhelming action communicate so much, like the way Rikichi's captured wife goes from catatonic to overjoyed when the bandits' camp is set ablaze to that wild smile freezing into anguish when she sees the husband she is to ashamed to behold. Or, in the end, when Kyuzo, the master swordsman and cool-headed warrior, is shot and with his dying breath throws his katana in a rage, utterly beside himself to die from such a cowardly, dishonorable cheap shot. Kikuchiyo, seconds later, avenges his comrade, only to be left with his ass hanging in the air as rain washes the mud off of his corpse.

This is such a pessimistic film, albeit one whose bleak conclusions are rooted in a humanism that takes in the bad with the good. At its heart is a story of poor farmers who learn as much how to defend themselves as rely on the ronin they hire, but their caged-animal ferocity in a skirmish can be as brutal and hard to watch as the attacks against them. If Ikiru was the first of Kurosawa's postwar films to look past the war to dig into social issues that were baked into Japanese culture and character, Seven Samurai casts a jaundiced eye even further back onto the cultural mythos that shaped Japan's generation of militarism, and finds only the ragged, exhausted relief of survival, with all thoughts of heroic bloodshed dissipating in the wind that blows over funeral mounds that one suspects will be forgotten about within a few years.