Seven Samurai

Seven Samurai ★★★★★

One of the offbeat joys of revisiting old movies is watching scenes involving filmmaking conventions that are seemingly cliché, and then realizing that the movie was created before these conventions became cliché. The 1954 Japanese film Seven Samurai is one such example of an innovative work of cinema that has served as a blueprint for countless subsequent efforts. From a technical standpoint, director Akira Kurosawa's utilization of multiple telephoto long-lens cameras to capture elaborately-planned battle scenes from a distance is now a standard technique for action movies, slow-motion in action scenes is now commonplace, and use of deep focus to show simultaneous action in the foreground, middle, and background of a single shot is employed across the board. From a storytelling standpoint, the recruitment of the seven samurai to defend a village from bandits in this movie was, according to film critic Michael Jeck, one of the earliest instances where multiple characters were assembled for a single task in an action film, and a sequence early in the film involving a samurai's efforts to save a kidnapped child is, as noted by Roger Ebert, one of the first examples of introducing an action hero by showing him or her in a perilous situation that is unrelated to the main plot.

As I watched a 35mm print showing of Seven Samurai at Midtown Art Cinema earlier this month and enjoyed the experience of seeing this iconic movie on the big screen, I reflected on how the techniques employed by Kurosawa in this film have rarely, if ever, been done better. Seven Samurai clocks in at almost three and half hours, but the movie does not have a single wasted second. Every still frame is crucial to the end result, no shots are present just for effect, and the movie is trimmed of any unnecessary fat.

During the crowded fight scenes late in the film, we are never confused about the whereabouts of each of the samurai or of each of the prominent village peasant characters, because the individual quirks and visual trademarks of each person are accentuated even from afar, and Kurosawa's use of location landmarks enable us to know where and how every action takes place in the grand scheme of a larger event. Takashi Shimura's Kambei continually scratches the back of his bald head, and this mannerism would later serve as an inspiration for the character of Yoda in the Star Wars series. Toshiro Mifune's Kikuchiyo wields massive swords, perhaps as overcompensation for his insecurities about his peasant background. The elderly villager, Yohei, who frantically trembles and cowers at the mere mention of bandits, provides a comedic visual throughout the story. We have the young novice samurai who regards the rest of the warriors with reverential hero worship, the technically-skilled swordsman who continually exudes a yearning for meaning in his life, a forever-smiling samurai who provides needed levity even in the darkest moments, a wise and poised village elder, a beleaguered peasant father obsessed with sheltering his beautiful daughter from the samurai, and many other standouts whose signature characteristics endear them to the viewer. For these reasons, Seven Samurai plows through its story with brilliant pacing and never feels “homeworky” to present-day viewers, despite its length and its reputation as an epic masterwork of foreign cinema.

At some point during every person's first viewing of Seven Samurai, a mental switch is flicked, and the viewer realizes that the action scenes were created long before the days of digital effects or blue-screen technology. The effectiveness of the filmmaking belies the scale of the production, and gives the proceedings an effortless look that causes us to take for granted the planning that went into every step of this work. Seven Samurai is an epic where everything comes together. Memorable characters, distinctive settings, comedy, pathos, violence, historical relevance, death-defying stunts, unforgettable music, romance, and reflection all function in a cohesion-adhesion style.

I urge every fan of this Kurosawa film to see a theatrical showing if they have the chance. In a crowded theater, the audience reactions to each scene emphasis the interplay of comedic cues, the intense drama, and explosive conflict. In terms of home viewing, my highest recommendation goes to the Blu-ray edition of Seven Samurai that is available as a part of the Criterion Collection, because the high definition presentation makes this movie look as though it were filmed yesterday. Most new viewers will be compelled to check out Kurosawa's other masterpieces, particularly those that also star Toshiro Mifune. Likewise, they may also be inspired to investigate earlier movies from John Ford and other filmmakers who served as an influence for Kurosawa. Seven Samurai, however, is best appreciated on its own terms as a fast-moving firecracker of an action film that continues to upstage most movies to this day.

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