Monday, December 4, 2017

Why Haven't I Seen That?: SEVEN SAMURAI (1954)

Welcome to a new installment of WHY HAVEN'T I SEEN THAT?, where we talk about a must-see or iconic movie that we have never seen ... until now. This week we review an epic masterwork from famed Japanese director Akira Kurosawa, SEVEN SAMURAI.

I like to think I have a better-than-average appreciation for motion pictures, at least as two-bit Internet hack film critics go. Maybe that's true, maybe it's vanity; whatever the case, a movie like Kurosawa's Seven Samurai exists to provide that dose of humility that reminds me that there is so much I don't understand.

I sat down to watch Seven Samurai today hoping that the experience would be something like my first time viewing another celebrated film, Citizen Kane. Which is to say I may not appreciate all the subtle details that make the latter one of the greatest movies ever made, but I would at least come away with the understanding that I had watched something special.

So it's with some chagrin that I have to report that didn't happen. I have sat through all three-and-a-half hours of this movie (yes, it's that long) and I fail to see what all the fuss is about. I suppose this is why Criterion routinely includes booklets full of essays, and at least two commentary tracks with each movie they release in their collection: so empty-headed swine like myself might at least have a chance of appreciating the pearl placed before them.

Absent such revelations, and I write this with no outside research as I fear I will likely end up repeating the thoughts of others, here's what I got from the movie. A certain village in the mountains of Japan is having trouble with bandits, to the point that they rarely have little more than subsistence rations. With a barley crop on the way and desperate to put an end to the bandits' reign, the villagers attempt to find samurai who will defend them in exchange for food, as the villagers have nothing else to offer. As you might expect, they find some. Guess how many.

Men of varied personality and temperament though these samurai are, I like the understated way in which the nobility of the cause they're undertaking -- agreeing to fight and possibly die in defense of a poor village, in a battle that will reward them neither money nor status -- is presented. In fact, the film never tries to convince the audience that their act is noble at all. Instead we're presented with the facts, and left to decide for ourselves how we feel about it. I wish American movies took this route more often.

The samurai themselves are likeable enough, but Toshiro Mifune steals the show as Kikuchiro, the clown-slash-man with a past of the group. Most of Seven Samurai's comic relief comes from him, but also some of the film's most impactful scenes. For example, while Kambei Shimada (Takashi Shimura), the first of the samurai to be hired by the village, is away recruiting others to the cause, fear of what the warlike, animalistic samurai will do to the villagers who hired them -- and especially the girls! -- begins to spread. By the time the Seven , who are neither warlike nor animalistic, arrive, it's gotten so bad that the village appears to be a ghost town, with everyone in hiding. No matter how they call, not one villager will come out to greet them -- until Kikuchiro begins sounding the village's invasion alarm. This brings every last man, woman and child in the village running, pleading for the samurai to save them from the bandits they believe are attacking, only to find Kikuchiro mocking them for their hypocrisy.

The preparations for the bandits' invasion are where the film really drags, with the work shown in loving detail. Even the battle takes longer than I expected, with the invasion turning into something closer to a siege, lasting three days before the samurai are finally victorious. And when it's over, the samurai receive no thanks from the villagers that we see. Instead the three survivors return to their travels -- the other four lie under burial mounds outside the village -- while the singing villagers plant their rice crop. They had known from the start that there was to be no reward for their service, but that their assistance is so quickly forgotten, apparently, gives the ending a melancholy feel.

So I have another film add to my list of movies that I want to understand better. Repeated viewings of this one lie in my future. If you decide to try this one, come prepared for a slog, and maybe read up on it a bit before you do. This one does not reward cold viewings.

Seven Samurai is not rated, but does contain violent action sequences.

Robert's Score: 5 / 10

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1 comment:

  1. I love this film. Akira Kurosawa is one of my favorite directors.