Sunday, 15 April 2007

Shichinin no samurai (Seven Samurai)

If there is one thing I regret about this blog, it is that I have never written much about jidaigeki (which means "period drama" in Japanese) or chambara movies (chambara means "sword fight")." Here in America we usually call them "samurai movies." Despite my relative silence on the subject, it is among my favourite genres of all time. Indeed, my favourite movie of all time is Shichinin no samurai or Seven Samurai. I'm not alone in this, as many recognise it as one of the greatest films ever made. Some even consider it the greatest.

Seven Samurai concerns a poor, defenceless, farming village who hire a group of samurai to protect them from the bandits who have been preying upon them for years. The movie is set in the Sengoku period (also known as "the warring states period" in English) in the late 16th century. During this period of unrest in Japan, many samurai became ronin or "lordless samurai." These ronin were often hired as mercenaries or bodyguards.

Shichinin no samurai originated with legendary Japanese director Akira Kurosawa. Kurosawa had originally wanted to make a movie about the day in the life of a samurai. The movie would have begun with the samurai getting up in the morning and would end with the samurai making some error and being forced to commit oibara seppuku to save face. Ultimately, Kurosawa felt he did not have enough information to make such a film. Fortunately, however, in his research he had come upon an account of a village which hired samurai to defend them. This idea became Seven Samurai.

Seven Samurai would prove to be a very arduous undertaking for Kurosawa. It took Kurosawa and his collaborators Shinobu Hashimoto, and Hideo Oguni six weeks to finish the script. And during that whole time interruptions to their work was kept to an absolute minimum. Both visitors and phone calls were forbidden to them. Preproduction on the film also took a long time. It stretched out for three months. Worse yet, Toho Studios and Kurosawa didn't always see eye to eye. Toho had wanted Kurosawa to shoot Shichinin no samurai on sets in Tokyo, but the great director insisted on shooting on location to capture the look and feel of a 16th century Japanese farming village. The film was originally budgeted to be shot in a little over month, but shooting on the movie lasted for over a year. To make matters worse, the studio was also shooting Gojira (known as Godzilla elsewhere) at the same time. The cost of both movies would nearly bankrupt Toho. It should not be surprising, then, that Toho discontinued production on the film several times, forcing Kurosawa to convince the studio's board of directors to continue making the movie. Other problems would also plague the movie's production. The weather would not cooperative for much of the time. And for some of the action scenes the production was running short on horses. In the end Seven Samurai would be the most expensive feature ever made in Japan at the time of its release. It would also be the longest hit movie made anywhere since Gone With the Wind, clocking in at over 3 hours.

Ultimately, the trials and tribulations that went into the making of Seven Samurai would prove well worth it. Toho's concerns about the film proved to be unwarranted, as it would be a box office success in Japan. Following the critical and box office success of Rashoman (released in 1951), it would cement Kurosawa's reputation as a director both in Japan and around the world. In 1954 Shichinin no samurai won the Silver Lion award at the Venice Film Festival, where it was also nominated for the Golden Lion award. It was released in the United States on November 19, 1956. Unfortunately, Toho, thinking Americans could not sit through a three hour movie, cut the film to 141 minutes. They also retitled it The Magnificent Seven (a name later used by its most famous remake--Toho apparently did not think Americans knew what samurai were). Both the extensive cutting and the new title did not seem to harm the movie in the United States. It would be nominated for Oscars for Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Black-and-White and Best Costume Design, Black-and-White. Amazingly, it was not nominated for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film (Fellini's La Strada would win that year).

Regardless of its poor showing at the Oscars, Shichinin no samurai would prove to be the most influential action movie of all time. Indeed, the first official remake of the film would be made almost immediately. At the urging of Yul Brynner, producer Walter Mirisch bought the rights for an American remake of the film. That film, which transplanted the action to the Mexico in the days of the Old West, would become The Magnificent Seven--itself now regarded by many as a classic. Other "official" remakes would follow, including Liu he qian shou, Battle Beyond the Stars, and I Sette magnifici gladiatori among others. There would be many more "unofficial" remakes, including Star Trek: Insurrection and A Bug's Life (which is actually more a parody). Even when films are not outright remakes of Shichinin no samurai or inspired by it, the movie's influence can be seen in them. The spate of movies featuring a group of heroes in the Sixties (The Great Escape, The Dirty Dozen, The Wild Bunch, and so on) may have been an outgrowth of the success of The Seven Samurai and its American remake The Magnificent Seven. Arguably, the plot of The Seven Samurai was so archetypal that it became a stock plot often used by Hollywood in action films.

The influence of Seven Samurai can be felt in more than the recycling of its plot. Critic Michael Jeck (on the DVD commentary to the film) believes that it was the first film in which a group was gathered together to carry out a mission. Roger Ebert believes that it could be the first time a hero is shown on another mission at the beginning of a movie (in the case of Shichinin no samurai, Kambei rescuing a boy from a kidnapper). The unease with which the villagers view the samurai and the romance of one of the heroes with a local girl were other plot devices which would prove influential. While these plot devices occur in earlier films, they were first brought together in Seven Samurai. Among its other innovations was the use of slow motion in action scenes, the use of the telephoto lens, and multi-camera filming. Not only have various plot elements in the movie been imitated many times, so too has its style and look.

For myself it is no wonder Seven Samurai has the reputation it does. While it can be simply described as a film in which poor villagers hire samurai to defend them, it is much more complex than that. Although some have criticised Kurosawa for using "types" in the movie rather than characters, I have to disagree. The characters are part of the appeal of the movie--Kambei, the older samurai with his share of regrets; Kiuchiyo (played marvelously by the legendary Toshiro Mifune), the farmer who wants to be a samurai; and Kyuzu, the taciturn master swordsmen. And unlike many of its remakes and imitators, the villagers in Shichinin no samurai have personalities all their own, from the village elder, Gisaku, who hires the samurai, to Manzo, the villager worried for his daughter with so many samurai around. And Seven Samurai is remarkable in its large number of subplots; nearly every character has his or her time in the spotlight.

The complexity of Seven Samurai does not end with its characters or its plot. The film was revolutionary in Kurosawa's treatment of samurai. Here, perhaps for the first time in Japanese cinema, samurai were not portrayed as honour bound warriors who must die in battle or commit oibara seppuku when faced with defeat. Indeed, in some portions of the film various samurai joke about hiding during battle and even running away. And rather than romanticising the samurai, Kurosawa in many respects portrays them as a sad lot. Indeed, in some respects they seem envious of the farmers, with their families and settled lives. In the end, Kambei remarks, "So. Again we are defeated. The farmers have won. Not us." Ultimately, however, the samurai are heroic figures (after all, who else would defend unarmed farmers for but a bit of rice a day but a hero?), but they are heroes who are also unmistakably human.

Shichinin no samurai is remarkable in its recreation of 16th century Japanese life, from the clothes the characters wear to the food they eat. And yet the film does not accept 16th century Japan at face value. Japan at that time was a society with a strict class system, in which peasants and samurai must not mix. Indeed, this perhaps lies behind the distrust the peasants hold for the samurai. Ultimately, however, in allowing the samurai and villagers to interact and bond, as Roger Ebert in his review of the film points out, Kurosawa presents gentle humanism as preferable to the strict codes of 16th century Japan. This was a stark departure from many previous jidaigeki.

Of course, it is more than the film's complexity in its plot and themes that make it a great film. Even on the cheaper film stock used in Japan at the time, Seven Samurai looks very good. Kurosawa was an accomplished painter, and he applied his knowledge of the art to his work in film. Like most of his films, Shichinin no samurai is remarkable for the details in many of its shots. It is not unusual in the film to see a shot in which one thing may be going on in the foreground, and something else entirely is going on in the background. In fact, Kurosawa uses nearly every technique at the disposal of filmmakers at the time, from close ups to wide angle shots to panning. I have to say, I honestly think that any given frame of the movie would look good as a still picture.

Amazingly for its length, Shichinin no samurai moves at a fairly rapid pace. Indeed, my best friend claims that the movie could actually been longer and it wouldn't hurt it. I must admit, it does not seem like a movie that is over three hours in length.

As I said earlier, Seven Samurai is my favourite film of all time. And it is widely recognised as one of the greatest films of all time. It is not a classic meant only to be seen by students of film or movie historians. It is not even a movie merely for those who love movies. Quite frankly, I think everyone needs to see this film at least once in their lifetime, and preferably more than that.


themarina said...

To my own disappointment, I still haven't seen my copy of "Seven Samurai" which was a gift from a friend in early January.

I seriously need to make the effort to correct this.


d. chedwick bryant said...

Years ago, I went to a Mifune film festival--I don't recall how many of his movies we watched, but we were enthralled. It led me to read a ton of Japanese fiction , etc.. including Mishima's books. I recently saw "Hell in the Pacific" again as it popped up on cable one rainy day. This was a nice post. Maybe tonight we'll watch The Seven Samurai again.