The Code Of The East : Seven Samurai

seven samurai

With Seven Samurai in 1954, Akira Kurosawa sought to elevate Japanese Samurai films of the day, chambara, essentially B-movies, to the level of an epic: at three hours and twenty seven minutes, he succeeded in not just shining a light on his country’s past, but crafting a mythic fable that symbolises Japan’s struggle to live with the shame of its militaristic recent past and seek a peaceful coexistence in a modern age.

Everyone knows the basic plot, even if you’ve only seen the Western version, The Magnificent Seven: a peaceful village is terrorised by bandits during a time of bitter civil war. Spared an attack until the rice harvest, the lowly, desperate farmers turn to seven Ronin, masterless Samurai, who defend and train them, in return for mere rice and a roof over their heads. Only the excitement of battle draws them, and an uneasy relationship develops between the two groups.

Kurosawa became known as “Tenno“, or “The Emperor” on set, demanding absolute fealty and dedication from his crew, pushing himself and them to the limit – the film took a year to complete. “I don’t plan on being mean to anybody,” he later recalled. “It’s like I hear a voice from the heavens…I guess all of us are possessed by something.”

Kurosawa’s masterful direction, editing and empirical attention to detail helped define kinetic cinema. His use of telephoto lenses created a depth of focus to the action on screen, especially with multiple camera set-ups. His intermittent use of slow-motion in the midst of battle massively influenced Sam Peckinpah on The Wild Bunch. Dropping the sound in the midst of the action. Cutting ever increasingly short surges of moments in battle, jump cuts and wipes. Wide shots to essay stillness in the aftermath of drama. Always with the viewer keeping pace with what is on screen.

Pouring rain falls on the morning of the decisive final battle, turning the village soil into a quagmire. Men wade through the mud and blood, horse warriors pound from end to end, harried by the villagers and their defenders. Two gunshots from a hidden emplacement bring down two of the Seven – Kyuzo (Seiji Miyaguchi), the ice-cool master swordsman, and reckless Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune) the son of a farmer, an imposter desperate to be seen as his fellow’s equal. Are the shots a symbolic nod to the atomic bursts that brought a shaken Japan to the table of surrender?  Kambei, the leader of the group (Takashi Shimura) solemnly observes, “Again we are defeated. The farmers are the winners, not us.” The ending is ambiguous – who has really won, and who has lost? Sidney Lumet remarked of the ending, “The noblest have their flaws, the basest their nobility.”

Below is a nice analysis of part of the final battle by Phil Baumhardt.



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