by Jeremy Clarke.
Akira Kurosawa’s three-and-a-half-hour epic Seven Samurai (1954) remains to this day a landmark movie in Japanese and world cinema. It is currently streaming on BFI Player as part of the five month long Japan 2020 programme alongside 21 other Kurosawa films together with a much wider selection of Japanese movies including some as yet unannounced anime.
Kurosawa began his artistic career as a painter, then, in 1935 at age 25, got a job as an assistant director in what soon became Toho Studios. For his first directing assignment, he picked the judo action vehicle Sanshiro Sugata (1943). In his Drunken Angel (1948) newcomer Toshiro Mifune’s violence-infused portrayal of a yakuza suffering from TB stole the film from star Takashi Shimura’s alcoholic doctor. Mifune again took centre stage as a bandit in Rashomon (1950) in which Shimura again appeared which recounts the bandit’s rape of a samurai’s bride from four conflicting perspectives. This film almost single-handedly put Japanese cinema on the international map when it unexpectedly won the 1951 Venice film festival.
Seven Samurai opens with a group of horsemen on a horizon. Notwithstanding the Japanese titles on the screen, you could be watching a Hollywood Western. Although what follows is a tale of samurai, bandits and farmers, it’s so close to ideas in a Western that Hollywood replaced sword with guns and retooled it as the hugely successful The Magnificent Seven (1960).
The plot concerns a small farming village threatened by bandits, who attack at harvest time and take all the crops. The farmers find a group of samurai prepared to defend them against the bandits in return for food and lodging. From a script co-written with two others Kurosawa delivers a measured epic which explodes into action in its final hour and a bit.
The film’s first hour comprises the farmers’ search for suitable samurai, the second comprises the training of the farmers and the digging or fortifications. The bandits do not attack until the the third hour hour and a half – a day, and a night, and a day in torrential rain.
The first samurai the farmers find is Kambei (Takashi Shimura) who rescues a child being held hostage by a thief in a barn, watched by young samurai wannabe Katsushiro (Ko Kimura) and skulking, mystery man Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune). Before the farmer can attract his attention, Kambei is begged by Katsushiro to let the youth become his apprentice while Kikuchiyo prowls around the pair retorting, “of course I’m a samurai.”
Mifune/Kikuchiyo vanishes while Kambei and Katsushiro grab four further recruits – old friend Shichiroji (Daisuke Kato), insightful Gorobei (Yoshio Inaba), honest morale booster Heihaichi (Minoru Chiaki) and technically perfect swordsman Kyuzo (Seiji Miyaguchi). The snarling, prowling Mifune is startlingly different. The actor claimed Kurosawa originally planned the film as Six Samurai, then decided he needed a joker character to bridge the samurai-villagers gap. Introducing Mifune then keeping him out of sight is a master stroke that makes this section all the more memorable.
Kurosawa plays around with this extra element that Mifune’s very different style affords him. The group arrive in the village to find it largely deserted. Suddenly there’s panic that the bandits are coming. Someone sounds the alarm. It is Mifune/Kikuchiyo, who berates the villagers for letting a mere alarm disrupt their organisation. Because his performance style is so different, Mifune acts separately from the others, which works beautifully in the context of the story. This is the moment the other six accept him as part of the group and decide that they are truly seven.
It’s instructive to compare all this with Kurosawa’s pre-Mifune outing The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail (1945) in which a fugitive lord, his six samurai bodyguards and a low-life porter must pass through a military checkpoint without being recognised. Takashi Shimura and others use a conservative, dramatic style contrasting with over-the-top comedian Kenichi Enomoto playing the porter. Kurosawa had worked as assistant director on earlier Enomoto vehicles and adapted the screenplay himself from plays based on a popular historical story. Yet Enomoto’s heightened performance jars. Conversely, the moment Kurosawa puts Mifune onscreen alongside conservative actors in Drunken Angel, sparks fly and Mifune becomes a major star overnight. I can’t help but feel Kurosawa had previously seen something similar in Enomoto even if it didn’t quite work out (he never used Enomoto again).
Seven Samurai being shot in 1954, there are, of course, no computer effects whatsoever. All the violence and mayhem is staged before the cameras in glorious black and white. The bandits are marked as circles on a chart which are crossed off with an ‘X’ for every bandit killed – a simple black and white schematic as smart and effective as the one the director would employ three decades later in his colour samurai spectacular Ran (1985) where three brothers and their attendant armies are colour-coded blue, yellow and red so you know exactly which army is which in ensuing battle scenes.
And yet, if I was asked to compare Seven Samurai with Ran, Seven Samurai is the one I would pick. So effective is its three-part structure and so engaging its characters that the final action set pieces completely envelope you. The combat scenes possess real grit and energy, as convincing as anything made since. If Seven Samurai were to be made today, it would employ CG for battle scenes which would be far less effective as a result.
Seven Samurai will be re-released theatrically in the UK on 23rd October 2020 (pending reopening of venues). It is currently available to view as one of 22 Kurosawa titles as part of Japan 2020 on BFI Player.