Hey, y’all. Y’all like A Bug’s Life? Well, this movie is sort of like that, but with more people and fewer bugs.
Note: I originally posted this almost four years ago. I do not remember why I capitalized the word “Samurai” every time, but I am sure that it was a good enough reason for me to keep it capitalized this time around.
The year is 1587 or so and Japan is in chaos (well, I am sure that that reminded 1950’s Japanese audiences of something). The rule of the Ashikaga Shogunate had pretty much fallen apart decades ago and civil war would continue to reign for the next thirteen years. Samurai who lost their lords looked for employment under another lord…instead of committing suicide. Those who could not would roam the land as Ronin, and since the Samurai code forbade them from taking up menial labor, several turned to banditry.
The movie starts with a group of bandits fresh from a village raid passing by another village, figuring that that village has nothing to offer at this point. Whether they are Samurai turned bandits or bandits who stole Samurai armor is of little relevance to the villagers, who have suffered already at the hands of men like these. As most of them bemoan their fate as mere farmers, a few come up with a desperate idea: hire Samurai to defend their village. The village elder, Gisaku, agrees from them to recruit four, though he secretly assumes that they will end up hiring ten or so. So three village men head off with a large container of rice. The leader is of the group is Rikichi, a young man with an angry energy that hints at a painful predicament. There is Yohei, an elderly meek man who seems unable to do anything right. Then there is Manzō, a man who desires nothing more than to protect his home and family.
The three men see plenty of Samurai in a town where they stay, but most of them consider such a task and payment to be insulting. That the farmers beg in such a pathetic manner is probably what prevents the Samurai from outright killing them, as is the right of a Samurai. Also insulting are the ruffians staying in the same place. The ruffians are mean, but they speak of truth. The Samurai are jerks who see no honor or glory in casting their lot with a bunch of pathetic farmers. But, one day, they find one who might: a Samurai getting his head shaved as a bunch of people watch. Somehow, this is related to his agreement to save a boy being held hostage by a thief in a house. The Samurai, Kambei, goes up to the house disguised as a monk and holding two pieces of food that the boy’s mother gave him, originally implied to be his payment. The thief demands that Kambei throw the food in, which he does…and then runs into the hut, killing the thief. While the villagers do not see exactly what Kambei did to the thief, they do notice two things: not only did he not really take payment for rescuing the boy, he even got rid of his topknot to do it, which had been a sign of his status as a Samurai. What kind of Samurai would so something like that? Precisely the type of Samurai that the villagers need, it turns out. Yes, even if he admits that he had been on the losing side of every battle in which he had participated.
The villagers give Kambei some of the rice and plead with him to help defend their village. He declines at first, but changes his mind when one of the ruffians point out that the village guys were eating millet and saving the rice for the Samurai. Kambei decides that he cannot let all that rice go to waste. So he becomes the first recruit. Upon learning about the geography of the village, he determines that there will have to be a minimum of six other Samurai in order to properly defend the place. Luckily, there is a second recruit in Katsushirō, a teenager who had been following Kambei around like a fanboy. Katsushirō seems to come from a wealthy family and has the proper bloodline to be a Samurai, but he has no experience and could be a liability. Still, Kambei humors him and uses him to test any prospective recruit by having him sneak up on them with a large stick when they enter the building.
Eventually, the ranks of the recruits grow. There is the jovial Gorōbei, who is intrigued by Kambei’s character and susses out Katsushirō’s trap before even entering the building. There is Shichirōji, an old friend of Kambei’s who just happens to be there at the same time. There is Heihachi, a mild mannered man who might just go into a chopping frenzy when the fighting starts. There is Kyūzō, a mysterious and soft-spoken warrior who is all business and is probably the best fighter of the bunch. And then there is Kikuchiyo.
So…there was originally going to be only six Samurai in the movie, with the actor playing Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune) playing another character. Apparently, director Akira Kurosawa decided that the movie required a character who was larger than life and who acted like a connection between the Samurai and the villagers. Out of that came Kikuchiyo. He is first on screen in a staring match with Kambei after the rescue of the boy. Simultaneously comic relief, annoyance, tragic figure, and teller of truths, Kikuchiyo is recruited by the main ruffian. He fails the stick test miserably, being way to drunk to anticipate or fight off Katsushirō’s attack. He insists that he is a Samurai, but neither the family scroll that shows him to be thirteen-years-old nor that sword that is 50% longer than the next longest in this film convinces them. Not only is he too drunk, he is too loud, too brash, too playful, too childlike, too wild. He cannot be a Samurai, at least not by birth. Whatever he is, he is larger than life, and perhaps a bit anachronistic for this time period in Japan, but that is fine. Kambei decides that the village will have to do with five Samurai and Katsushirō, so they head off, with Kikuchiyo stalking them every step of the way. Why does he come along? He does not seem to like the other Samurai and he appears to have contempt for the villagers. Perhaps he wants to prove his worth, just like Katsushirō. Well, sort of.
By the time the Samurai get to the village, almost a third of this 3 1/2 hour movie has passed. Of course, the villagers had not been just twiddling their thumbs during that time. One man, Mosuke, has been worrying about the arrival of the Samurai. He fears that they will be no better than the regular bandits, maybe even worse since they are expected to stick around. He has a daughter named Shino, whom he fears will either get raped or throw herself at the Samurai. So he attempts to cut her hair by force, demanding that she pretend to be a boy. His fear is the most overt of the farmers, but he is hardly alone. Indeed, when the Samurai arrive, they don’t see anyone. Rikichi and Gisaku have no idea what happened to their neighbors, but the gleefully cynical Kikuchiyo knows. He finds the village alarm and sounds it, bringing all of the villagers running out of their hiding places in panic and terror. Not exactly greeting them as liberators. So now what?
At sixty-four-years old, this movie is a definite classic. While it is under debate just how much Kurosawa was influenced by the West in making his films, there is little argument that his films have been hugely influential in the history of film. There have been many remakes, homages, and parodies of this movie, and even some of those remakes and homages have their own remakes, homages, and parodies. I spent so much space talking about the recruitment part of the movie not just because it took up about forty minutes of the movie, but because it had not really been done in a movie before. Others who know more about film history can talk about what came before and what came after, but I, as a mere casual movie-watcher, would rather talk about things that I noticed from the film itself, and also regurgitate stuff that I got from the Criterion Collection DVD Edition.
For one thing, we see a lot of people watch other people. Many scenes give equal importance to showing people do something and to showing others observe the former. The observation of an action is no less important than the action itself. The observer can gain insight on what other people are doing, how they are doing it, what they are doing well or badly, or a part of the mindset that they would rather keep hidden. It is strategic. And the observers are hardly objective; they can be worried or amused. Sometimes they specifically choose to observe certain people who may be of concern later on.
A lot of the movie is about the interplay between personality and strategy. There is this makeshift banner that shows symbols of circles (and a triangle) representing the Samurai defenders and the bandits, with one of the circles crossed off for whoever dies. The fighting itself is at least somewhat strategic and tactical, as opposed to some big epic set-piece that focuses on superhuman skill and luck.
Seven Samurai is considered one of the greatest movies of all time, but no movie that makes the news is without detractors. It was a bit controversial at the time among Japanese critics and the film industry itself. The film had a huge budget due to many of Kurosawa’s demands. The last hit film that was longer than this one was Gone With the Wind fifteen years earlier. There were those who thought the fighting in the movie was too ugly and in comparison to the graceful fighting dances in previous depictions of Samurai. There was also an accusation that the movie made it seem like the villagers were incapable of standing up for themselves, helpless without the great Samurai, and somewhat unworthy of their help. Now, I don’t know much about the budget or the box office, but I read that the movie did very well in Japan at the time. So, I will go on to the other critiques.
Yes, the movie is long. However, it is not needlessly so. Almost everything that is shown to us displays a little something about someone’s character, the story, or the world. So many things that may seem superfluous at the time gets referenced later on, though usually indirectly. Most of the scenes are necessary and already seem to be trimmed down; trimming the scenes down further would deprive them of breathing room. There are whole conversations and fights that we do not see. The movie is divided into two parts. The first part shows the drawn out and uncomfortable beginning of the relationship between the Samurai and the farmers. The second part picks up the pace and skips ahead a bit to harvest time, when the bandits are bound to return. The length of the movie allows us to feel the slow burn of the beginning, the passage of time, and the buildup to the big fight. We need to see how people have changed and how they have not; the relationship between the two groups have changed and how they have not. Trimming the movie would to any significant degree would be too jarring. Toho Studios actually cut fifty minutes out of the movie when screening it for American distributors. There were, oddly enough, a 190-minute cut and a 203-minute cut. I don’t know what the point of those were, as if someone would sit through a 190-minute movie but not a 207-minute movie. Whatever.
While cinema was still considered a bit of a Western artform back then, there was already a tradition of Samurai films by the time Seven Samurai showed fighting to be not quite a beautiful ballet. Granted, some of the fight scenes can come across as goofy hack and slash to more modern eyes. What is relevant here is that Kurosawa was deliberately not trying to show Samurai fighting as lovely. He wanted it to be as ugly as possible without becoming graphically gruesome. Fighting is sudden, brutal, and painful. By the time we see the bandits again, the village men have been built up to be fighting machines and the women are no slouches either Okay, I would have liked to see more scenes of the women doing their part, but anyways. By contrast, the bandits are portrayed as a rather pathetic lot, and one could almost feel a modicum of sympathy for anonymous individuals bandits who find themselves isolated and surrounded by bloodthirsty villagers. Almost. There is little music in the fight scenes and the fight choreography is difficult to point out. This is not fighting as cool or glamorous or glorious; this is some down and dirty fighting.
The last critique about the politics of the film is a rather complicated one, which actually helps to display the complexity of the film. The original idea of the movie was about the daily lives of Samurai or something. The idea about Samurai helping defend a farming village came about only when Kurosawa read about it or was told about it by someone else. To be sure, there were many farming villages who fought back the bandits without Samurai help, and some of the strategies that Kambei thought up in this movie had been put into action by those villagers. There may very well have been more villages whose people stood up for themselves without Samurai than those who did so with Samurai. A movie like that could have also been interesting and entertaining. It could have shown the poor and downtrodden rising up against the oppressive class system that continued to place the Samurai above the worker even during decades of civil war. Certainly Kurosawa could have filled that kind of movie with the type of Leftist propaganda that he was familiar with during his youth. This movie, however, is telling a slightly different story.
Branding the peasants in this movie as not worth saving is a bit of a stretch, though not beyond understandable. For sure they are not the pillars of strength and nobility, but they are not nobility, and could never be. For sure, it would be easy to portray them as heroes from the outset or as innocent victims who tug at our heartstrings. They are not; they are human and flawed. A few are more flawed than others. They keep secrets from the Samurai and some of those secrets may be bloody. Indeed, one of the most famous scenes in the movie spells this out for us and the Samurai: yes, farmers are horrible people, but it is the Samurai who turned the farmers into horrible people. Perhaps Kurosawa read Native Son at one point. Yes, it is easy to say that the Samurai characters are, for the most part, more honorable than the peasants here, but they are few. The villagers are many, and the number of horrible Samurai are even more. And, again, it is probable that the bandits themselves are Samurai. Men like Kambei are the ideal and the exception.
Seven Samurai is definitely a story about class, and it challenges the class hierarchy, but in a more subtle way than a spear to the torso. Kambei is originally shown doing what no self-respecting Samurai would do, shaving off his topknot and taking a job for some poor family without pay. Yet he embodies what a true Samurai should have been like and was probably not like most of the time. Kikuchiyo, as anachronistic as he may be, embodies the cycle of violence between Samurai and villager. Despite (and sort of because of) Mosuke’s attempts to protect his daughter, Shino and Katsushirō eventually meet and strike up a sort of romance. They both wish that it could lead to more, but they both know that it never will. What is most important are the small moments where it seems as if class distinctions are gone, where it seems as if there is no difference between stranger and villager. These moments are few and immediately stamped out or belittled, not because there is a reason for the distinctions to be there, but just because that is how things are. There is no single moment when the villagers decide to accept the Samurai as their own or vice-versa; any bond that forms between the two groups is informed by the fact that the Samurai are also helping the villagers defend themselves. As soon as the villagers start feeling more confident in their own abilities and comfortable with the Samurai being there, they begin dropping subtle (and maybe unintended) hints that the Samurai might not be necessary or welcome for very long. An angrier movie might blatantly point out such things, but this movie is more melancholy than angry.
It would be foolish to celebrate major cross-class transgressions in such a movie. It was true that the social mobility did exist during the warring states period, but this movie takes place towards the end of that time. It is set not long before it became illegal for peasants to own weapons and social mobility was rendered nearly impossible. The relative peace between 1600 and 1853 (no thanks to the American Navy) meant that many Samurai became courtiers, bureaucrats, and administrators instead of warriors. Yet, they were still allowed to kill any commoner who did not show proper respect. The Samurai as Japan knew it was about to change; society as Japan knew it was about to change for better and worse. Different, necessary, inevitable. Like many Japanese movies, Seven Samurai was about a time that was about to fade away.
WTF ASIA 11: A Company Man (South Korea: 2012, approx. 96 minutes)
WTF ASIA 12: Ocean Heaven (China/Hong Kong: 2010, approx. 97 minutes)