Seven Samurai (1954)

Viewed May 26th

 

When a feudal Japanese village is threatened by bandits, the local peasants enlist the protection of seven masterless samurai. 

The first thing we're shown in Kurosawa's Seven Samurai are bandits in full armor riding their horses at full speed across rough lands. They're presented in black shadow or otherwise obscured. When they look down upon a small rural village dotted with huts, the viewer intuitively feels threatened and protective of the village. After the bandits decide not to attack the village and instead wait until the barley has been harvested so they can get more out of their rade, that feeling of protectiveness toward the village is only amplified. And then it's amplified even more when we see that the bandits' plan has been secretly overheard by an emaciated old man with a quivering lip and wide, fearful eyes. With a bundle of twigs strapped to his hunched back, he descends into the village to spread the terrible news. In the following scenes, Kurosawa brings us into the village to meet its alternately fearful and humorous inhabitants, understand the social and economic structure of the village, and learn about the geographic space around the village. When several of the villagers go to the nearest town to find "hungry samurai" who will work for rice balls, our understanding of the village world is further increased because of its contrast with the relatively bustling commercial life of the town. As the seven samurai are located and introduced to us, we understand how they each represent a walk of life, and as these seven walks of life are contrasted, the world of the film continues to be enriched so that, although it all happened organically, we feel like we know this 16th century Japanese world and how this one particular village world functions within it. This is especially effective because of the brilliant performances and direction of the actors, including, of course, the great hero of 20th century Japanese cinema Toshiro Mifune. When Mifune and the other samurai return to the world, the bulk of the film then becomes about surveying maps of the village world, identifying where its defenses are weak and, in turn, working with the villagers to build them up. As this happens, we deepen our knowledge of the work and its geographic features, including the rice patties, barley fields, the old mill on the outskirts where the town elder lives, and the flower field in the forest where love inevitably seems to bloom. (Incidentally, one of the film's larger subplots involves a love affair in the flower fields between a young samurai in training and a village girl and this subplot mirrors on a micro level the macro-level thrust of the film: i.e., the preservation of one world from the threat of penetration by another.) As the defenses of the world are further improved, the leader of the samurai is careful to allow one entry point into the world. He notes that even the best castles always allow one breach because to defeat one's enemies, one cannot always play defense. This world-building and world-protecting goes on until the epic final battle in the rain when the bandits at last arrive. By this point in the film's three-and-a-half-hour runtime, we've begun to inhabit the cinematic world of Seven Samurai so thoroughly that there's something at stake for us in seeing that it isn't destroyed. We are involved in a deep way. When the bandits are, in the end, vanquished and the villagers sing their happy victory song, the remaining samurai note that it was never about them and their heroics, it was always about the world--about the village and, with that, the theme of the film is fully tied together: never fight for individual glory but always for the world.