Thursday, January 13, 2011

Shichinin no samurai (Seven Samurai) (1954)

I started off the year watching some movies I've been meaning to see for a while. Naturally, Seven Samurai was pretty high on my list, and I'd been putting it off partly because of its length. It's... it's really long. When a small rural community is besieged by musket-wielding bandits, its leaders decide to round up some samurai (seven, to be precise) to defend them from attack. The wise and battle-weary Kanbê Shimada (Takashi Shimura) agrees to take the charity case, collecting other warriors from a nearby town. The strange jokester Kikuchiyo (Toshirô Mifune), wielding a huge sword and mad skills, wheedles his way into the group despite his obviously faked samurai lineage. They take up residence in the community, planning defense tactics and training the farmers to fight for when the bandits attack after the harvest.

Yes, it's unquestionably a classic, with Kurosawa setting the standard for and inspiring many future filmmakers (as usual) with his filmic techniques and storytelling. The stark black and white imagery, textural costumes, attention to weather, and grandiose landscapes make for a visually stunning film. And yes, Mifune is AWESOME as the weird Kikuchiyo, at times goofy with his kabuki face-making and at others intensely serious and tragic. I also loved Takashi Shimura as the leader of the samurai, though unfortunately he doesn't get much development and spends most of the second half plotting battles. The story is simple but engaging, bringing together a range of characters and exploring certain moral attitudes amongst the violent skirmishes. I was a little confused by some of the Japanese traditional stuff, but did my best to recall the multiple Japanese history/culture courses I took in college to pull me through.

Ok so here's where we get to the less complimentary part. I mentioned it's too bad that Takashi Shimura's potentially interesting character doesn't really get much development? Well that's basically a description of every person in this movie with the exception of Kikuchiyo. There's a wealth of intriguing and complex characters here, I know it, but few of them actually get to share their stories or show more of themselves. What's the deal with Kyûzô? He's a badass motherfucker who speaks very little and gets about three scenes. I wanted more! Most of the film focuses on working together as a group (no surprise there), but it seemed like some characters were being set up for more development, and then just fizzled out, so I was disappointed.

And what the hell was with the forced romantic subplot? I found Katsushirô an almost laughable character because he was pretty useless and childlike (despite seeming at least 18), and his "relationship" with pretty farmer's daughter Shino is irrelevant and uninteresting. I know it eventually demonstrated how strict the class system in Japan was, but it was done poorly and cut off weirdly from the main narrative. They barely even spoke to one another. Also I was pretty sure Katsushirô actually wanted to date Kyûzô, so I wasn't believing his love for Shino. I will demonstrate this theory further in my Seven Samurai slash fanfiction.

Anyway, my basic issue with this movie is that it really does not justify its length. It's not that it bores or drags- I enjoyed most scenes very much- it's just that it could have so easily been an hour shorter. The story isn't complex, there isn't much deep character analysis or weighty dialogue; I could totally understand the 3.5 hour runtime if we were given more insight into more of the characters, or if the plot was more involved. It just all seems a little self-indulgent to me.

So, Seven Samurai. An Important Movie. I liked it, I really did. It's got terrific performances, gorgeous visuals, and a good story with surprisingly emotional resonance. I just wish it was either shorter or had more developed characters and relationships.


Pair This Movie With: Oh jeez, just take a break after this one. Go outside. Eat something. Water your plants. Paint. Re-organize your stamp collection. Definitely go to the bathroom. If you still really want to sit through another movie (and bless you for it), I think a more stylized and fast-paced period Japanese action flick might be a good juxtaposition with Seven Samurai's more leisurely pace and realism. Perhaps Sukiyaki Western Django or Sword of the Stranger.

Further Reading:
A Life in Equinox review
Cinemascope review
The Flick Chick review


  1. One of the things i love about Seven Samurai is that every time I revisit I find something new about one of the characters in the film. Yes, they don't each get a long subplot to explain them, but in their actions and the brief lines they deliver there's a lot of character exposition laid throughout the scenes.

    However, the two crucial characters are Kikuchiyo and Rikichi. How their respective lives help bridge the gap between two sections of society that generally look upon each other with contempt.

    Nice review! Sorry the length got to you a bit (as did the romance subplot).

  2. Univarn: Phew, I was nervous you would hate me after reading this haha. I imagine if I watched several more times (as I assume you have!) I would see more hints as to the characters' backstories or motivations, but I'm not sure if I would see this movie again and again. And I sort of went into it assuming the length would make it drag, so I was impressed that really it never does. It's just that I can't see any justification for the length.

  3. This is my all time favorite film. I know it's a bit pretentious and cliche to admit that, but I saw it when I was twelve. It blew me away. Changed my entire outlook on film. It's so influential. I see bits of it in so many movies. I'm glad you were able to see it.

  4. Indeed, this movie is ripe with slash potential.