Monday, 22 June 2009

Seven Samurai (Shichinin no samurai)

Well, okay, not *strictly* a western but we all know why I've included it (Magnificent Seven, Kurosawa's admiration for John Ford etc.).

Synopsis: Poor Japanese farming community gets routinely attacked by bandits who steal all their crops and do other bad stuff. Village gets together and decides to hire some samurai to protect them. A couple of the villagers go out to find a ronin (masterless samurai) to round up a group of other samurai. He gets together a crazy bunch including the Kurosawa stalwart Toshiro Mifune (last seen by me as a really cross WWII pilot marooned with Lee Marvin in the excellent Hell in the Pacific). They fortify the village, train the villagers to fight and then wait for the bandits. Actually they start out by taking the fight to the baddies in their lair. This doesn't go that well and eventually the bandits attack the village, there is an almighty long, drawn-out battle climaxing in a rain-sodden gun/sword/bow 'n' arrow fight. Only three of the samurai survive (boo!) but all the baddies are killed (yay!). Villagers return to cultivating their land, the samurai go on their way.

It's difficult to describe a film like Seven Samurai without using over effusive, adjective-ridden sentences. It is an epic - in length (3hr10mins), storyline, characters and action and there are some very memorable images too.

Okay, starting with the plot, the story doesn't sit still for a minute. Kurosawa drives the plot forward constantly but he does this at the same time as really allowing the viewer to get to know the characters. For example, he gives you time to get to know the clownish Kikuchiyo and through several crucial points in the story allows the viewer to finally understand why he is the way he is. So, he deftly moulds characters and allows them to evolve whilst never letting the plot drop for a second, which really keeps you glued to the screen. A real page-turner.

There are several other characters that give the film a real depth too. The leader of the samurai, Kambei (played by Takashi Shimura, last seen by me in Kurosawa's Ikiru as a terminally-ill beaurocrat reflecting on his life) is an older, solid leader, always knows the right answer, keeps his men focussed on the job and is a very stable force in an otherwise chaotic situation. His introduction to us is through a great little vignette in which he saves a kidnapped child by disguising himself as a monk. You get the feeling that he has really relished the chance to organise a group of samurai for such a task and it is with poignancy and regret that he realises at the very end that he must continue his nomadic lifestyle.

We get to know the other samurai too - Kikuchiyo slowly changes from a drunken, reckless fool into a loyal, inventive and passionate fighter with "A Past". Kyuzo is the zen-like, older swordsman who risks his life to retrieve one of the bandits guns in a silent night raid. And the young Katsushiro, who falls in love with a village girl, is always ready and eager to learn and is the perfect disciple to Kambei.

Rikichi is another interesting character - one of the villagers who originally goes in search of the samurai and is a conduit between them and the suspicious and frightened community. Kurosawa drops little hints all the way through about Rikichi and his past (we see him getting angry at any mention of him having a wife) and when the samurai (and Rikichi) attack and set on fire the bandits hideaway we see why. Rickichi's wife appears at the hideout, kidnapped sometime ago and seemingly so ashamed at this that she runs back in to the burning building and dies. By the end of the film we see him leading the villagers in a crop-planting song so it seems there is some solace in their victory.

The action moves quickly, which is amazing considering the running time, and as you'd expect there is tonnes of exciting swordplay. It's interesting comparing this to a western as even though you rarely see a killing where the protagonists aren't engaged in very close combat, you do still get that slow, tense build up of a fight (akin to a showdown) in which swords are drawn slowly and stances taken. It would be good to speak to a Japanese person about the notion of machismo too as you definitely don't get a sense of over the top, camp macho-ness, but you do get *really* big swords.

I really liked the final fight sequence, shot in pouring rain and knee-deep sloshing mud, there is so much atmosphere. You feel really exhausted, it's the last hurrah for the samurai and villagers, and they need just a bit more to kill off the last of the bandits. Its not pretty at all and two of the samurai buy it in this last bit, which comes as a bit of a shock as you've invested so much effort in getting to know them.

There's also lots of thundering horses and genuinely funny banter which reminded me of John Ford's cavalry westerns. There's a great bit when the samurai are sorting out the village fighters which took me back to Rio Grande and (I think??) Ben Johnson roughnecking new recruits.

I'll take away many indelible images from my first viewing but two very similar and unusual shots stood out to me. Early on in the story, after we've met Kikuchiyo we see him get insulted by some of the other samurai and he storms out of the house in a huff. As he's leaving we get a really odd shot at feet level as he walks through the doorway. He goes to leave, then sort of hesitates and then continues and we get a strong sense of how hard done by he feels and all his mixed feelings for his fellow fighters. All this from his feet. Then, much later on when the village is being attacked, we get a similar low down viewpoint, this time of a horses legs below the knee. The horse is agitated (I think its rider is a bandit) and we see it stamping about before running off. The two shots are so out of kilter with the rest of the film it makes me wonder why Kurosawa included them and what meaning he gave them.

Anyway, enough babbling. Go and watch it. Now.

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