February: Seven Samurai
A couple of years ago, I watched the Criterion Collection version of Rashomon and was so intrigued I went down a rabbit hole of watching as many Kurosawa and Samurai movies as I could get my hands on. In this deep dive I viewed Seven Samurai for the first time since high school or college and on a much better print that looked incredible. I couldn't stop watching it. I watched the three and a half hour epic four or five times over just a few days. I consumed all the special features, I read essays and books, learned more about the history of Japan and director Akira Kurosawa and even found a documentary on the career of the star Toshiro Mifune. It has made its way into being one of my favorite movies, and based on the number of related movies I have hunted down it may rival my enjoyment of the MCU.
Seven Samurai is the story of a village who knows they are going to be raided after their next harvest. Much of the people have been beaten down so much that they are willing to accept their terrible fate of constant raids, but one wants to fight back so they seek out to enlist samurai to protect them. After some unsuccessful propositions they find a leader for a samurai band who finds six samurai to join him. The leader brings them back to the village and makes a plan of attack on a piece of paper. The bandits learn the village is being protected and lash out against surrounding buildings culminating in a final battle in the village where they all fight through the mud and rain and frenetic horses.
Before getting right into the movie it's good to get a grasp on some of the history of Japan. One of my favorite classes as an undergrad was East Asian History, and unfortunately I have forgotten a whole lot of it in the last fifteen years. It was a favorite because the histories of Japan, China and Korea were almost completely unknown to me and it was almost like a new genre of great epic stories of their feudal times.. This has been much of my experience with watching Japanese movies over the last couple of years. Through the extra features on the Seven Samurai blu-ray and a couple of other old Japanese movie's blu-rays and a little extra research I have learned or re-learned more of Japanese feudal history and 20th century film history that have brought me back to that same classroom excitement of college.
Japan's history is one of isolation, as seen in Silence (the 2016 Scorsese film), western priests have to sneak into the country and stay in hiding later to act as inspectors of western symbols, and in that isolation society is very much of a class system. Samurai armored warriors of Japan gradually formed by the 700's AD and were disbanded in the late 1800's. Samurais were born into the class and mostly were descended from other samurai and when one became a samurai they would serve a lord and fight at the service of a general (shogun). The battles a samurai would be involved in would solely be located in Japan and be part of disputes between lords... mostly.
The samurai of Seven Samurai are ronin, meaning they don't have a lord or a general that they serve and they are hired by a village, paid with rice, as protection from bandits. The movie opens with a villager surreptitiously hearing a group of bandits planning to come back to raid the village when the harvest comes in later in the year and there is more for them to take. Much later in the film we learn that these bandits kidnapped some of the women in this village the last time they raided. At the time this movie takes place, 1586, ronin samurai who didn't have easy access to payment for their services would be in serious danger of starving to death yet this kind of agreement with villagers was practically unheard of. Director Akira Kurosawa found a story of a village that hired samurai for protection in history and made the first movie depiction such an arrangement.
The villagers don't have anything to give to their protectors aside from rice so the instruction while recruiting ronin samurai is to find hungry and desperate ones. One of my favorite scenes of the first half of the movie shows the villagers on the street of a bigger city as they watch all of the ornately costumed samurai parading past. The villagers watch back and forth as though they're watching a long volley in a tennis match as well-fed warriors walk by. Each one of these samurai warriors appears to be a movie star, and one of them ultimately was. This featured extra part was an early role for Tatsuya Nakadai who later stared in Yojimbo, Ran, Kagemusha and The Sword of Doom. The villagers approach another of the passing samurai, an overpoweringly large man, who is so offended by the thought that they would consider offering him such a meager offer that he threatens to attack them.
The antagonists of the film may not be samurai because they work outside of the warrior code by using guns and are probably not from the same social class. Samurai would use swords, spears and bows and arrows as weapons rather than guns because the samurai way was considered the code of an honorable warrior and socially acceptable, if even sanctioned, yet it is guns that the bandits use to kill protecting samurai. Just a couple of centuries after Seven Samurai, there were a couple of other classes of belligerents that were documented interacting with samurai. Ninjas were considered spies or guerrilla warriors and thought to come from the lower classes and their history isn't as well documented because their tactics were not considered to be honorable. They are depicted interacting with samurai in other Kurosawa movies typically as side characters.
The samurai haircut is not the coolest style in the history of the world and I have to admit that that aesthetic made me hesitant to get into these kinds of movies of quite some time. The standard style is for the top of the head to be shaved creating a horse shoe balding and the long hair in back to be tied up in a top knot. The shaved top symbolizes that the samurai considers himself divorced from the world as a mark of humility and devotion to the samurai code. The top knot is a symbol of pride as a warrior that is so strong that in the movie Harakiri the main character is faced by many attackers and instead of killing them himself, he uses his sword to cut off their top knots because he knows that they will kill themselves after the battle due to a loss of honor.
The villagers finally find their first samurai when they come across a hostage situation. We see Kambei at the edge of a stream cutting off his own topknot and shaving his head to look like a monk. He has asked for rice balls, which he initially seems to want as payment for resolving the issue. He then takes the rice balls into the hut of the hostage situation having earned the trust that he was there for altruistic purposes. After a few tense moments looking at the hut the hostage taker bursts out in slow motion stumbling, stopping, then dramatically falling. It is an image reminiscent of the "Ugly" sequence at the start of The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly where Eli Wallach bursts through a window after a shot on the exterior of a building emerging with a guy in one hand and a turkey leg in the other in the freeze frame.
Historically, Samurai would need to confirm their kills for proof in order to be paid. The ultimate trophy was to kill a general as that would bring power to the victor. To protect against impostors killing civilians in the countryside, it was originally required that the decapitated head would be taken as a trophy to prove a kill and later as some warriors would be more prolific, the nose of the defeated would be taken as a trophy as a little of the upper lip might be taken with it, preserving a mustache which would prove that it was from a male and that they were over a certain age. The head of a general would still be required as proof because they were such coveted trophies and this is a major plot point of another Kurosawa film, but Seven Samurai doesn't go that far.
Once the villagers finally enlist Kambei to be the leader of their team of samurai, he lets them know that they're going to need six more to properly defend the village because otherwise they would have to change the title of the movie. The movie then takes a break from the story of the bandits so that it can take time to bring a team together before getting to the mission mission. Recruiting scenes in a movie where the team is built as a story point was not an aspect common to movies in 1956 anywhere in the world like it is today, and this perhaps was fully innovated in this movie. Seven Samurai is a 3.5 hour long movie and that length is necessary for building the team and to familiarizing the characters with the audience. The newer Ocean's Eleven movie builds the team in fast and quirky vignettes, Lord of the Rings spends nearly two hours bringing their fellowship of the ring together, and The Avengers builds a cinematic universe of several movies to introduce their characters before throwing them together.
Who are the samurai? I'll admit that I lose track of the samurai throughout the movie. Some of the members are reluctant to join, some indifferent, some are a little too excited to join in. They are all outcasts with good intentions. The two Magnificent Seven remakes don't quite track the same characters, the young character and Kikuchiyo are merged together to make the least interesting character in the first Magnificent Seven and the more recent remake is a multicultural cast where one of the characters has some pretty serious mental problems.
Kambei: The bald leader of the bunch. Claims to have always been on the losing side of every battle he has been in. Instead of being a movie about superheros, this is a movie about failures. The villagers are only able to recruit a leader who has always failed and at the end of the movie after the villagers have been saved and four of the samurai have died, he still considers the battle a failure, that it was a victory for the villagers and not or the samurai. This character is played by fellow baldies Yule Brenner and Denzel Washington in remakes and William Holden in the Wild Bunch.
Gorōbei and Shichirōji: I confuse these two, they are both rounder men, one has facial hair, the other doesn't, one is the right hand man for Kambei and the other is a trusted old friend. Gorōbei is a skilled archer. Keep in mind that any time someone is shot with an arrow on screen, an actual arrow is being show at an actor who has a block of wood under their costume rather than just using a camera trick or a wire.
Kyūzō: The skilled swordsman who is reserved but respected. He initially declines the offer to join. He barely speaks although he physically resembles his Magnificent Seven counterpart the knife throwing James Coburn.
Heihachi: The woodcutter who is recruited as a morale booster even though he is not very skilled as a fighter. His "woodcutter" school of fighting is a joke that he isn't good enough for an actual school of fighting. This is a reference to the kendo martial arts or sport that Kurosawa grew up participating in and enjoying that, along with silent samurai movies of the '20's, gave him a cultural affinity for his supposed samurai bloodline that he said ran through his family tree. Kendo is the art of fighting with wooden swords, spears or bows and arrows that were part of competitions in Japan well after the end of the samurai class.
Katsushirō: The young guy trying to prove himself who falls in love along the way. In this movie, this character is the character in training who is the conduit for the audience to be let into the inner circle of samurai. The original Magnificent Seven character is waaaaaay too eager to be in the group, he is over eager to be a gunfighter to the point that he seems like a little kid in an adult's body who only wants to be accepted by his older brothers.
Kikuchiyo: He claims to be a samurai but is ultimately overcompensating for bad lineage with an over-sized sword. He has the most energy on screen, pacing around like a wild animal, sprinting up steep hills in uncut takes, he might not be the leader of the group but Toshiro Mifune is the star of the movie.
There really isn't a singular villain. The villain is a collective of bandits, there isn't a main antogonist like Eli Wallach in Magnificent Seven. The bandits are more of a representation of the dangers of the world much like a weather event or the Native Americans in John Ford's The Searchers. It is a conflicts of the individuals who have come together against the world, coming to the aid of a collective who cannot fend for themselves.
Akira Kurosawa's values celebrated the individual more than the collective and Seven Samurai is the story of a group of individuals banding together to save a collective from an outside menace. While it does not take place in North America, and is a couple of centuries before the establishment of the U.S. it is spiritually a western. It is about a changing time of technology in Japan where the samurai characters that are killed are all taken by guns and not by the swords, spears and arrows they themselves are skilled in. While John Sturges's Magnificent Seven is an official remake of Seven Samurai, Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch is a more spiritual remake where the members of the bunch are ultimately killed off by a change progression in technology from the gun of the protagonists to the machine gun.
The yakuza, organized crime families of Japan known for their colorful tattoos (that happen to be toxic and often result in liver failure of the gangsters), brutal tactics, and international involvement in crime, was established around the same time as ninjas, either in the 17th or 18th century. The word "yakuza" is derived from the description of the worst hand in a certain game of cards played in feudal Japan. They were considered to have a bad hand in life, from lower classes, and have resorted to crime and violence to gain infamy. Yakuza are notably seen in the Kurosawa movie Yojimbo where the leader of one of the rival gangs has a handgun. Yojimbo was later unofficially remade by Sergio Leone as A Fistful of Dollars starring Clint Eastwood.
Kurosawa was a fan of westerns, he enjoyed the remake Magnificent Seven, and dressed himself to look like John Ford, director of dozens of John Wayne westerns including The Searchers. Kurosawa was unaware that just after the war Ford was touching Japan for the U.S. military and visited the set of one of Kurosawa's films. Ford would use monument valley as a natural backdrop to show the majesty of the west and Kurosawa's later films would film on location at the base of Mount Fuji to give an almost other-worldly feeling to films like Ran.
These samurai exist in a natural world of thundering horses, driving rain and a cemetery hill that literally looks down upon them. For many of the scenes the camera is placed in the cemetery and shoots with a long lens from a downward angle. We see the village as a whole from this god's eye view knowing that death is always looking down on them. This film has incredible fires where the crew burned down the water mill set and an enormous lodge structure. The lodge structure was so hot during shooting that one of the actors was nearly seriously injured from breathing in the intense heat. Somehow the black and white presentation of these white hot fires gives a greater sense of heat and scale than if they were yellow and orange gasoline fires of color movies.
I love this movie because it is so epic, so filled with action, so filled with energy, yet it has some great small moments of drama that ground it from just being horse riding and sword fights. It makes me wish there was a way for more black and white epic movies to be made today. Logan Noir succeeded in showing that cinematographers in the age of color correction are capable of shooting in the contrast needed for black and white. I have dreams of a Godzilla movie made with the same black and white aesthetic of the original but using the advances we have now in special effects and the attention to story that a big movie like that would require. There are historical epics that can be made out of samurai movies today without casting Keanu Reeves or Tom Cruise, the history of Japan spent nearly a thousand years of isolation and a samurai code. It would be just the excuse for a bigger director like Peter Jackson to film battles in lush landscapes and to go back to his strength of practical effects that create a spectacle. These dreams of movies yet to be made will probably never happen, but it is good to know that even after just over a year of diving into Japanese cinema, there are still so many great movies left to experience for the first time.
Next month: Instead of just one movie I'll be tackling a whole series of movies: The Mission: Impossible movies. Oh boy. We'll see if I make it through all five!