The One about Akira Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai”

If there is one title in which many fans of the Criterion Collection have always considered as must-have, must-own, it would be Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 film “Seven Samurai”.

The second film of The Criterion Collection, originally released back in 1999 and then re-released in 2006, the third time is indeed a charm as Kurosawa’s masterpiece will now be released on Blu-ray. And the “Seven Samurai” is a wonderful highlight in the oeuvre of Kurosawa, as it was a film in which the filmmaker wanted to make a real jidai-geki (period film).

Having success with his last film “Ikiru” and previous films such as “Rashomon”, “Stray Dog”, “Drunken Angel” to name a few, “Seven Samurai” stands out amongst his films because not only is it a samurai film, but it’s a film which captures the period of ronin who have no master and are trying to survive, some who have become bandits and pray on the weak villages and for all its 207-minutes of thrilling and compelling cinema, this is a film in which Kurosawa is deeply focused and a film in which he expected nothing less from his crew and his talent, this film demanded pure dedication, talent and staff working in frigid, cold conditions and wanting to make viewers feel that it was just a rainy day and it’s as simple as that.

But this film was anything but simple. This is a film that demanded one’s respect, one’s dedication in watching this film in its entirety and just be in awe of how thorough, how multi-layered and most of all, how awesome this film would be no matter which generation you came from. This film is truly a masterpiece.

The film exemplifies the magnificence of Kurosawa and here we are with a beautiful release of this film, with the intermissions and not hacked and cut like when it first was released in the US.  In Japan, it was uncut.  In the US, in 1954,  this 207 minute film was reduced to 160 minutes and further cuts were made.    And I can’t even fathom this film being shortened, as nearly every minutes, every hour of this 207-minute film was important to the story.

But there is so much to love about “Seven Samurai”, it’s storytelling is well-paced, the characters especially the samurai were well-planned and their scenes were well written, the discussion of strategy was well-thought and planned and the action is well-executed.

Both actors that have worked with Akira Kurosawa in his previous movies, Takashi Shimura and Toshiro Mifune were fantastic!  Shimura as Kanbei, the disciplined leader who is aware, always thinking and is very astute when it comes to the samurai way and always practicing caution with his knowledge of strategy and how the farmers can use their surroundings to their advantage.    It’s one thing for Shimura to shine two-years earlier as Kanji Watanabe in the 1952 film “Ikiru” but in “Seven Samurai”, Shimura fit the part as a samurai leader.  Convincing and a leader onscreen that wins your respect and you want this man to truly succeed.

Actor Toshiro Mifune as Kikuchiyo is phenomenal.  A popular actor in Kurosawa films such as “Drunken Angel”, “Stray Dog”, “Rashomon”, in “Seven Samurai”, Mifune masterfully plays the wannabe samurai Kikuchiyo who tries to convince everyone he is a samurai but his public display, awkward, weird, unusual, abrasive and crude at times, shows that he is a man with a kind heart and a man who wants to be with men like Kanbei and earn his respect as one of them.  But no matter how unusual Kikuchiyo is….whether he is impulsive, talks a lot, laughs a lot and downright mouthy, this is a character who rises to the occasion.  He is a man who does all he can to defend the farmers from the bandits, he is also a man that will earn the respect of his comrades.

Awesome performances by both men but also everyone in this film.  The main characters to the supporting characters are well thought of, are well-utilized…and each talent and even the crew braved through cold weather, cold water and gave the best performance onscreen as Kurosawa demanded and expected the best and got the best performance out of them.

As mentioned, the film is 207 minutes long but by no means does the film make you want to look at the clock.  I’ve seen long films before but with “Seven Samurai”, I was glued to my seat.

Film critic Roger Ebert wrote in his review of the film,  “Akira Kurosawa’s ‘The Seven Samurai’ (1954) is not only a great film in its own right but the source of a genre that flowed through the rest of the century.” (from Roger Ebert, “The Great Movies”, pg. 400)

“Seven Samurai” is a wonderful triumph in cinema.  Kurosawa’s wanting to create a jidaigeki samurai film but wanting to make it real, making it entertaining for the viewer that no matter how long the film is, the viewer is captivated.  We know this war with the bandits is not going to go perfectly, some will live and some will die.  We watch to see how well the plans of Kanbei are executed, how well prepared the farmers are in defending their home and we see how ruthless and cunning the bandits are and how they also have other weapons such as muskets and bows and arrows to their disposal.

Film critic Pauline Kael wrote about “Seven Samurai” (in her , “It is the Western form carried to apotheosis – a vast celebration of the joys and torments of fighting, seen in a new depth and scale, a brutal imaginative ballet on the nature of strength and weakness.” (from Pauline Kael, “For Keeps”, pg. 61)

“Seven Samurai” is a battle of underdogs vs. a large group of samurai-turned-bandits and we find ourselves supporting the seven samurai and the farmers in hoping they can become victorious?  But with victory comes a price.   But it’s not about just the battle, it’s about the relationships of each characters.  The samurai who follow the Bushido way, the farmers who hire the samurai for protection but at the same time, have their own set secrets of what they have done to samurai in the past.  The farmer who lives with revenge for the wife that was taken from him, the man who wants to be a samurai but sympathizes with the farmers for a reason.  There is so many layers within this film, masterfully pieced together, amazing shots that Kurosawa is known for and like a maestro, manages to make the 207 minutes an incredible cinema experience.

The word “masterpiece” can be a bit misused and even overused but there is no doubt, “Seven Samurai” is a Kurosawa masterpiece and a truly a magnificent film.