Appreciating Akira Kurosawa's sharp, humane, melancholy epic.
“Whoever heard of farmers hiring samurai?” asks the farmer who’s about to hire the samurai. Six decades later, everyone’s heard of Seven Samurai. The film’s outline is movie myth: Tormented villagers, cruel bandits, a few wandering heroes for hire. Director Akira Kurosawa was a John Ford fanboy who transplanted the Hollywood Western onto feudal Japan. Hollywood borrowed right back. In 1960 there was The Magnificent Seven, half as long and half as good, with a great score and mostly great actors but unfortunately also Horst Buchholz.
There was a Magnificent sequel, and now a remake, but Samurai‘s influence is cosmic. It defined a narrative structure: The misfit badasses on a mission of mercy. It’s The Dirty Dozen and Guns of Navarone, Armageddon and Guardians of the Galaxy. Zack Snyder has described next year’s Justice League as a Seven Samurai riff. Back in 2013, Snyder was rumored to be working on a Seven Samurai-influenced Star Wars spinoff. (That would’ve been poetic: George Lucas was a Kurosawa fanboy who invented space-samurai with laser-swords.) Instead, this December brings Rogue One, starring six hero humans and one badass droid.
Everyone knows about Seven Samurai. Has everyone seen it? It’s Kurosawa’s longest movie — I’m not sure anyone’s racing to see a 200-minute black-and-white subtitled movie. You should. It’s a grand adventure, but also a wry human tragicomedy, ambiguous like Hollywood never is, ambitious in scope, insidiously willing to test the loyalties of the audience.
You know the archetypes: The wise commander, the wild renegade, the naïve innocent, the silent assassin, the funny one, the dependable one, the dude who’s just kinda chill. With a long running time, they become true characters. Wild man Toshiro Mifune gives the iconically unhinged performance — he makes Al Pacino in Scarface look like Al Pacino asleep — but one of the best performances in all cinema is Takashi Shimura as thoughtful leader Kambei. His deadpan is a joy to behold: He always looks astounded, amused, disappointed, and resigned. There’s a stereotypical notion of the samurai warrior onscreen — an icon of honor, draped in heroism — but Shimura’s performance is graceful, thoughtful, straightforward. He gets the line of the movie, a piece of wisdom handed down to a young warrior:
I was once your age, you know. Hone your skills, then go to war and do great things. Then become lord of your own castle and domain. But as you dream those dreams, before you know it, your hair will go as gray as mine. By that time, you’ve lost your parents, and you’re all alone.
Poetry! A whole life in a minute! Later, Kambei plots defense along the perimeter of the village. He finds a beautiful wooded area; you can smell the summer breeze. “What a peaceful grove,” he says. “But it’s also a death trap.”
The whole movie’s like that: Beautiful and paranoid, conscious of life in all its brutal complexity. The villagers are meek and naïve – but also devious, distrustful. The villainous bandits are kept offscreen for most of the movie; they’re malicious in theory but often pitifully unprepared for battle, and Kurosawa grasps onto ambient Lord of the Flies bloodlust when the once-peaceful villagers strike back against their tormentors. The samurai are filmed like old gods, moving with balletic grace, carrying longswords twice their size. Kurosawa never loses sight of their tragedy, though. The village needs them – but they are weapons, not people, single-service instruments of defense, disposable. (Expendables – but actually expendable.) Whoever wins, they lose.
The film’s action has been much imitated. But it’s the desperate, yearning humanity that makes Seven Samurai truly magnificent.