Seven Samurai: The Criterion Collection
Starring Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura, Yoshio Inaba,
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Review by Damon Houx
1. Akira Kurosawa and Seven Samurai, The Case Against
For years now Akira Kurosawa's 1954 film Shichinin no Samurai ("Seven Samurai") has been ranked as one of the best movies ever made, and is usually considered one of the finest achievement in cinema. In the most recent Sight and Sound poll of the best films ever made, critics ranked it eleventh (its highest charting was in 1982 at #3) while filmmakers ranked it ninth. It's ranked sixth on IMDb.com's list of the greatest films of all time. But there is a case to be made against both the film and Kurosawa, even if the evidence proves to be slight.
Kurosawa is not the Best Japanese Director Ever: This is a point raised by some Japanese scholars, and specifically the always fascinating but cranky David Thompson in his Biographical Dictionary of Film. It reminds of what Tarantino said about Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, in that he suggested that he wasn't as impressed because he was too familiar with the film's precursors. This is hard to argue against: Japan has had a thriving film industry since cinema began, and what is deigned to go overseas is a pittance of the whole. On top of that, the films that are going to emerge are the ones most marketable to outsiders, or ones that won awards at foreign film festivals. Jean-Pierre Melville said that you can't understand cinema unless you go every week to the theater. For the outsider, judging Kurosawa one of the best Japanese filmmakers is like having the colorblind judge a pastels contest (that noted, the film has topped Japanese best-of lists). This critique could also be leveled at Kurosawa regular Toshiro Mifune, who's often called the best Japanese actor, when he's just the most prominent. On top of that, there is an argument to be made that Kenji Mizoguchi and Yasujiro Ozu are the better directors, and without a doubt their bodies of work are well worth discovering. But that doesn't change the fact that Kurosawa is talented. He's just atypical of Japanese cinema, which leads into
The reason for Kurosawa's overseas popularity is because he's the most Western of Japanese directors: This is pretty much inarguable. Kurosawa's cinematic influences can be directly linked to his appreciation for John Ford, while much of his body of work is drawn from western archetypes. His samurai films are acknowledged redressed westerns, he dabbled in film noir with Stray Dog and High and Low, and adapted Shakespeare (albeit loosely) a number of times. But herein lies the tricky part of this argument: Should a filmmaker be national by nature? That Kurosawa is readily accepted by more American masses than Mizoguchi (and it's fair to say that if you're speaking of John Q. Moviegoer, if he's seen a Japanese film it's likely to be a Kurosawa) is because he's less "foreign" and more populist. But being a populist isn't necessarily a bad thing, even though it would be straw-man debate (but not without evidence) to suggest that some have held Kurosawa's populism against him.
Seven Samurai is not the best Kurosawa: This is also hard to argue. Stray Dog, Rashomon, Ikiru, Throne of Blood, Yojimbo, Red Beard and Ran are some of the best and most important films ever made, and like selecting from Ingmar Bergman, Alfred Hitchcock, Jean Renoir, or whichever master-class filmmaker who's made more than a handful of great movies that could be their best work, it can be like splitting hairs. However, for reasons listed below, there is an argument to suggest that Seven Samurai is Kurosawa's best work. Often polls become like elections, and it's likely that Samurai is the rallying cry for Kurosawa, as Vertigo has been for Hitch.
Seven Samurai is just an action film: Sure. Like The Wild Bunch is just a western. Though perhaps not as emotionally profound as Ugestu or Tokyo Story, Seven Samurai is very much an action movie. It may also be the best one ever made.
2. The Story
A band of marauding Ronin (masterless samurai) spot a village and are about to raid it when their leader notes that the village's crops won't be ready for another couple of weeks. They ride off, but a villager hears their plans. After a discussion, the villagers decide the only thing to do is go into town and recruit samurais of their own to defend the village. This proves difficult the only thing they have to offer their recruits is three square meals a day. But as the village's old man tells the recruiters: "Even bears come down from the mountain when they're hungry."
After some unsuccessful attempts, the first man they truly want is Kambei (Takashi Shimura), who shaves off his hair (considered a point of pride among samurai) to save a young boy from a bandit. This rescue sequence also introduces Kikuchiyo (Mifune), and the younger Katsushiro (Isao Kimura), who immediately offers himself as an apprentice to Kambei. Reluctantly joining up, Kambei figures they need at least seven samurai to defend the village. To add to their numbers, he finds his old friend Schichiroji (Daisuke Kato) and recruits Gorobei (Yoshio Inaba), which leads to Heihachi (Minoru Chiaki), who's found cutting wood. The real find is Kyuzo (Seji Miyaguchi), who Kambei notes is a great warrior because he's "a man obsessed with testing his own skill." Kikuchiyo auditions, but he's tripped up his scroll offering his samurai lineage is proved to be fake when it says that his age should be 13 (most of the Samurai, including Kikuchiyo, are illiterate). But the men head off, and Kikuchiyo decides to follow, only to be slowly accepted into the fold.
Once back at the village, the men begin their preparations, even though the villagers are cold toward them. It's because the villagers are afraid: Farmer Manzo (Kamatari Fujiwara) forces his daughter Shino (Keiko Tsushima) to cut off her hair for fear that a samurai will rape her, while everyone is weary because they have preyed on wounded samurais in the past. In the village, Kikuchiyo plays entertainer, although it's later revealed that he was an orphaned farmer. Fortifications are made, but there are 40 ronin who are ready to attack, and due to their hunger, it will be a fight to death.
Seven Samurai was Akira Kurosawa's first film to feature swordplay, and in structuring the story and the action he had taken extensive notes on John Ford. Though Pauline Kael crinkled her nose at the film's final passage, where Kambei remarks to one of the few surviving samurai "In the end, we lost this battle too. I mean, the victory belongs to the peasants, not to us," such a statement echoes throughout the works of Ford, who saw the role of the gunslinger as inherently transitional, making way for future generations of settlers. Ford's presence is felt in the story, but the script's philosophies are drawn more from Eastern thinking. In one sequence, Kikuchiyo takes the initiative to spy upon the bandits and steals a gun from them. But in doing so, he abandons his post, which leads to a surprise attack and some poignant deaths. The individual then is punished for his egocentric actions, heightening the films interests in community over self, which is antithetical to much of Western thought. Kurosawa was also a fan of Doestoevsky and Tolstoy, and as fellow DVD Journal writer D.K. Holm is quick to point out is an existential humanist, an ethos that is apparent in the film. And, of course, the movie was born out of the samurai culture and the samurai films and stories that Kurosawa was familiar with.
There are some debts of gratitude, but Seven Samurai has nonetheless become one of the most influential film ever made. Though Kurosawa and other filmmakers for that matter had used slow motion before, one of the most revolutionary aspects of Samurai was how Kurosawa used it in action, and specifically to elongate the moment of death. Almost every major action director since owes a debt of gratitude to Kurosawa, from the obvious followers like Sam Peckinpah (in the accompanying booklet Arthur Penn recalls Peckinpah saying "I owe my reputation to you two [Penn and Kurosawa] guys") to John Woo to everyone in between. Put simply, Kurosawa helped pen the action book. Another very influential element of the film was how Kurosawa spends time defining space, and the battleground his sense of geography is unparalleled. Such is crucial for all action pieces the audience has to understand where and how things are going on, and one of this film's notable inheritors is Die Hard. George Lucas has long bowed to Kurosawa, and though Star Wars owes more to The Hidden Fortress, Lucas paid direct homage in Revenge of the Sith by having Yoda rub his head as Kambei does.
There had been team movies before (like Howard Hawks' Air Force or Zoltan King's Sahara), but these were war films, not "Let's assemble a team" films, of which DVD commentator Michael Jeck claims this is the first. As such, movies from The Guns of the Navarrone to Johnnie To's The Mission have borrowed from it. By having Kambei keeping track of the numbers of invaders, siege cinema picked up a couple of tricks from Kurosawa by letting the audience know how many villains are left to deal with, and where the main characters are. And the character of Kyuzo, the stoic warrior who may be the best at what he does, has become a popular archetype who shows up in films like this (such as Anthony Wong's part in The Mission, or James Coburn's in The Magnificent Seven), while this character has also served as a doppelganger for the main character in Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Samurai and subsequent "professionals."
But more than just setting up templates for future directors, Seven Samurai has been remade extensively, perhaps more than any other picture in cinema history. From the official American remake The Magnificent Seven (which was the Japanese film's American title at one point), to the cheesy sci-fi epic Battle Beyond the Stars, to the comic restructuring in Pixar's A Bug's Life, to the recent anime TV show Samurai 7, the plot of the film has long been a favorite to rework (for instance, The Road Warrior could be called One Samurai). At this writing, there is talk of another remake, headed up by George Clooney.
One of the reasons that Seven Samurai is regarded as Akira Kurosawa's masterpiece is that it is 207 minutes long and never boring. That may sound crass, but the ability to tell a story over a longer period of time and still have be just as gripping from beginning to end shows the sure hand of a master. The epic length doesn't translate into "epic" scope the film doesn't have the hundreds of extras like Kurosawa's later films, such as Kagemusha or Ran and yet it is epic in that by the end the long form gives gravitas to the conclusion. The film is an experience that requires that longer immersion, and every minute is vital.
The brilliance is partly in the structure the story is divided into two by the intermission. The first half of the picture (running 107 minutes, with a five-minute intermission) is all set up. In this, we are introduced to our main characters, the team is assembled, and the lay of the land is shown it's a slow and steady build. And as such, the pacing is different than the second half (running 95 minutes), which then begins to pay everything off, from Kikuchiyo's outsider behavior and samurai standings, to the reason why the farmer Rikichi (Yoshio Tsuchiya) gets so upset when the samurais tease him about not being married. The ronin don't reappear until a few minutes after the second hour has begun, but when they do, the film keeps increasing the tension and the stakes. However, this structure lets the characters breathe as we get to know who they are before they're put the test, and it leaves room for the youngest samurai, Katsushiro, to have a romance with Shino, while Kikuchiyo literally horses around. The violence in Seven Samurai is thrilling and justly revered, but it's also palpable. Kurosawa even manages to evoke sympathy for the villains, and by the end it becomes uglier and uglier as the battle comes to a close.
The time also allows for Kambei's hair to slowly grow out, which bespeaks the subtle craftsmanship seen throughout the picture. Kurosawa took a year to make it (and by doing so angered the executives at Toho, but figured his successes, and the fact that they had already invested so much, would carry him through). The long shoot helped lend Samurai an organic pacing, but it also highlighted how well Kurosawa uses nature much like his hero John Ford. Though Ford's composition is unparalleled, Kurosawa captures rain, winds, clouds, and shifts of light as few others have before or since. In that way, the film genuinely is epic Kurosawa uses nature like a god. He's wonderful at composition, but his greater strength in this picture is in how he uses editing. From the masterful use of slow motion, to his cross-cutting, Samurai is a master class in how to shoot for cutting. The work here rivals Sergei Eisenstein.
One of the things that makes Seven Samurai a classic, beside its technical accomplishments, is that it defined honor in a way that cinema was bound to repeat. What Kurosawa did was have these men gather together to fight a war of impossible odds. That is nothing new. But what is new is that there is no great glory in winning. The prize for fighting is eating, the likelihood of death is high, even the people they are defending don't care for them, and there will be no poems or legends written about the survivors. They are men on a job who are skilled laborers, and when their job is done, they will move on to the next if there is a next. This heightens the audience's attention because their gaze is truly privileged, an event that (in the film's terms) the rest of the world would never be aware of.
And fighting a battle out of honor, doing it because you are good at it, and expecting no reward except the chance to exercise your skill with no hopes or thoughts of anything other than maybe not dying has become a defining characteristic in the action film. From Assault on Precinct 13 to Ghostbusters, that sense of doing what you have to do as well as you can only for the greater good or simple survival is a transcendent idea. Perhaps Kurosawa tweaked this from Howard Hawks, as epitomized in Only Angels Have Wings. But Hawks used this quiet bravery it to show the solidarity of men at work, where Kurosawa uses it to affect a greater sense of glory.
Toshiro Mifune had been working for seven years previous to Seven Samurai, and he had already made six films with Kurosawa, while the duo made 16 films together until the lengthy process of making Red Beard ended their relationship. Mifune finished 181 films before his death in 1997. Nonetheless, his performance here is the one for which he will forever be remembered. The harshest critics called him over the top and hammy, but with his character (who's introduced with his oversized sword, in what must be the 16th century equivalent of a middle aged man buying a sports car) it's quickly apparent that he's overcompensating for his inadequacies. Followed by children (Kurosawa makes this the most natural thing in the world), and loved by the men eventually, they know he's not a real samurai (at least not until the end). When it's revealed that he was orphaned as a baby and grew up a farmer, everything makes sense: his character longs for approval and acceptance, although he knows he doesn't deserve it. Mifune has an amazing fluidity to his body, as well as the gift to simply be on camera. Though Samurai is an ensemble film, and the group of actors is excellent, Mifune has a showcase of a role, a honey, and he relishes such a ripe opportunity.
Mifune also stands in contrast to the mindset of many Japanese films. His boorishness and volume can't be seen in anything by Ozu or Mizoguchi. This was on purpose. Kurosawa was frustrated with the temperament of his nation's filmmakers: "Japanese films all tend to be rather bland in flavor, like green tea over rice," he once said in a salvo to Ozu (who directed a film entitled The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice), and Samurai was meant to be a devastatingly exciting movie, to shake up and engage those who watch it in a way that Japanese cinema hadn't before (even in previous samurai films, which drew from Kabuki). In that, Samurai is both a monumental achievement and a rebellious work, to which it deserves its placement among the greats. And not just because it manages to be just as gripping now as it was when it was made. And not just because it's just as involving on each successive multiple viewing. And not just because it redefined action.
Mostly, because it's a great entertainment.
7. The DVD
The Criterion Collection released a DVD edition of Seven Samurai at the format's inception the first Criterion DVD to reach the street, in fact (its spine number, 2, reflected that The Grand Illusion was afforded Criterion's foremost honor, but that title was delayed due to the discovery of new source materials). Early DVD adopters were happy to get it, even though it was almost a direct copy of the Criterion Laserdisc, including the commentary by Michael Jeck. The only new feature was a "restoration demonstration," which was later removed at the request of Toho Films, making that very first Criterion pressing a collector's item.
Now, nearly a decade later, Criterion offers a definitive double dip of Seven Samurai with an entirely new restoration, made using all the newer resources available to clean it up digitally as much as possible. The results are simply breathtaking the full frame transfer (1.33:1 OAR) appears cleaner, brighter, and more vivid than ever before. Along with the restored picture, the audio has been remastered with a new Dolby 2.0 Surround track (not DD 4.0, as it was previously listed), along with the original mono (DD 1.0), both in Japanese, with optional English subtitles.
A three-disc set, each disc contains supplements. Spread out over two discs, the feature film is split at its intermission and contains two commentaries: the original Jeck track (still a high-water mark in cinematic commentaries) and a critics' roundtable with Stephen Prince, David Desser, Tony Rayns, Donald Richie, and Joan Mellen. Alas, it's not so much a roundtable as a series of commentaries, with each person getting roughly 40 minutes of the film to discuss. A roundtable discussion might have been more fun, but each commentator is exceptionally knowledgeable, and it proves a good listen. The first disc also comes with Trailers and Teaser, which features three trailers and the film's teaser, while a Production Gallery offers behind-the-scenes stills and poster images. And of course, there's color bars.
Disc Two concludes the feature film and continues the two commentaries, while also offering Akira Kurosawa: It is Fun to Create (49 min.), a multi-episode Japanese TV series that highlighted the films of Akira Kurosawa, episodes of which are also available on the Criterion releases of Ikiru, Kagemusha, The Lower Depths, Ran, and Stray Dog.This one is specifically about Samurai and features comments from Kurosawa, co-writer Shinobu Hashimoto, set decorator Koichi Hamamura, script supervisor Teruyo Nogami, and actors Seiji Miyaguchi and Yoshio Tsuchiya.
Disc Three features My Life in Cinema: Akira Kurosawa (116 min.), which has fellow director Nagisa Oshima in conversation with Kurosawa about his films and career, but focuses mainly on his rise in the ranks. The featurette Seven Samurai: Origins and Influences (55 min.) enlists Stephen Prince, Joan Mellen, Tadao Sato, David Desser, Tony Rayns, and Donald Richie to talk about the film and where it came from. The set also comes with a booklet with essays by Kenneth Turan, Peter Cowie, Phillip Kemp, Peggy Chiao, Alain Silver, Stuart Galbraith IV, directors Sidney Lumet and Arthur Penn, and from Mifune himself. Few DVDs have been as essential as this one.
- Black and white
- Full frame (1.33:1)
- Three single-sided, dual-layered discs (SS-DL)
- Dolby Digital 4.0 (Japanese), Dolby 1.0 (Japanese)
- English subtitles
- Audio commentary by Michael Jeck
- Audio commentary by Stephen Prince, David Desser, Tony Rayns, Donald Richie, and Joan Mellen
- Featurette: "It's Wonderful to Create: Akira Kurosawa" on Seven Samurai
- Documentary: My Life in Cinema
- Featurette: "Seven Samurai: Origins and Influences"
- Three theatrical trailers and teaser
- Stills gallery
- Three-disc digipak with paperboard slipcover
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