Saturday, September 18, 2010

Day Seventy-Seven: Seven Samurai

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #14
Year: 1954
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Starring: Takashi Shimura and Toshiro Mifune

Thus ends a very enlightening week on this blog. Over the past five days, I watched Japanese director Akira Kurosawa's five entries on the IMDb Top 250 and, in so doing, went from being wholly unfamiliar with his work to being relatively well-versed. Just the five movies of his I watched probably propelled Kurosawa into my top ten directors of all time. His influence on just about every genre and every director worth his salt is evident in the sampling of his filmography that the list offers. I ended Kurosawa Week with the director's highest ranked (and best-known) movie, Seven Samurai. As if there were any suggestion to the contrary, it was excellent. The story of a village of fearful peasants who hire samurai to defend them from bandits who promise to steal their crops at the next harvest is brilliantly and epically translated to the screen by Kurosawa and an ensemble cast headed up by his two favorite collaborators, Ikiru's Takashi Shimura and Rashomon and Yojimbo's Toshiro Mifune. Not only is Seven Samurai one of the greatest foreign art films of all time, it also serves as an illuminating looking-glass into Japanese samurai culture for Westerners.

Though it never sacrifices its expert pacing and flow, Seven Samurai can be clearly divided into a prologue, two long acts, and an epilogue. In the prologue, we see the village come under attack by bandits. They don't invade, knowing that there's nothing there to take, but they promise to return at the next harvest. The townspeople wail and cry and run and hide. The village elder tells the men to find samurai to defend their crops. In the first true act of the film, they go to find samurai to fight for them. Once they find their first samurai, Shimura's brave Kambei, he helps them recruit the rest. In the second act, the seven samurai return to the village and prepare a battle plan to use against the bandits. They train the peasants to use rudimentary spears and build a small army. The bandits invade, and are defeated – though not without a cruel cost. In the film's brief epilogue, Kambei, Katsushiro, and Shichiroji watch as the villagers plant their new rice crop. "Again we are defeated. The farmers have won, not us," Kambei eulogizes as the shot tilts to show four samurai graves and slowly fades to black. This is an almost criminal oversimplification of one of the greatest movies of all time and perhaps Japan's greatest cultural product, but the wonderful subtlety of the film would be lost by merely trying to type it out.

Akira Kurosawa has left a bigger legacy on film than perhaps any other director. On each of the last five days, I watched one of his films and found its influence in other, more recent movies. Rashomon became every courtroom procedural ever made. Yojimbo became A Fistful of Dollars. The first half-hour of Ikiru became Brazil, and the rest became every seize-the-day movie about aging ever made. Ran changed the way we see period pieces and costume dramas and arguably perfected the use of color cinematography. And Seven Samurai directly influenced The Magnificent Seven and more abstractly influenced damn near every epic movie to come after it. This is excluding the forty-odd Kurosawa works that I still haven't seen. I won't try to convince anyone that he's the greatest director of all time, but I'm open to arguments that he isn't the most influential. I'm glad that I was able to get a crash course in his films this week, and I can't wait to watch more.

And for the record, I would rank the five Kurosawa pictures I saw this week as follows: Ikiru, Seven Samurai, Rashomon, Yojimbo, Ran.

The Good: In 1954, no other movie was this modern, this visceral, this action-packed, this epic, or this important for the future of film.

The Bad: I was going to say that the cultural divide may have been an issue when it was first released, but honestly, samurai code and cowboy code aren't that different, so I'm sure it was never really an issue. In that case, I can't think of any negative points.

The Skinny: It probably wouldn't be as high as #14 on a personal list but I'll gladly defend it for the Top 250.

1 comment:

  1. Great movie. And out of the five movies my ranking would be as follows:
    5) Ran
    4) Yojimbo
    3) Seven Samurai
    2) Rashomon
    1) Ikiru