Saturday, December 8, 2012

The High Cost of Rice

Film: Shichinin no Samurai (Seven Samurai)
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on laptop.

I’ve said this before, but it’s relevant today: my favorite Kurosawa film is the one I’ve watched the most recently. What that means is if you ask me for my favorite Kurosawa film, as of right now, it’s Shichinin no Samurai (Seven Samurai). Really, there aren’t any bad choices when it comes to Kurosawa’s great films. There’s no shame in picking this one, at least temporarily.

The story is simple enough that it was adapted into the classic Western The Magnificent Seven. While there are certainly cultural aspects of the film that are uniquely Japanese, the story itself translates to the American West very easily. We have a village of farmers who are constantly being harassed by a collection of bandits. Recognizing that they stole the village’s rice earlier in the year, the bandits decide that they will come back for the barley when it has been harvested. One of the farmers overhears this and returns to the village with the bad news. The old man of the village is consulted. He recommends that they hire samurai to fight off the bandits. However, since they have only food to offer, he suggests they look for hungry samurai.

So a group of villagers headed by Rikichi (Yoshio Tsuchiya) head off to the nearest city to see if they can find some ronin (masterless samurai) to aid in the defense of their precious barley. After a few false starts, they encounter Kambei (Takashi Shimura), a noble samurai who appears to be devoted to the idea of doing good rather than making profit or glorifying himself. After they witness him rescue a child, they follow. They also encounter Katsushiro (Isao Kimura), who pledges loyalty to Kambei and wishes to become his disciple. They also meet Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune), a posturing wannabee who begins to follow the party in the hopes of being taken as a real samurai.

Over the next few days, they recruit four more members of the samurai team. There is Gorobei (Yoshio Inaba), who quickly becomes the second-in-command of Kambei; Shichiroji (Daisuke Kato), who was a former aide of Kambei and easily resumes his former role; Heihachi (Minoru Chiaki), who isn’t much of a swordsman but is entertaining and helps keep spirits up; and Kyuzo (Seiji Miyaguchi), a samurai who is most interested in his own physical and mental limits. Eventually, they accept Kikuchiyo as one of the group, making them the seven samurai of the title.

The rest of the film concerns the time of the samurai in the village, preparing it for battle, their dealings with the villagers, a budding romance between Katsushiro and Shino (Keiko Tsushima), and the battles against the bandits. Throughout, the villagers deal with their own inherent mistrust of the people they have hired to save them and the samurai learn precisely what the villagers are forced to do to survive from the attacks of the bandits. We learn about Rikichi’s dark secret, are constantly assailed by the cowardice of the villager Yohei (Bokuzen Hidari), and learn all about the relationship between Manzo (Katamari Fujiwara) and his daughter, the aforementioned Shino.

The real sell here, of course, are the battles, which are tremendous. Kurosawa was always at his best when filming wild fight sequences, and the ones here do not disappoint in any way. They are chaotic and beautiful at the same time, demonstrating the greed and recklessness of the bandits, the cowardice giving way to bravery in the villagers, and the martial prowess of the samurai. Impressively, many of these sequences go on for an extended period of time as the bandits charge and retreat and charge again, but never become dull or repetitive.

What’s most impressive, though, is that the characters we are given are completely distinct. Certainly it helps that the film runs close to three-and-a-half hours in its restored state, but even so, there are a lot of characters here. However, each of the seven samurai is completely distinct and identifiable immediately, as are the main villagers. There’s no confusing Manzo for Yohei or Rikichi, for instance. And when one samurai does or says a particular thing, it’s always what we have come to expect from that particular character. They are remarkably distinct for a film that could easily make them all essentially the same character without much of the audience noticing.

It’s this attention to detail that really makes the film work. We come to understand the plight of the farmers and even to sympathize with them. Similarly, we come to like and respect the samurai; even the sometimes insane and wild Kikuchiyo eventually becomes someone whose fate is important to us. The characters are given little quirks and habits. Kambei, for instance, loves to run his hand over his freshly-shaven head. Kyuzo never shows emotion and never boasts about his skills.

Kikuchiyo as played by the great Toshiro Mifune is worth an extra mention here. I had forgotten a lot of the details of this character, and in watching the film again today, I was surprised at just how much he reminded me of Mifune’s character in Rashomon. Many of the specifics of the two characters are close enough to seem identical—the constant scratching, the torn clothing, the leaping about and yelling, the posturing, even the hyper-confidence. Evidently it was so successful in Rashomon that Mifune simply did the same thing here.

I can’t recommend this film highly enough. Even at 207 minutes, this film never drags and is never dull. It’s a fast 207 minutes, and you’ll wonder where the time went when you watch. If you haven’t seen this, there’s no time like the present—hunt it down and make yourself some popcorn.

Why to watch Shichinin no Samurai: Kurosawa’s most famous film for a reason.
Why not to watch: If you don’t do subtitles, it’s a long time spent reading.


  1. Can't remember where I read or heard this bit of trivia, but if I'm not mistaken, there's a brief moment in the prequel films in which Yoda runs a hand over his scalp-- a deliberate reference to Kambei. See here.

  2. Completely agree. Love this movie. Really, really great.

  3. It wouldn't shock me that there's a Kambei reference in Yoda's actions. However, Kyuzo is by far my favorite character.

    @Ip--there's a ton of Kurosawa worth seeing. I can't recommend him enough.

  4. "I can’t recommend this film highly enough. Even at 207 minutes, this film never drags and is never dull. It’s a fast 207 minutes, and you’ll wonder where the time went when you watch. If you haven’t seen this, there’s no time like the present—hunt it down and make yourself some popcorn."

    I completely agree. I consider Seven Samurai nothing less than the greatest non-English language film ever made. I've watched it multiple times and I don't remember ever checking the time. I was always fully immersed in the movie.

    1. Greatest non-English film is something we could discuss. In the top 10? No question.

    2. I just got done watching the Patriots destroy the Texans and it's a little late, so my brain may not be functioning at 100%. Off the top of my head, here are some candidates for "best non-English language film" other than Seven Samurai (in no particular order, other than all are five star films for me):

      Das Boot
      Throne of Blood
      City of God
      Children of Paradise
      Jean de Florette/Manon of the Spring
      M (although the version I saw was in English)
      The Wages of Fear
      The Lives of Others

      I would place Seven Samurai above all of them.

      Usual suspects The Seventh Seal, 8 1/2, and The 400 Blows didn't impress me as much as their reputations led me to expect. The Rules of the Game was good, but not better to me than any of the ones I listed above. Sansho the Bailiff was wrenching, but I can't place it with the ones above. I have not seen several of the French New Wave films yet. And I've probably missed mentioning a couple of really obvious ones.

    3. I can't complain about your list here--I've seen all but Jean de Florette and love the group. In fact, I love that collection of films to the point that if someone suggested any of them as the best non-English film, I'd say the same thing I said about Shichinin no Samurai. Yeah, we could discuss if it's the best, but I would have no issue with that film in the top-10.

      Throne of Blood is my default favorite Kurosawa film--it's the one I name if I haven't watched another of his films recently. I'd put Rashomon in that list, too. I'm really happy to see Children of Paradise up there as well--I was completely blown away by that one.

      I really liked The Rules of the Game as well, but I get what you mean. For me, that film was impressive because of the camera work, not so much because of the story. The other films listed are great all around, the sort of films that I will happily watch on a moment's notice just because. I need to be in a mood to watch The Rules of the Game, although I love it when I see it.

      Ultimately, putting The Seven Samurai at the top of the heap is never going to be a bad choice. Even if I put something else there, I absolutely can't disagree with why you have it there.

    4. Not that you need more movies to watch, but I would highly recommend Jean de Florette and Manon of the Spring. From your comment I'm not sure if you've seen Manon or not, but if you have you have not gotten the full impact of it without having seen the first film. They are not so much movie and sequel as they are part 1 and part 2. Individually they would be 4 star movies to me, but put them together and they become a five star set. Yves Montand and Daniel Auteil (sp?) are in both, while Gerard Depardieu stars as the title character in the first and Emmanuelle Beart plays his now adult daughter (and title character) in the second.

      And a little piece of Chip trivia: Jean de Florette was literally the first subtitled foreign film I ever saw. (I'm not counting Japanese monster films I saw as a kid on a local channel's "Creature Double Feature" because they were all dubbed.) JdF was on Cinemax around 1987 or 88 and then a few months later they showed Manon of the Spring.

    5. I haven't seen either. I'm sure I'll hunt them down eventually. I'm surprisingly fond of Yves Montand.

      For the record, I have no idea what the first subtitled film I ever saw was.

  5. I was thinking it was about time to start re-watching my AK100 box set - now I know i'm ready :)

  6. I think you have a good point about the distinctiveness of the characters and the detail of the film, which are actually two sides of the same case. This was only possible because Kurosawa made the movie as long as he did, but is really testament to how well-worked everything about the movie was from script, over casting to filming and cutting. A masterpiece no less.

    1. If memory serves, it was Roger Ebert who said that no good movie is ever too long no matter its length and every bad movie is too long no matter how short it might be. The Seven Samurai is absolute proof of the first part of that statement.