Classic Circuit: ‘Seven Samurai’ Still Thrills 65 Years Later

AwardsCircuit is proud to present “CLASSIC CIRCUIT!

Formerly known as “Historical Circuit,” the weekly series will take a look at any film, from any year in history, with a heavy emphasis on the films within the Criterion Collection.  You won’t just find reviews within these columns, as the AwardsCircuit team will be exploring video and interviews from the filmmakers and artists who stood behind these features.  You can find these films on The Criterion Channel.  Any other focus on classic films will be noted as such, along with the list of streaming platforms and channels that carry them.

CRITERION CHALLENGE

FILM: “Seven Samurai”
(Spine #2)

  • YEAR: 1954
  • COUNTRY OF ORIGIN: Japan
  • DIRECTOR: Akira Kurosawa
  • WRITER: Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto, Hideo Oguni
  • CAST: Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura, Keiko Tsushima, Isao Kimura, Daisuke Katō, Seiji Miyaguchi, Yoshio Inaba, Minoru Chiaki, Kamatari Fujiwara, Kokuten Kōdō, Yoshio Tsuchiya, Eijirō Tōno, Jun Tatara, Atsushi Watanabe, Yoshio Kosugi, Bokuzen Hidari, Yukiko Shimazaki

SYNOPSIS:

In the food chain of sixteenth-century Japan, farmers are as low on the totem pole as their crops. The film opens with a group of bandits riding in on a lowly farm town. Having raided the community recently, the bandits decide to come back once the next crop if finished, to pillage the town again. One of the farmers overhears this plan and spreads it around the village. Starving, desperate and scared, the village decides to bring in reinforcements to help them against the bandits, at the suggestion of town elder, Gisaku (Kokuten Kōdō).

The farmers travel to a larger town, in search of samurai to fight on behalf of them. With no money to their name, they’re unsuccessful in most of their first attempts. Upon seeing, Kambei (Takashi Shimura), an experienced but older ronin (masterless samurai), defend a boy attacked by a bandit, the town enlists his help. From here Kambei aids the farmers in assembling a crew of six more samurai through a variety of tests. The film uses this “assembling a team” detour to establish a diverse array of samurai, all with various eccentricities and paths that lead them to the villagers.

Upon returning to the village, it takes some time for the farmers to become comfortable with their saviors. As they bond, Katsushirō (Isao Kimura), one of the samurai, develops feelings for Shino (Keiko Tsushima), a farmer’s daughter. At this point, we aren’t even done with part one of the three-and-a-half hour epic. Half of the joy of “Seven Samurai” comes from the way it sets up its pieces on the chessboard. The other half comes from how the emotions, class relationships and the anticipated showdown plays out.

COMMENTARY:

From the opening moments, where bandits ride along the mountain ridge near the village, audiences know they are in for a treat. Akira Kurosawa is widely regarded as a master filmmaker whose ability to tell stories visually is second to none. “Seven Samurai” reinforces Kurosawa’s strengths of using the camera and intricate editing to take the audience fully into the different perspectives of many of his characters. This makes each of the samurai introductions in the first half of the film feel so dynamic. Kyūzō (Seiji Miyaguchi), the eternally stoic master swordsman, gets a particularly dynamic introduction that involves a brutal, yet beautiful duel.

As grand as the film looks, it’s only as big as its smallest character. The film more than earns its three and a half hour running time thanks to its rich character work throughout the ensemble. Each of the titular seven samurai have unique, engaging storylines. Toshiro Mifune offers one of the strongest arcs of the group. His character, Kikuchiyo, goes from a fraudulent rogue to a complicated hero. In a key scene, he abandons his post as a part of a greater strategy to recover a firearm, but in the process allows the bandits to take the lives of some of the farmers. The film also delves into his backstory through the rescuing of a local baby. His character most of all shows how the film deftly balances tone, consistently gives audiences new character beats and sustains interest for three and a half hours.

The film does more than balance a wide cast of characters. It also juggles many different genres, while making sure they all serve the broader through line. What starts as a David v. Goliath story morphs into a fish out of water scenario – a grand tale of cooperation, a star-crossed romance, a critique of class structure and an incredibly inventive and entertaining action film. It balances all these tones because each story informs and feeds the other subplots going on around it. Katsushirō and Shino’s relationship only further dramatizes the divide between the samurai and the farmers. Kikuchiyo’s antics all tie into a heartfelt backstory that informs the helplessness and understanding of the villager’s plight. The film takes its time to do all this because every character, plot point and visual cue matters and needs room to breathe.

WHAT MAKES THIS A “CRITERION” FILM?

Criterion describes their mission as “presenting each film as its maker would want it seen, in state-of-the-art restorations with special features designed to encourage repeated watching and deepen the viewer’s appreciation of the art of film.”

Akira Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai” acts as a shining example of this credo. The film is more than just a visually stunning achievement. It’s an endlessly re-watchable film that holds the key for a variety of genre conventions we see in countless movies today.

The restoration of the film looks completely stunning. The production design of the village paints a vivid picture of this faraway time. The village may be humble, but the production designers know how to create a working infrastructure within the set. We understand where the points of the gathering are. As the samurai prepare to defend the village, audiences get a greater sense of its position within the valley. Much like a war strategist, we know its weak points and points of entry. The action hits hard because we understand the game board where it takes place.

The major battle in the third act is impeccably staged. It’s as exciting and suspenseful as anything one would see on movie screens today. More so than modern action movies, “Seven Samurai” thrills because one cares about each of the characters doing the fighting. Kurosawa stages each fight with the intent to highlight his characters and their journeys. They’re all clear to watch and understand. He doesn’t needlessly dress them up or add unnecessary visual flourishes. Stakes are communicated visually and story-wise to create such beautiful and climactic moments of action.

HOW HAS THIS INFLUENCED MODERN CINEMA?

It’s easy to point out how some films act almost as remakes of “Seven Samurai.” John Sturges’ 1960 western “The Magnificent Seven” takes the basic idea of “Seven Samurai” and substitutes samurai for western gunslingers. We even see this crossover to children’s films, as Pixar’s “A Bug’s Life” uses the basic story structure of “Seven Samurai,” with circus bugs acting as the heroic roles.

On an even broader level, the western genre owes quite a lot to Kurosawa’s samurai films. The concept of “Seven Samurai” wrestles with themes that are cornerstones of some of our most iconic westerns; a group of defenseless land workers welcomes in a band of heroes to defend them from a vague force that threatens them. The samurai and bandits are gods and monsters battling it out while mere mortals try and align themselves with the more advantageous side. The relationship between cowboys and bandits are the same. Take for example “True Grit,” where a civilian (Mattie Ross) hires an over-the-hill figure of authority (Rooster Cogburn) for defense/revenge against a murderous force (Tom Chaney).

While certain films have borrowed more than others from “Seven Samurai,” so many basic genre conventions can trace their roots back to this classic film. Movies that center around any sort of “team assembly” all have a bit of “Seven Samurai’s” DNA in them. The first act of “Seven Samurai” has now been condensed to audition montages in movies as recent as any of the “Oceans” movies or even “Poms.”

The use of montage allows films to introduce distilled versions of characters quickly. What makes “Seven Samurai” so long, but also so effective, is how it eschews so much of what a montage solves. The film gives each of the seven samurai a full introduction that establishes their world and perspective. They’re drawn into contact with Kambei and the villagers. From here, they need to prove their worth to join the crew. There’s an arc to their decision that can’t be contained in a pop-fueled montage.

“Seven Samurai” also weaves a star crossed lovers story into a full-blown action piece. Films as strong as “Wild at Heart” or even as dumb as “Armageddon” all use “Seven Samurai” as a template for how to use a romantic subplot to raise stakes, flesh out central characters and allow the audience an added layer of emotional connection. Shino’s introduction comes as she crossdresses out of an instinctual need for survival. She realizes that, though the samurai have come to defend her village, as a woman she may also be in danger upon their arrival. The ensuing romance comes out of her initial fear, not of the unknown, but of the danger that any man presents. Though Shino is very much a supporting player in the ensemble, her role and perspective inform how the film as a larger entity progresses.

SPECIAL FEATURES:

  • Commentary: Scholars/critics David Desser, Joan Mellen, Stephen Prince, Tony Rayns and Donald Richie
    • The members of this commentary were recorded individually from 2005 to 2006. Together, they explore the historical context of the story, the style of Kurosawa and how “Seven Samurai’s” influence continues today.
  • Commentary: Japanese film expert Michael Jeck
    • This commentary was recorded in 1988. Jeck has been lecturing on Japanese cinema and programming festivals and series since 1974.
  • Conversation: “My Life in Cinema: Akira Kurosawa”
  • Documentary: “Seven Samurai: Origins and Influences”
  • Teaser Trailer, Theatrical Trailer 2, Theatrical Trailer 3

CLOSING THOUGHTS:

Few cliches are as tired as the “they don’t make ‘em as they used to” adage. In the case of “Seven Samurai,” they still do make ‘em, but not quite like they used to. Our popular culture owes so much to this Kurosawa masterpiece. What we lack today is the boldness and confidence to trust the characters and world we’ve set in action. The over-reliance on CGI and other bells and whistles obscures the characters and story rather than enhances it. “Mad Max: Fury Road” uses action to heighten the raw emotions of its characters. The “John Wick” franchise similarly makes the action an outburst flowing from the titular character’s hurt and rage. All of this stems from “Seven Samurai’s” commitment to making every action move a character beat and plot point.

“Seven Samurai” is currently available to stream on The Criterion Channel.

GRADE: (★)

What did you think of “Seven Samurai?” Are there any other movies on the Criterion Channel you would like us to cover? Let us know in the comments below.

AVAILABLE THIS MONTH ON CRITERION CHANNEL:

  • Babylon
    dir. Franco Rosso – Monday, July 15
    A long-lost reggae classic reemerges. Suppressed following its Cannes premiere for fear that it would stoke racial tension, Franco Rosso’s incendiary portrait of sound-system culture in 1980s South London follows a young dancehall DJ (Brinsley Forde, frontman of landmark British reggae group Aswad) as he pursues his musical ambitions, battling fiercely against the racism and xenophobia of employers, neighbors, police, and the National Front. Featuring beautifully smoky cinematography and a blistering soundtrack, Babylon is a raw, fearless howl of defiance tempered by the hazy bliss of the dancehall.
  • Solar Walk” + “For All Mankind
    dir. Réka Bucsi and dir. Al Reinert – Tuesday, July 16
    Fifty years ago this July, Apollo 11 touched down on the moon and inaugurated a new era in human history. Réka Bucsi’s animated space odyssey Solar Walk launches the viewer on a psychedelic journey into blissed-out, brain-bending cosmic realms. It makes for a mesmerizing double bill with Al Reinert’s stunning documentary For All Mankind, an awe-inspiring record of the moon landing in which original footage shot by the astronauts themselves is set to the music of Brian Eno to create a sublime reflection on the beauty and wonder of space exploration.
  • The Tin Drum: Criterion Collection Edition” #234
    dir. Volker Schlöndorff – Tuesday, July 16
    Oskar is born in Germany in 1924 with an advanced intellect. Repulsed by the hypocrisy of adults and the irresponsibility of society, he refuses to grow older after his third birthday. While the chaotic world around him careers toward the madness and folly of World War II, Oskar pounds incessantly on his beloved tin drum and perfects his uncannily piercing shrieks. The Tin Drum, which earned the Palme d’Or at Cannes and the Academy Award for best foreign-language film, is Volker Schlöndorff’s visionary adaptation of Nobel laureate Günter Grass’s acclaimed novel, characterized by surreal imagery, arresting eroticism, and clear-eyed satire.
    SUPPLEMENTAL FEATURES: Interviews with Volker Schlöndorff and film scholar Timothy Corrigan, an audio recording of Günter Grass reading from the novel, and more.
  • Cameraperson: Criterion Collection Edition” #853
    dir. Kristen Johnson – Wednesday, July 17
    A boxing match in Brooklyn; life in postwar Bosnia and Herzegovina; the daily routine of a Nigerian midwife; an intimate family moment at home with the director: Kirsten Johnson weaves these scenes and others into her film Cameraperson, a tapestry of footage captured over her twenty-five-year career as a documentary cinematographer. Through a series of episodic juxtapositions, Johnson explores the relationships between image makers and their subjects, the tension between the objectivity and intervention of the camera, and the complex interaction of unfiltered reality with crafted narrative. A work that combines documentary, autobiography, and ethical inquiry, Cameraperson is a moving glimpse into one filmmaker’s personal journey and a thoughtful examination of what it means to train a camera on the world.
    SUPPLEMENTAL FEATURES: A program on the editing of the film, a conversation between Kirsten Johnson and filmmaker Michael Moore, a short film by Johnson, and more.
  • War and Peace: Criterion Collection Edition” #983
    dir. Sergei Bondarchuk – Thursday, July 18
    At the height of the Cold War, the Soviet film industry set out to prove it could outdo Hollywood with a production that would dazzle the world: a titanic, awe-inspiring adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s classic tome in which the fates of three souls–the blundering, good-hearted Pierre; the heroically tragic Prince Andrei; and the radiant, tempestuous Natasha–collide amid the tumult of the Napoleonic Wars. Employing a cast of thousands and an array of innovative camera techniques, director Sergei Bondarchuk conjures a sweeping vision of grand balls that glitter with rococo beauty and breathtaking battles that overwhelm with their expressionistic power. As a statement of Soviet cinema’s might, War and Peace succeeded wildly, garnering the Academy Award for best foreign-language film and setting a new standard for epic moviemaking.
    SUPPLEMENTAL FEATURES: Two documentaries on the making of the film, an interview with cinematographer Anatoly Petritsky, a television program on actor Ludmila Savelyeva, and more.
  • Double Feature: Camp Pleasures
    “The Love Witch” and “Donkey Skin”
    dir. Anna Biller and dir. Jacques Demy – Friday, July 19
    Featuring an interview with director Anna Biller on the influence of “Donkey Skin”
    With her subversive, retro-fantastic feminist spellbinder The Love Witch, Anna Biller confirmed her status as both a master visual stylist and a one-of-a-kind DIY auteur whose films give delirious expression to female fantasy and pleasure. The tale of a spell-casting temptress who falls prey to the psychosis of romantic desire, it’s presented alongside Jacques Demy’s enchantingly offbeat Donkey Skin, a medieval-set musical fairy tale starring Catherine Deneuve that Biller cites a major influence for its blend of bright, candy-colored visuals and dark psychological undercurrents.
  • Saturday Matinee: The Trouble with Angels
    dir. Ida Lipuno – Saturday, July 20
    The final film directed by Ida Lupino before she went on to a successful career in television, this effervescent romp stars Hayley Mills as the new girl at an all-girls Catholic boarding school whose high-spirited hijinks keep Rosalind Russell’s eternally patient Mother Superior on her toes as she guides her young charges towards adulthood. Directed with nuance and sensitivity by Lupino, The Trouble with Angels is both a delightful showcase for an almost entirely female ensemble cast (including burlesque legend Gypsy Rose Lee in a small part) and an unabashedly sweet, sincere celebration of the bonds between women.
  • “For All Mankind: Criterion Collection Edition” – #54
    dir. Al Reinert – Saturday, July 20
    Featuring an introduction by For All Mankind associate producer Jonathan Turell
    In July 1969, the space race ended when Apollo 11 fulfilled President Kennedy’s challenge of “landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.” No one who witnessed the lunar landing will ever forget it. Al Reinert’s documentary For All Mankind is the story of the twenty-four men who traveled to the moon, told in their words, in their voices, using the images of their experiences. Fifty years after the first moon landing, it remains the most radical, visually dazzling work of cinema yet made about this earthshaking event.
    SUPPLEMENTAL FEATURES: An audio commentary featuring Al Reinert and Apollo 17 commander Eugene A. Cernan, a documentary on the making of the film, a collection of interviews with fifteen of the Apollo astronauts, and more.

CHECK OUT ALL THE OFFICIAL PREDICTIONS ON THE CIRCUIT HUB AND MAKE YOUR OWN!