John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven from 1960 is possibly one of the most formative movie-watching experiences of my life. It’s one of the few movies I’ve ever heard my dad be enthusiastic (possibly the second most enthusiastic he’s ever been save for The Battle of Algiers. It was definitely the movie I watched long before I got a chance to look at Kurosawa Akira’s classic Seven Samurai. I grew up wanting to be Yul Brynner (though the list of people I wanted to be as a kid is vast… at one point it was Godzilla, I’m sure) and there are frankly some remakes in cinema where which version you watch first seems to be the one that you overall prefer between the two.
If you are expecting me to claim I prefer The Magnificent Seven to Seven Samurai, you will be severely disappointed. The Magnificent Seven is the one I hold dear with all of my heart and I would even dare to claim there ARE areas where it does in fact improve over Samurai (namely in its treatment of its villains… casting Eli Wallach will do that), but there’s no context where Seven Samurai is not the overall better movie. And given that this is a Seven Samurai lovefest, that is the last we’ll hear of the cowboy flick for now.
The hook is recognizable in its simplicity: in the volatile Sengoku period of Japan, a farmer overhears a passing bandit army planning to attack his isolated village soon and brings the new to the rest of the unmartialed fellow farmers, who wallow in misery at this threat. Desperate, they ask the village elder Gisaku (Kodo Kokuten) for advice he tells three villagers to go to the village to recruit samurai with the sole promise of food, which proves to be a challenge worthy of its own hour’s worth of content (in the shortest-feeling 207 minute movie in history) due to the samurai’s pride. Eventually, they’re able to scrounge together a motley but dedicated crew of samurai: war-weary Kambei (Shimura Takashi), his impressionable disciple Katsushiro (Kimura Isao), Kambei’s former comrade Shichiroji (Kato Daisuke), the strategical Gorobei (Inaba Yoshio), laconic swordsmaster Kyuzo (Miyaguchi Seiji), and the cheerful Heihachi (Chiaki Minoru). As they’re on their way to the village, they’re tagged along by the temperamental animalistic Kikuchiyo (Mifune Toshiro) who insists he’s totally a samurai when it’s clear he’s not “legally” and ends up making up the seventh warrior recruited to train the villagers to defend their home against the bandits.
That was a long synopsis, but seriously: it’s just seven guys defending a home against many. It’s almost like a Herculean fable when you dilute it. The richness in Seven Samurai as a narrative is how every single character in that village, once the samurai arrive, feels completely lived-in and involved in their own drama outside of the actual conflict. It never gets to mosaic narrative mode, since our focus is on our heroes developing a camaraderie and more able leaders and warriors, but the movie is clearly just as concerned with the state of the farmers and what they must go through to evolve themselves. There’s a reason we begin with said farmers after all and there is tragedy and fear and wisdom within the farmers we get glimpses at, sometimes intertwining with the samurai’s tale. This in turn makes it an exercise in class commentary and Seven Samurai is not at all subtle about this facet, having moments of conflict within the clashing cultures all over. Hell, the most obvious subplot’s involve squaring with Kikuchiyo’s heritage and young Katsuhiro’s romance with farmer Manzo (Fujiwara Kamatari)’s daughter Shino (Tsushima Keiko). This is something that Kurosawa, Hashimoto Shinobu, and Oguni Hideo’s screenplay can only map out, it takes a cast as collectively incredible as this film to truly bring these themes to life in such a natural manner that makes nearly three hours of restrained drama seem just as compelling as the action that follows.
And my what action! Kurosawa is a craftsman first to most minds and Seven Samurai seems like the high standard for what kind of movies Kurosawa could make at the very peak of his long career. I don’t mean to dilute the national identity of Kurosawa’s work, but obviously part of what made him so internationally accessible (and his earlier film Rashomon end up being the gateway to foreign films once again being welcomed with arms wide open in the US) is his clear influence from John Ford, but I must say there’s so much in Seven Samurai that feels entirely Kurosawa’s own – from his cutting on movement to always keep the movie feeling like it’s rolling and keep our interest on what’s happening (there is an Every Frame a Painting video that comments on Kurosawa’s focus on this), to his disciplined compositions with cinematographer Asakazu Nakai relaying to themselves a geometry for the characters that tells everything. Obviously the ending shot is the most telling example of this and we’ll return to that, but possibly my favorite moments involve a chaotic element imbalancing that discipline in an emotional way even if not literally – like when Kyuzo rushes into the distant enemy to steal rifles and Kurosawa/Asakazu dare to have him disappear into the darkness before a cut or the high flames engulfing a hut as we witness what happened to Rikichi’s (Tsuchiya Yoshio) wife. The inability to sit still or go according to the rules creates drama and you have to follow the rules before you can break them (slight without making grand gestures). Kurosawa spends that first hour establishing those rules and then shakes the audience when it comes to battle.
No moment more chaotic than the central battle close to the finale, when the bandits are exhausted from the samurai’s guerilla tactics and rush into the village en force and Kurosawa/Asakazu opt to have us sit in the middle of the battle captured by the compact focus of the telephoto lens they brought to Japanese cinema, engulfed within it via the telephoto lens. It races following whatever elements it can all the way until the final blow and when somebody is killed, Kurosawa compounds movement by having the shot person LITERALLY CRASH INTO A BAMBOO WALL, giving it more power. If that doesn’t signify Kurosawa’s belief in drama given to movement, I don’t know what does… maybe the direct way a character sits and grouches when in grief.
Anyway, I want to return to that final famous shot of Seven Samurai, a shot given much more devastation by the amount of time spent growing with its characters followed by how much the violence and casualties weigh on our sympathies. It invokes a weariness towards war in the sands moving and the wind whistling with an emptiness communicated (plus the farmers’ cheerful song at the victory is by now completely faded away, instead Hayasaku Fumio’s theme in its most funereal incarnation after a strong fullness all throughout). It invokes an uncertainty of where the survivors will go here (again directly communicated by the final line which is “this victory belongs to those peasants, not to us.”). And the visual division of those lines has such a mathematical element that you have to think about how these deaths are just a constant to the samurai’s lives. The mood and tone of the scene is clear (and it’s obviously deliberate to have this the final image of the whole movie) and what it says overall against war and violence is direct. There’s an obvious dysphoria in message between this moment and the same moment in the remake Magnificent Seven that I will reserve for the time that I may one day talk about Magnificent, but in the meantime… I wanted to leave this simply as testament to Kurosawa’s brilliant control of his imagery and sound to pull the viewer’s heart into the conflicts on screen, the masculine rough personality that covers his work here, and the apparent lasting legacy in nearly every element of the action, writing, and soundtrack blankets international cinema beyond.
Thanks for reading. Oh what’s this? A Patreon page? If you enjoyed my writing and would like to support it, share this post and tell your friends bout Movie Motorbreath on facebook. If that ain’t enough and you really want to give us financial support, go on that Patreon link and get you a bad stick figure of your favorite movie!