a review by the Crow
[Note: This will be a little longer than usual.]
With The Magnificent Seven now out, there is no more appropriate time for The Corvid Review to speak about one of the greatest movies of all time (and the film off which The Magnificent Seven is based): Seven Samurai.
I first watched Seven Samurai many years ago. It’s since become part of my annual list of films to re-live. Even among the movies on said list, there’s a certain special charm to the cinema of Kurosawa. The closest I can come to describing it is to point to the sort of charm found in the writing of Philip K. Dick. But let’s stick to the point…
Unlike my usual reviews, this one will be more free-flowing. The plot and the execution displayed in this movie deserve to be spoken about hand-in-hand.
THE FINDING OF HUNGRY SAMURAI
WARNING: THIS SECTION CONTAINS SOME [MINOR] SPOILERS
After overhearing a conversation between a party of raiding bandits, the denizens of a mountainside village ask their local elder for advice. His advice is: hire samurai. The villagers, following the last raid, claim they have no money to pay for said samurai with. The village elder’s prompt response? Find hungry samurai.
Soon after, the village scouts come across Kambei, an older rōnin, who they ask for help. He is at first reluctant, both to the villagers, and to the impressionable Katsushirō – who wants Kambei to take him on as a disciple – but eventually relents.
After reuniting with his old friend Shichirōji, Kambei recruits three more samurai (Heihachi, Gorobei, and master-swordsman Kyūzō). Along with Katsushirō, they start towards the village at the heart of this movie. On the way they are joined by Kikuchiyo, despite the group’s attempts to shoo the strange, scraggly weirdo away.
To step outside the realm of a review for a moment, it’s important to point out that while Kikuchiyo is by far the most popular character from the movie; he also counts as one end of the spectrum of “leading men” in the movie. The way I see it, the spectrum of these “leading men” goes as follows:
Kikuchiyo – Kambei – Kyūzō
Kambei, at the spearhead, is not only the leader of the samurai, but he represents a sort of middle ground between the seven. He is equal parts good natured and strict, and equal parts fierce warrior and battle-weary.
Kyūzō, the quiet swordsmaster, is a stoic, enigmatic figure. While unparalleled in skill, he’s rarely seen unmasked from his stoic self. In a strange way, he lines up almost perfectly with how samurais are viewed in the eyes of those most familiar with casual Western Culture in today’s day and age.
Kikuchiyo, on the other end of the spectrum, is revealed in time – despite the family scroll in his possession – not to be a samurai, but the orphaned child of farmers, is chaotic. He initially comes off as a big dumb oaf – but in time, while his antics continue – a deeper layer is revealed. He almost becomes the ultimate samurai during the events of the movie, despite his status as an outsider.
In a way, putting these three “leading men” back on the scale, we end up with something like the following:
Chaotic – Neutral – Stoic
In multiple ways, we can compare the other samurai, in pairs, around Kambei. While not as striking as the pair I’ve just gone over, it’s important to remember how the movie uses these combinations at times to reveal more about the situation we’re looking in on.
The village is initially in fear of the arriving six samurai (Kikuchiyo in tow). Insulted by such behaviour, Kikuchiyo plays the villagers into revealing themselves to the samurai, which convinces the other six (well, five and a half) to accept him into their fold.
From this point on, the seven samurai set about preparing the village for the raid. And on the surface, that’s really all there is to the general plot.
As with all great movies, however, the true genius of the movie is in the details. If heading into the movie with just the plot as I’ve described it so far, one might be inclined to expect an action movie – which Seven Samurai certainly is – but the movie holds a plethora of storytelling in its grasp.
The samurai themselves are each distinct. It’s easy only to concentrate on the three “leading men” and the relateable young Katsushirō, but on viewing the movie, it becomes apparent that each one has been crafted individually. The performances are also on point, as is expected from a Kurosawa movie. Like I mentioned earlier, they play brilliantly off each other, all revolving around the central figure of Kambei. As someone not very attuned to the Japanese sensibilities of how people interact outside of my exposure to their media and bits and pieces from friends (etc.), I have zero problems accessing these characters. The movie provides a slice of how the societies in question work and look. In effect, it offers a brilliant insight into Japan at the time, breaking though any and all cultural barriers that might stop one from understanding why the people involved do what they do. Nothing is lost in translation.
THE WARINESS OF FARMERS
One of the movie’s strengths is showing the divisions between the protectors and the protected. While the samurai are united, and only squabble between themselves twice, the villagers are more… complicated.
While silent throughout, their issues are presented to the viewer through Rikichi and Yohei, our two main villager characters. Another character to watch out for is Manzo, but in this review, I’ll be skipping over him lest I go into full-blown “analysis” mode.
It’s an interesting view, this fear of the protectors from the view of the protected. We get only glimpses of the villagers en masse, but through the eyes of our aforementioned gateway characters (among a few others) and the samurai, we find out quite a lot about who they are, where they come from, and eventually – where they’ll go.
A surprising revelation comes soon. When Kikuchiyo brings his six brothers-in-arms armour and weapons from within the village, the samurai become angry. They posit that the armour and weapons have most probably been looted from samurai who were killed by the villagers. Kikuchiyo fiercely responds that samurai are themselves responsible for misery – they are the cause of fights, rapes, raids, and multiple sorts of oppression upon villagers; during his outburst, he outs himself as the orphaned child of farmers – making himself into a sort of bridge between the samurai and the farmers, despite his strange ways around people.
The villagers pay the samurai in rice in exchange for their services. Food is an integral part of the movie. The villagers produce food for survival, the samurai work for food because the farmers claim they have nothing else to give, and the bandits raid the village in search of material gains such as food. In a way, food becomes a character in its own right in the movie.
Over time, as the samurai train the farmers and form defences, bonds are created. However, these remain in the background. The young Katsushirō forms a relationship with a village girl (Shinyo), which leads to a small subplot, but in general, only Rikichi finds a story among the villagers. A preemptive strike on the bandits by the samurai reveals that Rikichi’s wife had been kidnapped in a prior raid and has been turned into a comfort woman for the bandits. In trying to save her from committing suicide, Rikichi runs into the burning hut, and Heihachi dies trying to save him.
Rikichi’s subplot forms a counterpoint to the samurai’s approach against the bandits. In a way, Rikichi is at once both a face for the villagers and yet a character unique amongst the members of the cast. It’s certainly quite interesting how the movie manages to investigate minor characters like him for just the right amount of time to provide us the optimum dose of storytelling.
In one especially stunning scene, Gisaku’s house is burning down during a counterattack by the bandits, with the elder and his family still inside. Kikuchiyo only manages to save one tiny infant. He breaks down with the child in his hands, the burning house behind him, and reveals to us that this is where he comes from. He is the product of violence, and now finds himself circling back to square one.
The dynamics between the villagers and the samurai make up a big chunk of the film, but are handled subtly (with the exception of Rikichi) and are easy to miss. Picking up on the little clues peppered throughout the film is just one of the little things that makes Seven Samurai so rewatchable.
THE PREYING OF BANDITS
Last, but certainly not least, we come to the final aspect that the movie excels at: the action. Seven Samurai is one of the finest action movies of all time. The key to what makes it so amazing is the amount of realism on display.
Here, there is none of the hyperbole commonly seen in action movies. This is aiming arrows in torrential rain, this is people being gutted while on their backs in the muck, this is one shot-one kill rules. The rain which comes down upon the village during the climactic battle of the movie is the perfect backdrop to the action. Soil loosens and forms mud, characters lose footing, the blades are confused in the mass of activity. Kurosawa’s use of rain in his movies is masterful, and Seven Samurai is no exception.
One more thing to discuss is the bandits themselves. They aren’t really characters per se. They’re more of a force of nature than anything. They come after the harvest, like the rain, to sweep away the products of the farmers’ toil. They’re nearly a faceless mass, only animated when they interact with either the village, or the samurai.
A highlight of the battle scenes involves Kikuchiyo sneaking out, done up as a bandit, and going behind enemy lines (against the orders of Kambei). He shares a small scene with a clueless bandit before killing him and making off with one of the bandits’ firearms. This single scene manages to be a highlight in three ways: it’s a highlight of Kikuchiyo’s, a highlight of the movie’s humour, and a fine action scene. This is what great direction is all about. It’s a perfect sell for the movie.
In the end, however, the action of Seven Samurai has to be experienced first hand. All I can say without piecing through each great scene is that it’s excellent.
PROTECTORS AND THE PROTECTED
This is the kind of man I’d want to lead the defence of a village. Level-headed and firm in his ways, Kambei is unquestionably the spearhwad of our heroes.
The beating heart of the movie, an orphaned child of farmers, the last character to be added into the movie because Kurosawa and his screenwriters realised that:
His antics are charming, his passions run high, and he is a tragic character who will not be pitied. Just give him some sake and watch him soar.
Solid character all-around. He forms a counterpoint to his old friend Kambei, as they’ve both been through the same things. At the end of the movie, they go through it again. With Kambei, Shichirōji repeats history. He’s a reminder to us that Kambei is not going through this alone. An important thing to point out us that he’s the one to whom the film’s final lines of dialogue are delivered.
After reuniting with his old friend Shichirōji, Kambei recruits three more samurai (Heihachi, Gorobei, and master-swordsman Kyūzō), and Katsushirō.
Mr Awesome himself. Kyūzō is by far the deadliest of the samurai. His final scene is a harsh reminder of how fragile even the strongest of us can be. Do not take this guy on with a sword. Use sticks. Using a deadly weapon would be folly.
Oh, young Katsushirō, how cruel you’ve found the world to be. After running away from his affluent family, he wishes to be taken under Kambei’s wing, and is mesmerised by the enigmatic Kyūzō. His short-lived romance with Shino, and how things turn out for him after the film’s climactic battle is almost heart-breaking. But this is Japan of-the-Katsushirō leaves us just as the movie leaves him: hanging.
The big, smiling samurai. It’s a shame we get so little time with him, but just as Kikuchiyo is the heart of the movie, Heihachi is the heart of our seven samurai, and is responsible for their war-banner.
A strategist who helps Kambei organise the defensive plan for the village. He is not much of a fighter, in his own words. Both he and Heihachi are the first to point out their limitations, and yet, they have the fibre to go along with Kambei.
Oh, how cruel the world is to Rikichi. There’s not much I can say about him that I haven’t said already. A truly solid character.
I won’t hear a single word against my beloved uncle Yohei. If you disagree, go away. The scene in which he picks up scattered grains of rice – in fear of what the samurai will think when they find out that the rice has been stolen – is especially heart-wrenching; especially for a scene so early on in the movie. He’s a solid character who acts as a face for the majority of the villagers.
The poster-boy for all wise village elders. The performance is excellent.
THE PASSING OF HEROES
The final scenes of the movie are heartbreaking. Unlike most action movies, the victory condition here is not total. Yes, friends are lost along the way. No, not everyone makes it. Yes, the bandits are defeated. No, the samurai do not win.
I won’t talk about what happens, but I will talk about the genius displayed in the final moments of the movie. It takes something we’ve all lost sight of during our time with the samurai and the farmers and the bandits, and presents it naked in front of us. It’s almost an act of cruelty. The movie denies us the ending we want and tells us how it’ll end instead. In doing so, it rejects us from the fictional world we’ve escaped into and reminds us that all battles have consequences extending far beyond the ideas of “winning” and “losing”.
Seven Samurai‘s anchor to reality, it’s denial of fiction, and its overall composition all qualify it as being one of the greatest movies ever made. And this crow agrees.