Discovering Kurosawa: Seven Samurai

seven-samuraiThis is the start of a new series where I document my first experience of Akira Kurosawa’s filmography. I saw Rashomon and Ran several years ago and admired them, but in Ran’s case in particular I suspected its achievements would be best understood in the context of Kurosawa’s earlier work. My growing love of Japanese cinema also demands a proper engagement with Kurosawa and I’m excited by the prospect. This won’t be in strict chronological order due to film availability, but where better to start anyway than the towering Seven Samurai.

Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai is considered foundational to both the action-adventure movie and the wider appreciation of foreign cinema in the West. Such films don’t necessarily have the same impact on the viewer decades later due to the imitators and beneficiaries that came in their wake, so I was prepared for the possibility that Seven Samurai is a film to admire rather than adore.

I did not need to be. Not only is it a tremendously engaging and thoroughly skilled film in its own right, Seven Samurai has deepened my appreciation for Kurosawa and mid-20th century Japanese cinema in general. I’m now hungry to devour more of his work, more samurai films, and as many Japanese films as I can muster.

At the outset, the running time seems far too long for the premise. Three-and-a-half hours for seven guys defending a village from a siege? Surely that much time only makes sense for epics spanning years with a huge cast of characters. Yet Seven Samurai is paced perfectly, never lagging despite realistically presenting the siege as one small attack after another over many days. The cast of principal characters isn’t even that large to sustain such a running time, but they’re so endearing and Kurosawa’s storytelling so efficient and confident that it’s hard to imagine much being cut out, which it nonetheless was for its original Western release.

This methodical pacing is one of the key lessons that’s been passed down to the best adventure films that followed. Every scene in such a script has to either build character or advance the plot, and preferably both. Those scenes then have to be tightly performed and edited for maximum effect while creating the illusion of slowing the pace in between set pieces. Seven Samurai doesn’t go off on tangents before eventually returning to the main narrative. With the exception of Katsushiro and Shino’s taboo romance, all the character-based stories and interludes feed into the main plot, such as Rikichi’s search for his wife and Kambei’s rescue of the child that brings him to the villagers’ attention.

Not every film has to be produced with such rigorous discipline, but the inherent momentum of action-adventure cinema demands it. Many of today’s action movies have taken this too far. They opt to increase pacing by reducing the duration of shots to staccato effect and filling the frame with CG elements to bombard the senses. However, they neglect the vital efficiencies needed in the screenplay. Lacking any special effects at all, Seven Samurai reminds us that a satisfying, memorable, and rewatchable action-adventure film is achievable by excelling at the fundamentals, many of which Kurosawa established or cemented here.

A key way to ensure the audience’s investment is to give them a sense of ownership over the characters’ plans by laying them out and making the significance of each achievement clear. We see the samurai and the villagers fortify the roads into the village and point out the few dwellings outside it that will be harder to defend. This gives us a clear understanding of the geography, aided by constant reminders as the characters walk around as they talk. The samurai leader, Kambei, also has a chart representing each bandit with a black X, which we see him cross off one by one as bandits are killed. They also learn the bandits have three guns. It doesn’t really matter that there might be more guns the scouts didn’t see because we now have a target to whittle down. It’s never unclear what is happening or still has to happen while watching Seven Samurai, a virtue other films underestimate by assuming we just need to be thrilled by action with no need to understand its context.

We also need to care about the characters carrying out the plan. While some of the samurai stand out more than others, each is clearly established with a distinctive trait: the leader, the leader’s old friend, the exceptional swordsman, the cheerful one, etc. They each contribute vitally at some point as well, especially Toshiro Mifune’s Kikuchiyo. He follows the now-familiar arc of the misfit who wants to help, is scorned by the old hands, but soon proves his unique worth. The other samurai wouldn’t have thought to draw out the villagers by pretending the bandits had arrived, nor dress up as a bandit in order to trick them out of a gun. So we have multiple successes to root for: the defence of the village and Kikuchiyo’s contribution to it.

And we have plenty of time to build that investment. Despite the film’s efficiency, it’s not relentless or rushed. Very little action occurs until the siege begins. Kurosawa spends the time immersing us in the setting, introducing us to the characters, and setting up the chessboard. We have time to savour the period detail. But the imminent attack hangs over everything, enhancing our empathy for the characters and our appreciation of the numerous light moments that endear them to us even more.

Absorbing the detail and texture of that world is what’s going to bring me back to Seven Samurai again and again. Despite its length, I didn’t want it to end. I wanted more of these characters, to spend more time in Kurosawa’s evocation of samurai-era Japan. Fortunately he made more samurai films, but even if he hadn’t there would be more to discover and appreciate in Seven Samurai on the next viewing. Classic action-adventure films not only have diligently executed narratives and action sequences, they build a world you yearn to return to. I now understand why Seven Samurai is considered the template for that magical combination.

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