Seven Samurai

Looking for any excuse, Landon Palmer and Scott Beggs are using the 2012 Sight & Sound poll results as a reason to take different angles on the best movies of all time. Every week, they’ll discuss another entry in the list, dissecting old favorites from odd angles, discovering movies they haven’t seen before and asking you to join in on the conversation. Of course it helps if you’ve seen the movie because there will be plenty of spoilers.

This week, they celebrate the magical ability of Akira Kurosawa‘s Seven Samurai to thrive despite giving birth to a plot cliche that refuses to die. 

In the #17 (tied) movie on the list, poor townsfolk turn to a band of samurai to help protect them from brutal bandits.

But why is it one of the best movies ever?

Landon: So the other day, I had the pleasure of watching a film about a band of comrades who gather together for a common goal, each with their own set of special skills and their respective unique characteristics necessary to contribute to the overall collective plan.

But enough about Justin Lin’s Fast Five, let’s talk about Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai.

Scott: You mean, enough about Ocean’s Eleven and Ocean’s Eleven (2001).

Landon: Erm, no, sorry, I was talking about The Magnificent Seven. I often confuse Yul Brenner and The Rock.

Scott: Are you sure you weren’t talking about The Dirty Dozen? Or The Guns of Navarone?

Landon: So it’s safe to say that Seven Samurai is responsible for a narrative trope that has since shown up in quite a lot of movies: banding together a group with special skills for a greater common task.

Scott: You didn’t even let me mention A Bug’s Life or Battle Beyond the Stars.

But, yes. That’s definitely safe to say. And often that task is to protect a group that cannot protect itself.

Landon: Yeah, that’s probably a good way to identify its influence more strictly. And that way, A Bug’s Life and Magnificent Seven end up on the same list (again).

Scott: Now with more Galaxy Quest!

I’m sorry. I’ll stop now.

Landon: My challenge to you is to find a way to say “Now with more Galaxy Quest” at some other point in the Top 50…But since we’re talking about Seven Samurai, it’s striking to me that Ozu and Kurosawa dominate the Japanese portion of this list, but where Ozu makes films about contemporary life, his have cultural elements that are difficult to translate. Kurosawa’s historical dramas, from Rashomon to The Hidden Fortress to this, have been made so readily for appropriation by Western filmmaking.

Why do Kurosawa’s films, or this one in particular, have such lasting cross-ocean appeal?

Scott: Because of the Badass Factor. At its core, Seven Samurai is a violent hero’s journey with more heroes. That appeals to that part of us that wants to round up a posse. What’s not to love?

Landon: There’s something rich and not-at-all overwhelming here about having seven major characters. it’s hard to balance out the relationships amongst the ensemble in a lot of these films, but none of these individual’s samurai’s skills feel arbitrary to the overall plot. That’s why at three and a half hours, it still feels surprisingly brisk and fast-paced.

It’s cinema on a different time scale. It takes an hour to choose the seven, but still feels like a discovery, never drawn out.

Scott: A big portion of that is the director’s ability to make character interactions fascinating. Not many could pull that off, especially considering how easily you can assemble a crew through the magic of editing. Everybody gets one scene, done deal, onto the second act. Action time. That’s how Beerfest did it.

But Seven Samurai also has its leads — Takashi Shimura and Toshiro Mifune in particular. Not that I’ve tallied up the screen time, but it’s pretty clear Minoru Chiaki is there for comic relief.

Landon: I think they steal the show not only beacuse they’re leads, but they provide a nice contrast: Shimura’s Kambei is patient, introspective, and wise, whereas Mifune’s Kikuchiyo is an ambitious, fly-by-the-seat-of-the-pants hothead. But he has the energy that the traditional samurai need. Of course he gets the inspiring monologue, but what a showcase for these two actors.

Scott: No doubt, but you know what’s most interesting is how well this movie holds up despite being mined so thoroughly for its concept. Like we joked before, it’s been copied and re-copied and re-re-copied, but the original seems timeless.

Landon: Like Michael Keaton in Multiplicity.

Scott: Exactly. It cannot be diluted. Although I wonder what a younger first-time viewer might say.

Landon: I think for someone who has never seen a Kurosawa film, Mifune’s acting style might feel exaggerated. But, especially at three-and-a-half hours, I find it hard not to get enveloped in the world of this film.

Scott: Oddly enough, I’d argue that the timelessness of the movie benefits directly from how much it’s been copied. If there were only one modern movie that stole the concept and became famous, Kurosawa buffs would be screaming constantly that Seven Samurai did it first against a wave of unknowing popularity.

Landon: So no newer iterations have quite been able to match the greatness of the original?

Scott: It’s not exactly that. It’s that so many have been successful. It’s a fully fledged trope, so it’s not like a first-time viewer would subconsciously fault Seven Samurai for doing something they’ve seen before.

It’s the Die Hard of fighting movies.

Landon: I agree. I can’t say exactly what it is, but there’s something that still feels really fresh about this film that still outperforms its perfectly enjoyable imitators. Maybe all those other films feel like they’re playing out this trope. Whereas here, it’s simply Seven Samurai.

Scott: There’s purity in the original. You can actively feel that they’re copying it?

Landon: Not that they’re copying Seven Samurai specifically or feel derivative, but there’s something of a ritual when you see a group of characters with specific talents gathered together to complete a task. There’s a procession to introducing the characters that doesn’t feel forced, but does feel self-conscious. But not so in Seven Samurai.

Scott: That makes sense, but that’s because we know it was the first of its kind.

Landon: True, but I’d like to argue that it seems natural to the plot of this film. Perhaps it’s a bad example to prove the rule, but that’s why I opened with Fast Five, as it’s an example of this at its most absurd. It’s the fifth film in a series that was never about this trope, and the characters never end up using the talents that supposedly justifies their presence in the film.

On another front, Seven Samurai is both Kurosawa’s longest film and, historically, his most popular. Is this his magnum opus (an appropriate summation of a great career), or are we missing a few things that make Kurosawa Kurosawa in his other films?

Scott: Wow. As for all the elements? Probably not. It’s missing the experimental editing of Rashomon, the intense character work of Dodes’ka-den, and the dark torment of something like Throne of Blood. I’m not sure that any singular film can capture the spirit of a filmmaker who delivered so many amazing (and diverse) movies. Although it somehow proves that he got samurai right the first time he tried.

Landon: Agreed and agreed. And I’d add to that the incredible palette of his late color films and the reciprocal Western influence on movies like Yojimbo. Seven Samurai is a vast, incredibly influential film, and it’s such a testament to Kurosawa that it didn’t obscure the rest of his career.

Scott: And, if we’re being honest, it’s not like the structure was ingenious or anything. It was why-didn’t-we-think-of-that-before? smart. And it’s actually borrowed from his own real-world research. The joys of this movie are far more numerous than what other scripts have been able to crib. But in a funny way, it’s exactly that repeatability that’s cemented the movie in its historical significance.

Landon: It goes back to my theory that all cinema history can be taught through The Mighty Ducks.

Scott: It’s the Kevin Bacon of movies.

Landon: Six Degrees of Samuraition.

Next Week: Ingmar Bergman’s Persona

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