Seven Samurai: Criterion Collection
October 3, 2006
Without a doubt, Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954) is the most famous samurai film ever made. It spawned countless imitators all over the world, including Hollywood (most famously remade as the also legendary western, The Magnificent Seven). More importantly, it stands as a powerful statement on the nature of loyalty and honour and a condemnation of the nature of oppression and the futility of war.
A 16th century Japanese village has been ravaged by land tax, forced labour, war, drought and now a deadly band of bandits who take their rice and barley, leaving them with nothing to show for their hard work. The villagers are desperate and heartbroken. They debate about whether to fight back or continue to meekly accept their lot in life. The village elder recommends that they hire hungry samurai to help, with the sage (if not slightly funny) metaphor, “Even bears come down from the mountains when they’re hungry.”
Kurosawa doesn’t sugarcoat the farmers’ impoverished conditions. These are extremely trying times for them and it is visible on the close-ups of their fearful, tired and angry faces. They have nothing left to lose and it makes us extremely sensitive to their cause. A glimmer of hope comes with the arrival of Kambei (Shimura), a veteran samurai passing through and who ends up quickly dispatching a thief who takes one of the villagers’ babies. It is at this point that they know they have found someone who might be sympathetic to their plight.
Accompanying him (sort of) is a young man hoping to be his apprentice and a wild and impulsive samurai by the name of Kikuchiyo (Mifune). Kambei is a thoughtful tactician who figures that they’ll need at least seven samurai to have any kind of chance against forty bandits. He’s a decent man and Takashi Shimura brings a quiet dignity to the role. Kikuchiyo, on the other hand, is in it for the challenge and the visceral thrill of battle. Toshiro Mifune attacks his role with wild abandon, stealing every scene he’s in as well as providing a lot of the film’s lighter moments (especially when he’s drunk). He brings a real physicality to the role which is a nice contrast to Shimura’s more intellectual approach. They play well off each other as Mifune gleefully chews up the scenery while Shimura shows restraint.
Kambei proceeds to recruit six other samurai, each with their own strengths and own unique traits. He is up front with them all: there is no chance of monetary reward or rank, just enough food to eat for as long as they fight. They also stand a real chance of not surviving this battle against such overwhelming odds. Once Kambei has picked the men he needs, they proceed to draw up plans in the hopes of succeeding against insurmountable odds.
Seven Samurai takes its time introducing us to the samurai and setting up the villagers’ dilemma. This allows us to get to know not just the villagers and to sympathize with them but the samurai as well. Kurosawa also uses the film’s lengthy running time to gradually build the tension towards the bandits’ attack. Because we have spent so much time with these characters, there is a genuine concern over what will happen to them whey they finally confront the bandits. Who will live and who will die?
Kurosawa subverts the samurai mythology by presenting them as tragic-heroic figures who know better than to fight to the bitter end. Even at the film’s conclusion, Kambei says, “In the end, we’ve lost this battle too. I mean, the victory belongs to those peasants, not to us.” He realizes that they were fighting for the greater good and not for money or for glory.
On the first disc is an audio commentary by scholars/critics Stephen Prince, David Desser, Tony Rayns, Donald Ritchie and Joan Mellon. The track starts off with a brief summary of Kurosawa’s career at the time that he made the movie, the state of samurai cinema and the historical period in which the film is set. The participants all do a good job analyzing the filmmaker’s style and the film’s themes but it does get a little fawning at times (we know this film is a classic, we don’t need to be constantly reminded). That being said, this is still a very informative track.
There is a second commentary by Japanese film expert Michael Jeck that was included on all previous Criterion editions of this movie and for good reason. He dives right in analyzing the look of the film and how it informs what we are seeing. Jeck also points out how the composition of certain shots illustrates Kurosawa’s pity and contempt that he has for the villagers – something that he shares with Mifune’s character. Jeck does a fantastic job dissecting this film without being too dry and academic about it, delivering a very accessible track.
Also included on this disc are three trailers and a teaser.
“Production Gallery” features a nice collection of behind the scenes stills showing Kurosawa and his cast and crew working on the movie. There is also a small poster gallery showcasing all sorts of variations for various countries.
On the third disc there is “My Life in Cinema: Akira Kurosawa,” a 1993 interview between Kurosawa and fellow Japanese filmmaker Nagisa Oshima. They talk about a wide range of topics, including their early days in the film industry, dealing with the censors, collaborating with other screenwriters, working with actors and the role music plays in movies. This is a fascinating conversation between two veteran filmmakers.
“Seven Samurai: Origins and Influences” is a documentary that examines the history of the samurai in Japanese culture and how it influenced films up to and including Seven Samurai. The samurai were often glamourized and glorified as revered figures. These films gave the Japanese heroes that they could look up to and a sense of pride after World War II. Most importantly, Kurosawa’s film dealt with notions of loyalty, bravery and honour – crucial aspects of Japanese ethics. This is an excellent look at not just the samurai film genre but the samurai code itself.