Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Seven Samurai (Movie Review)

"What's the use of worrying about your beard when your head's about to be taken?" ~Gisaku in Seven Samurai

Seven Samurai (1954) is #5 on IMDB's "Top 250 Films of All Time" list, and Entertainment Weekly ranks it #12.

What I am about to say, consequently, may border on sacrilege to movie fans of all types.

I thought this film was "OK."

Perhaps it was the build up, which created unrealistic expectations. Perhaps it was the language barrier, or the 50 years that have passed since Samurai was filmed (both of which increase the chances of symbolism being lost). Or maybe it really was just the annoying Portia-type villager, whose indecipherable tantrums somehow won the heart of the youngest samurai.

Whatever 'it' was, I was often irritated by 'it.' I was frustrated with the villagers, whose inability to defend themselves struck me as being a caricature more than a reality: Their meager walks. Their panic-stricken faces. The way they all ran out towards the invading bandits, screaming and crying when a mill outside of the fortress was burned (a terrible loss, certainly, but they seemed to sometimes completely forget why they hired the samurai in the first place).

Which reminds me: a synopsis is in order.

Shichinin no samurai helped establish director Akira Kurosawa in the international film industry. The movie weighs in at 160 minutes, and catalogues the struggle 16th century Japanese farmers face when their small village is threatened by bandits. Desperate to save their women and crops from another rape & pillage, they recruit seven samurai to protect their village, too poor to offer anything more than three staple meals a day as compensation.

It takes a very unusual (or desperate) type of samurai to sell his services for so little, and the resultant brood helped sustain my interest for much of the film. They have only a limited amount of time to prepare for the next attack, and the villagers themselves prove to be a bit of a challenge: the farmers have a hard time distinguishing the motives of the invading bandits from the hired warriors, and so disguise their daughters as sons; hide their sake; and are reticent to take arms to defend themselves.

In theory, this is a great film. And there are great elements (the cinematography and art direction were excellent), and I appreciate that Kurosawa was able to craft the "first modern action film" (IMDB.com). But everything I appreciated about the film was offset by the behavior of the villagers, whose screams, cries and deceits often put them in harm's way (I found Shino to be especially grating). The Catch-22 being much of the film's suspense relied on the villager's stupidity (and the film is suspenseful).

As for the samurai: even the unlikeable ones grew on me. Their characters were so well-defined, it didn't matter that I couldn't remember their names — until some closing scenes, I knew who said what simply because Kurosawa did an amazing job "creating" each. I even grew to admire the grunting Kikuchiyo, whose crazy tirades were often as annoying as Shino's shrieks (the difference being, I never grew to like her).

But my favorite samurai was, without question, the leader of the pack: Kambei Shimada (played by Takashi Shimura). Gregarious and ethical, Shimura played the part so well that I actually suspected he had been a well-behaved samurai — or Buddhist priest —off-screen (turns out Shimura was descended from a samurai family). Or, to connect his character more to western culture... Shimada is the Gandalf or Dumbledore of the film. Only question in regards to him: is there some symbolism behind the head rubbing? I realize he shaved his noggin early in the film to take on the appearance of a priest — and I know hair styles signified one's role in society — but he often ran his hands over his scalp whenever he was thinking... or amused.

I like this film more as I write about it. But even as my impression grows more favorable, I'm still unable to admire it as greatly as I had hoped.

1 comment:

michele said...

It is a long movie, isn't it? After years and years of feeling guilty that I hadn't yet watched this movie (claiming to be a film buff... or at least film buff in training) I sat down to it. You've wonderfully captured what the experience of watching the movie was like - there were times I admit I hit the fast forward button - but I also now know why so many filmmakers count this as one of those films critical to the history of the medium. Nice review!