A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Seven Samurai (Akira Kurosawa,1954)

It's a truism -- one that I've often echoed -- that silent movies and talkies constitute two distinct artistic media, and to judge the one by the standards of the other is an error. But it's almost impossible to watch films made by older directors, especially those who came of age when silent films were being made, without noticing the efforts they make to tell their stories without speech. It's true of John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock, and Howard Hawks, even though they, especially Hawks, became masters of dialogue in their films. And it's true of Kurosawa, who although he didn't begin his career in films until 1936 and directed his first one in 1943, was born in 1910 and grew up with silent movies. I think it helped him learn the universals of storytelling that are independent of language, so that he became the most popular of all Japanese filmmakers. Others rank the work of Ozu or Mizoguchi more highly, but Kurosawa's films manage to transcend the limitations of subtitles more easily. Of none of his films is this more true than Seven Samurai, which is also generally regarded, even by those with reservations about Kurosawa's work, as his masterpiece. That's not a word I use lightly, but having sat enthralled through the uncut version, three hours and 27 minutes long, last night, I'm willing to endorse it. It's an exhilarating film, with none of the longueurs that epics -- I'm thinking of Gone With the Wind (Victor Fleming, 1939) and Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean, 1962) -- so easily fall into. I don't know of any action film with as many vividly drawn characters, and that's largely because Kurosawa takes the time to delineate each one. It's also a film about its milieu, 16th-century Japan, although as its American imitation, The Magnificent Seven (John Sturges, 1960), shows, there's a universality about the antagonism between fighters and farmers. Kurosawa captures this particularly well in the character of Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune), the would-be samurai who reveals in mid-film that he was raised as a farmer and carried both a kind of self-hate for his class along with a hatred for the arrogant treatment of farmers by samurai. Mifune's show-off performance is terrific, but the film really belongs to Takashi Shimura, who radiates stillness and wisdom as Kambei Shimada, the leader of the seven. There are clichés to be found, such as the fated romance of the young samurai trainee Katsushiro (Isao Kimura) and the farmer's daughter Shino (Keiko Tsushima), but like the best clichés, they ring true. Seven Samurai earned two Oscar nominations, for So Matsuyama's art direction and Kohei Ezaki's costumes, but won neither. Overlooking Kurosawa's direction, Shimura's performance, and Asakazu Nakai's cinematography is unforgivable, if exactly what one expects from the Academy.