Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Seven Samurai (1954) - Akira Kurosawa

You see this is why I think The Internet Movie Data Base is a bad tool for the average monkey to judge films with. It always bugs me when someone mentions what the score for a film is on the IMDB. After all, those numbers only prove that people in general know naff all about what they watch, and probably spend more time thinking of what score to give, than reflecting on said film. Let's face it rating films, or music, or anything come to that, is such a lazy way to express what you thought of something. I never rate films in that way, or music, or books, or sex for that matter. At most I'll say I thought it was good or bad and give my reasons why, although not normally with the sex thing to be honest. At the time of writing this Seven Samurai, one of the greatest films ever made, has an IMDB rating of (drum roll) 8.8 out of 10. Shocking. How anyone can find any kind of fault with this film is beyond me. Just to put it in perspective Avatar has a rating of 8.3, so does that mean it's almost as good as Seven Samurai? Maybe the people that rate films drive big cars and have a dog called Tyson, if you know what I mean.

So let's move on shall we? This was Kurosawa's 14th film, and by my reckoning his third masterpiece. It was his first foray into the Jidaigeki (samurai films to you and me) genre, the style of film with which he'd eventually become most associated. Some think of this as his finest moment, which is a pretty tough call to make since he made so many stone cold classics. However if you want to name this one above all the others, then be my guest, I won't argue. Seven Samurai has been remade twice in the west. First in 1960 as The Magnificent Seven, and then 20 years later as Battle Beyond the Stars. Neither version comes close to the mastery of Kurosawa's epic though, and one (Battle Beyond the Stars) failed to even credit the great man.

The story itself is pretty simple. Japan 1580's, small village of farmers get wind that a gang of bandits are going to rob them of their crops after the harvest, so the villagers decide to hire samurai to protect themselves. Well you would, wouldn't you? In fact so simple is the story that you might wonder just why the running time is well over three hours. Well the answer is that Kurosawa was a big fan of procedural film making, showing his audience the minutest details of sometimes the most ordinary of things. In contrast some of the more obvious events that an average director would absolutely show, Kurosawa saw fit to skip over. For example when we first meet Shimada (played by Kurosawa regular Takashi Shimura), he is shaving off that most sacred of the samurai's garb, his topknot. We spend a fair bit of time watching this act from a number of different viewpoints. It turns out he's doing this so that he can pose as a monk, in order to enter a barn and rescue a child that is being held hostage inside. So normally you'd expect to see the action between the bad guy and the samurai after such a build up, but instead we linger outside with the onlookers, never seeing the swordplay. We only witness the after effects, as the kidnapper stumbles out into the open and falls (in a rare use of slow motion in a Kurosawa film), to the floor, dead.

Instead of seeing the samurai rounded up via montage, we get to see each one being recruited individually. I'm fairly sure that this cinema staple was first employed here. We learn more about the character of the samurai and their effect on the group dynamic this way. Just like the Seven Dwarfs, each of the titular samurai has their own personalities, some are novices, others old hands, some have seen combat, others not. In the same way Kurosawa doesn't just hurl us into a battle between the samurai and the bandits, he takes us around the village via Shimada, and allows us in on the battle plan, building tension and anticipation for the climax of the film - when they finally do fight. There are also many small sub plots involving the villagers and of course the samurai. It really is the tightest of scripts, and considering the length of the film (207 minutes), it amazes me just how quickly it flies by.

There are so many great moments, but for me the real clincher (with the exception of the ending), is when that other Kurosawa regular Toshirô Mifune (playing Kikuchiyo, a wannabe samurai who turns out to be a farmer's son), is half submerged in a river while holding a baby he has rescued. He breaks down, crying that the child was him all those years ago. Heartbreaking stuff, it really is.

Then there's the ending. That final battle that takes place in Kurosawa's famous rain. It always rains in Kurosawa films, and that rain is always heavy and normally (although not always) signifies impending doom. Now Seven Samurai over ran it's shooting schedule by a colossal amount, for various reasons including Kurosawa falling ill at one point. Anyway it ended up shooting for almost a year, so the end scenes that were originally due to be shot during the summer, actually ended up going before the cameras in the dead of winter. So when you watch Seven Samurai next, have a think about that when you see Mifune running about pretty much naked from the waste down, up to his knees in freezing cold water. You'd never know how uncomfortable it was from the madness on screen.

Of course the whole film looks gorgeous, AK was a master at framing and it is evident here, just look at how he frames the samurai when they are just sitting around. Flawless. The cast and crew are made up of people that Kurosawa would return to again and again, every one of them perfect in their roles. If there is one thing that is important about a film it's the ending, always end with a strong image. Seven Samurai opens with a shot of the hills surrounding the village, and ends with a shot of the burial mounds that echoes that opening shot. As I say this is a flawless film, one that should be watched again and again. It deserves it's reputation as one of the greats. It'll be interesting to see just what we'll still be watching and discussing from 2010 in fifty years time. Avatar maybe? I hope not.

No comments:

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...