‘Seven Samurai’ (1954), directed by Akira Kurosawa, is acknowledged as one of the greatest films ever made. Set in Japan in 1587, it’s the story of a village of poor farmers who hire seven ronin (masterless samurai) to protect them from bandits who will return after the harvest to steal their crops. Kurosawa, widely regarded as Japan’s greatest director, would go on to make other essential movies, including ‘Throne Of Blood’ (1957), ‘Yojimbo’ (1961), and ‘Ran’ (1985), but ‘Seven Samurai’ remained his defining work.
I originally heard about it, like many westerners, via the American adaptation, ‘The Magnificent Seven’ (1960), which substituted samurai for cowboys. However, I didn’t actually see Kurosawa’s masterpiece until the mid-’80s, and even then only less than half of it. I caught it late at night on Channel Four, and it really left its mark on me. I recall that it gave me a sense of what an actual battle would have been like back then – it was as though I wasn’t watching a film, but a real life event from hundreds of years ago somehow caught on camera. It depicted the grittiness of the life / death struggle of those times with depth and heart. Apart from the obvious language aspect , it was different from western films in a number of ways, most clearly to me in the silences, which enabled you to, after what might seem a simple straightforward line of dialogue, gradually absorb a whole new level of meaning, the gravity of what was spoken not being apparent on the surface. It’s like the saying ‘the penny dropped’ – western movie goers are used to things moving along much more quickly, so sometimes there isn’t sufficient time for the penny to drop, the director cramming everything in to cater to a shorter attention span. Seven Samurai allows space to breathe, and it’s within this space where you can find some of its greatest rewards.
It wouldn’t be until April 1998 that I finally saw the full film, and it blew me away big time. I’d spoken about it to my friend, Timmy Collins, and he’d managed to get hold of a VHS copy in London, which he brought up to Liverpool for us to see. We watched it whilst he was here, but it was after he’d gone that I fully sunk it in, obsessively devouring it over and over, fascinated with all the small nuances that informed the sheer scope of the bigger picture.
Since then I’ve watched it numerous times, most recently just a few weeks ago with my son. I wasn’t sure if, at 12 years old, it’d go over his head somewhat. Given that we live in an age of 3D special FX-packed blockbusters, a sub-titled black and white Japanese film from the ’50s that’s regarded as extremely long at three hours and ten minutes, is something most adults these days, let alone kids, would struggle with. However, he really enjoyed it, and I’d imagine it to be the first of many viewings for him in the years and decades to come.
On the back of watching it again, I wanted to do a blog post. I remembered that I’d once written something about it in a pad, in the pre-computer days before my son was born, and a few days ago I managed to dig it out. It was in a folder, along with some other writings leading up to the time of his birth in ’98. I can see that I was thinking of him (or her – we didn’t know the sex until a few months later) when I was writing about ‘Seven Samurai’ and the other things that filled the pages late at night. This was helping to give me meaning throughout a difficult part of my life, which can be summed up by the following sentence I committed to paper at the time; ‘The image of myself I’m most frequently identified with is of someone wasting their life in a state of apathy, not knowing what I want or where I’m going. Lost.”
It was during this period, leading up to my son’s arrival, that I began to resolve this personal struggle. It would be a slow process, and all ties-in with my eventual return to the DJ world, but the seeds of my salvation were certainly planted here, both literally and figuratively, as I can clearly see reading back on what I wrote throughout that year of birth and regeneration.
So here’s part of what I wrote about ‘Seven Samurai’, which I’ve adapted here, focusing on the three key characters – Kambei (the leader), Kyuzu (the Zen-like warrior) and Kikuchio (the crazy one).
Kambei (played by Takashi Shimura) was reluctant to accept the villagers’ request for help, but his eventual decision came from deep compassion rather than any personal gain. He’s old in the tooth and can see the folly of younger days, he is a wise man who understands the nature of people, and he is a master of strategy who understands the rules of war, knowing what’s going to happen in advance of its happening. Shimura also has one of the greatest smiles I’ve ever seen light up the silver screen, which serves to perfectly captures the humility of his character.
When he first appears he’s agreed to a request to rescue a child from a kidnapper who’s trapped in a barn. He knows ‘sly man’ for he shaves his head and changes into a monk’s robes before tackling the kidnapper, and this impression of monk, or holy man, seems to stay throughout the film, although he is a man expert in killing other men.
Kyuzo (played by Seiji Miyaguchi) is samurai in every sense of the meaning. He thinks, feels, eats, sleeps samurai, constantly in the moment and very much the master of himself. He doesn’t want to kill men, but to perfect his art, and initially turns down Kambei’s request.
He first appears fighting kendo style with another man. A crowd has gathered and Kambei and the young Katsushiro, who wants Kambei to be his teacher, stop to watch. Kyuzo’s opponent declares the fight a draw, but Kyuzo tells him he would be dead had they used real swords. His opponent gets angry and grabs his sword challenging Kyuzo. Kyuzo tries to walk away but is forced to fight, and Kambei comments to young Katsushiro about how senseless it is, and how it’s obvious what will happen. The fight is over with the first blow, and the way everything freezes, before Kyuzo’s opponent keels over and dies, is a powerful image, as is the appearance of Kyuzo later that night when Kambei sees him standing in the doorway. The look on his face is haunting (maybe haunted), I couldn’t describe it but it’s something that hits you with weight. Kambei is glad to see him, for he knows Kyuzo’s level, he knows this is no ordinary warrior (as he’d stated earlier to Gorobei, with regards to the one that got away).
The shot of Kyuzo sitting at the base of the tree awaiting the return of the bandits’ scouts, surrounded by a sea of flowers, is as heavy an image as I’ve seen on the screen. The knowledge that here’s a man, amidst all this beauty, about to kill, yet totally ‘at one’ with himself, is overwhelming. Looking from the perspective of the young Katsushiro, who is there under instructions to watch only, adds further depth. Katsushiro is naturally afraid, and worried about the outcome, yet here’s this total vision of peace before him. He can see the scouts returning, Kyuzo acts, and it’s over in seconds. Later, when Kyuzo goes out from the camp to capture a gun, which he returns with some hours later, pronouncing ‘killed two’ before sitting down, sword in hand, to sleep, Katsushiro can’t hold himself back from telling Kyuzo how great he is. Kyuzo is also master to Katsushiro, not by words but by example. Katsushiro is blown away by Kyuzo’s modesty, and sees within him the true spirit of samurai.
Kikuchiyo (played by Toshiro Mifune) is the most complex of all the characters. Although he announces himself as a samurai (something Kambei immediately sees through) it later transpires he was born the son of a farmer, whose family was killed by bandits when he was a baby, and whose anger and pain was worn on his sleeve. He is very much human in his actions and expressions, and is, as such, a complete opposite to Kyuzo. Amidst the chaos of his emotions is a wisdom of human nature – he knows the farmers for what they are, and in this aspect he is far wiser than even Kambei. He is a formidable man, larger than life and a fierce fighter. He is also a fool, a drunkard, a misfit and a show off. His interaction with the village kids shows the humility of his true nature – the children love him.
He finds his place with the samurai, although he’s always an individual and never really one of them. His impulses can’t be tolerated within samurai code, but despite this he is valued for his bravery and humour, plus his understanding of what makes the villagers tick, as powerfully illustrated in his defence of them in his impassioned ‘you damned samurai’ discourse. During the final battle he distinguishes himself, fighting like a man possessed (or rather, fighting like a man even more possessed). Kikuchiyo was fearless and loved the fight – he was very ‘come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough!’ In the credits to the film he is described as the ‘crazy samurai’, but much of this madness had method, which I feel Kikuchiyo was aware of, playing the role of mad nomad, wandering from place to place in an attempt to escape the pain of his past until meeting his destiny. Kikuchiyo wasn’t even his real name, but an assumed identity, which the samurai saw through, and later jokily accepted.
THE SEVEN SAMURAI:
1.KAMBEI SHIMANDA – leader and first samurai to be hired by the villagers. Survivor.
2.KATAYAMA GOROBEI – second in command to Kambei until his death, introduced himself as ‘strong man’. Died as a consequence of Kikuchiyo’s recklessness.
3.SCICHIROJI – old friend and comrade of Kambei’s who was thought dead. Survivor.
4.HEIHACHI HAYASHIDA – discovered by Gorobei splitting logs in return for food (symbolic of the hungry samurai the villagers had been told to find). Hired for his humour rather than his fighting expertise. Developed a good relationship with Kikuchiyo. First to die.
5.KATSUSHIRO OKAMOTO – on witnessing Kambei’s slaying of kidnapper, begged him to take him as his pupil. Was finally accepted as the youngest samurai. Survivor.
6.KYUZO – master swordsman who represented the true spirit of samurai. Initially refused Kambei because he had no wish to kill, but later agreed. Died in the final battle.
7.KIKUCHIYO – the ‘crazy samurai’, but not really a samurai but a farmer’s son. Like Katsushiro, witnessed Kambei’s handling of the kidnapper. Represented chaos, but with his own wisdom and code. Fierce fighter who distinguished himself before becoming the fourth and final one of the seven to die.
Original writing 23.04.98
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