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The Seven Samurai

The Seven Samurai(1956)

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Stunning, magnificent, epic, a milestone achievement. These are a few adjectives that meekly try to convey the enormous power of Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai (1954, Shichinin no samurai). These same words can only begin to describe the 3-disc DVD, now available from the masters at the Criterion Collection. When the DVD revolution began, Seven Samurai was the first film released by Criterion in 1998, even though it was labeled as Criterion's second DVD release. (Grand Illusion (1937), while labeled #1, wasn't released until later, due to legal issues.) The first Criterion issue of Seven Samurai is the same transfer of the company's laserdisc release, including the excellent audio commentary by Japanese film scholar Michael Jeck. But in the years since, DVD transfer technology has improved so much that the Criterion folks decided to re-release Seven Samurai, but only in a much spiffier form, packed with extras and looking like it was shot yesterday. There is no double dipping danger here; this new edition is spectacular and simply worth every penny, even if you own the previous release.

The plot is simple yet complex. A village of farmers has consistently been plagued by roving bandits, who are most likely displaced, master-less samurai, known as ronin. The bandits take advantage of the poor residents. They take their food, their women, their security, and their humility. Hearing that the bandits will soon return, the villagers make a desperate pilgrimage to a nearby city in order to hire samurai to fight for them. Miraculously, the farmers find willing warriors, seven of them, in fact. Kambei (Takashi Shimura) is the wise, aging leader of the group; Gorobei (Yoshio Inaba) is the Kambei's gregarious right-hand man (the roughly analogous part that Steve McQueen played in the American remake, The Magnificent Seven); Shichiroji (Daisuke Kato) is an old friend of Kambei's, the two having seen much warfare together. Seiji Miyaguchi plays Kyuzo, the master swordsman, a character loosely based on Japanese folk hero Musashi Miyamoto. (Ironically, Miyaguchi was a complete stranger to swordplay before this movie. Editing and careful cinematography were used to give the impression that he was a master.) Heihachi (Minoru Chiaki) is introduced as a gruff woodcutter, but turns out to be the one samurai in the bunch that often lightens the mood. Isao Kimura plays Katsushiro, a headstrong youth who becomes Kambei's samurai disciple. And if the Seven Samurai were the Seven Dwarfs, Toshiro Mifune's Kikuchiyo would be "Dopey," at least at the beginning of the film. He is essentially a buffoon, not a real samurai at all. But Mifune turns him into a feral wildcat of emotion, brawn, and swagger. It's a performance that makes keeping up with him almost a tiring experience. In the course of the film, all seven samurai are fully fleshed out, so much so that we feel like we've known them intimately.

The plot seems simple enough, but nothing is ever simple in the hands of Akira Kurosawa. The sensei used this story to act as a history lesson on 16-century Japan. While most period films, or jidai-geki, were set in the Tokugawa period (1603-1868), Kurosawa sets Seven Samurai during the Sengoku period (1467-1568). The Sengoku period was an era when Japan was torn asunder by perpetual turmoil between warring families, or daimyos. There was a total absence of civil authority during this period, and in Seven Samurai, it's a Hobbsian world--life is nasty, brutal, and short. But it's also a commentary on Japanese society and culture in the years after Imperial Japan's rise and fall, and the ensuing American post-war occupation. Kurosawa expresses his disdain on the encroaching Western culture by placing in the bandits hands the West's worst gift: firearms. Of the four samurai who die in the film, all are brought down by gunfire.

Seven Samurai was Kurosawa's tenth film, following Ikiru (1952). Kurosawa's original idea was for a film about a day in the life of a samurai, beginning with him rising from his bed and ending with him making some mistake that required him to kill himself to save face. But that was discarded, due to the lack of historical details to make the samurai's day authentic. Then sensei and his writers considered a film that was more or less a collection of a master swordsman's greatest battles. Screenwriter Shinobu Hashimoto wrote a draft and presented it to Kurosawa, which was enough to convince Kurosawa that that too was not a good story to follow. But then Kurosawa came across an article about a real-life incident in which peasant farmers hired samurai to protect their villages from roaming thieves and killers. This was a good idea, Kurosawa thought. He soon met with Hashimoto and producer Sojiro Motoki and hammered out what was essentially a rough treatment of the film. Hashimoto wrote a much more fleshed out treatment (about 500 pages long) by November 1952. Then in December, Kurosawa, Hashimoto and the other writer Hideo Oguni sequestered themselves in an Atami inn, and stayed there for six weeks. They did not leave the inn, take phone calls or accept visitors (except for Toshiro Mifune, who upon his short visit, inspired the three to create Kikuchiyo, Mifune's eventual character). As Kurosawa biographer Stuart Galbraith wrote of the screenwriting process, "the team played off each other's strengths. Kurosawa and Hashimoto were competitive and masters of technique; Oguni was the script's soul, and he played devil's advocate with his collaborators, challenging their ideas and script-doctoring plot and character motivation that needed work."

During the 1950s, most Japanese pictures were shot in four to six weeks. Filming for Seven Samurai began on May 27, 1953, with a scheduled end date of August 1953. It wrapped on March 18, 1954. And not only did Seven Samurai become the longest Japanese feature yet produced (at three hours and twenty-seven minutes), it was also the most expensive. It cost Toho almost $560,000-five to eight times the cost of an average feature in Japan. Toho Studios nearly pulled the plug on the project several times when it ran over its $150,000 to $200,000 budget. And the possibility that Toho would replace Kurosawa was a frightening reality. This forced Kurosawa to go back and personally argue with the board of directors who were convinced they were making a flop. The simultaneous production of this film and Gojira (1954, known in the US as Godzilla) nearly forced Toho into bankruptcy. But despite constant pressure from Toho, Kurosawa would not be bullied. He was going to put into the can the film he wanted.

In Kurosawa's defense, the production was troubled from the beginning, not because of malfeasance, sloppiness, or impossible demands on sensei's part, but because of the sheer size of the production and the risks inherent in filming on location. For example, the script called for several scenes of major sets being burned to the ground, the trickiest one being when three of the samurai conduct a secret raid on the bandit's fortress. During the attack, the samurai torch the place, and the entire set goes up in flames. And being a Kurosawa film, the inferno is spectacular, which only compounded the director's stress. This was a one-take shot. There was no way he could afford the time nor the money to rebuild the set and re-shoot the scene, should something go awry in the filming. So after the three cameras turned, the sets burned, and the actors ran through the scene as best they could (they were, after all, in very real danger at times), Kurosawa called 'Cut.' As the fire trucks extinguished the fire, sensei reportedly stood and cried, having successfully completed the incredibly risky scene.

Then, there is the final battle in the rain. Anyone wishing to study how to make an action film need only to watch when the samurai make their final stand against the invading bandits. There is a cold, freezing rain that has drenched the earth, turning the dusty ground into a sodden, muddy mess. And what a beautiful mess it is. Kurosawa's three cameras captured the visceral beauty of the picture dance between camera and light, men and horses in motion, and the desperate struggle of life and death in the squalor of mud and blood and tears. It's exhilarating sequence, but perhaps not for the actors and the crew. They stood in that artificial rain in the middle of winter for the two months it took to capture it, January and February of 1954. You only have to notice the actors' breath to see that it could not have been pleasant. Toshiro Mifune said later, "It was probably the toughest movie I ever made...that final battle scene in the rain and mud...that rain was freezing cold, and I was wearing practically nothing at all."

Of filming with more than one camera, Kurosawa said in his autobiography, "This began when I was making Seven Samurai, because it was impossible to predict exactly what would happen in the scene where the bandits attack the peasants' village in a heavy rainstorm. If I had filmed it in the traditional shot-by-shot method, there was no guarantee that any action could be repeated in exactly the same way twice. So I used three cameras rolling simultaneously." Unbeknownst to him, Kurosawa invented the modern-day action film, not just in terms of structure and theme, but also in terms of production practice. And speaking of action, at some point in the film, treat yourself to an experience-turn off the subtitles and just soak in the images. You'd be surprised how much Kurosawa communicates in spite of the language barrier.

Seven Samurai was a popular success in Japan, becoming the year's biggest moneymaker. It was also a success with critics, but not a rapturous one. As what so often happens with moneymakers, critics were somewhat soft on accepting it as a masterpiece. But eventually the film was accepted by the Japanese as the greatest home-grown film ever made. The film's reputation in the U.S. though was a little rockier. When the film officially arrived in the U.S. in 1954, it had a new, Western-friendly name: The Magnificent Seven. Critics praised Kurosawa's film, but most mixed the praise with a whiff of what Stuart Galbraith calls "cultural condescension." Basically, the critics thought Kurosawa was simply ripping off the Western, and they damned him for making too long of a film. Bosley Crowther, surely one of film criticism's most annoying voices, said "it bears cultural comparison with our own popular Western High Noon (1952). That is to say, it is a solid, naturalistic, he-man outdoor action film." But the limp critical reaction was surely affected by the lack of a complete film: the film was cut by nearly fifty minutes upon reaching American theaters. (And yet still Crowther said of even the truncated film, "It is much too long for comfort or for the story it has to tell. The director is annoyingly repetitious. He shows so many shots of horses' feet tromping in the mud in the course of battle that you wonder if the horses have heads.") Surprisingly, the full-length version of Seven Samurai did not receive an American release until 1970. Of course, in the intervening years, Hollywood remade the film, at least in spirit, four times, the last being Disney's A Bug's Life (1998). It has also provided the template for the modern action film, and has been placed on multiple best-of lists. Entertainment Weekly voted it the 12th greatest film of all time by Entertainment Weekly, and it placed #3 in Sight and Sound's Top 10 list of greatest films ever made in 1982.

But the best accolade Criterion could give the film is an embarrassment of riches in special features. The DVD boasts two separate audio commentary tracks; the first one by Japanese film expert Michael Jeck (this is the same commentary track that was on Criterion's previous DVD release), and the second track is a "roundtable" by film scholars David Desser, Joan Mellen, Stephen Prince, Tony Rayns, and Donald Richie. The theatrical trailers are very interesting, particularly Trailer #2. The audio track no longer exists for this trailer, but each of the seven samurai are reunited on a studio soundstage and introduced in character, along with corresponding artistic renderings by artist Kohei Ezaki. Trailer #2 also includes footage of Kurosawa on the set, directing, touching up make-up, and generally looking the part of the sensei.

One picture in the photo and poster gallery captures dolly tracks made of wooden planks. Given the dynamic nature of Kurosawa's moving camera, the fact he was using wooden dolly tracks make the action scenes all the more impressive. And the pictures give a strong impression of the visceral nature of the film. The extensive documentaries included in the DVD expand on what's hinted at in the pictures. On disc 2 is the 50-minute documentary on the making Seven Samurai, created as part of the Toho Masterworks series, Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create. This is the same series that has been serialized on other Kurosawa titles released by Criterion. This chapter on Seven Samurai features interviews with writer Shinobu Hashimoto, set decorator Koichi Hamamura, script supervisor Teruyo Nogami, and actor Seiji Miyaguchi and Yoshio Tsuchiya. The interviews serve an excellent chronology of the film's evolution, from idea to script to production to release.

The third disc features My Life in Cinema, a two-hour video conversation between Kurosawa and film director Nagisa Oshima, shot at sensei's house in 1993, and produced by the Directors Guild of Japan. And finally, there is Seven Samurai: Origins and Influences, a new documentary created exclusively for this release that explores the samurai traditions and films that impacted Kurosawa, the Japanese film industry, and the cultural tastes and expectations of the movie-going audience.

The DVD also boasts a booklet featuring six essays by film critics and Kurosawa experts. One stand out, Peter Cowie's essay called "Seven Rode Together: Seven Samurai and the American Western," touches upon Kurosawa's indebtedness to the Western genre, and his relationship with John Ford and films directed by Ford. Kurosawa wrote in his memoirs, "There is one person, I feel, I would like to resemble as I grow old: the late American film director John Ford." Cowie notes, "(I)t may not be too glib to classify Seven Samurai as a Ford western with a feudal theme. Beyond the superficial affinities-the will to survive any and all dangers, solidarity, non-heroic celebration of heroism and traditional values-certain crucial features remind one of Ford: the vigor and clarity of the narrative, the picaresque comedy, and the humanity of the characters." Kurosawa and Ford were also alike in their respective treatment of nature, of landscape. In their films, the physical world was as much a character as Ethan Edwards or Kambei. The physical world was a god to them, one made up of wind, dust, fire and rain that helped to reveal character by symbolizing human emotion. This, more than any other, ties the two masters together. When Ford and Kurosawa met in October 1957, the American director said to the Japanese sensei, "You really love rain." They were kindred spirits, cut from the same earth.

Also in the liner notes, Kurosawa receives two affectionate tributes from Sidney Lumet, and one from Arthur Penn who asserts that seeing Seven Samurai "proved to be a perception-changing event for me." And indeed, the clarity of Kurosawa's vision, and the clarity to which Criterion has restored that vision, is a perception-changing event to anyone who looks upon this marvelous gift.

For more information about The Seven Samurai, visit The Criterion Collection. To order The Seven Samurai, go to TCM Shopping.

by Scott McGee