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Behind the Camera - Seven Samurai
Remind Me

Behing the Camera on THE SEVEN SAMURAI

The peasant village in The Seven Samurai was a complete set built on the Izu Peninsula about 50-100 miles south of Tokyo. At the time it was just remote, wild country, but it's now part of a national park. The location shoot and the fully detailed nature of the set lent authenticity but increased the problems encountered and raised the costs of production as opposed to filming in the studio.

In his autobiography, Kurosawa responded to frequent accusations through the years that he was too exacting with sets and props. He was also known for having things made for the sake of authenticity, even if they never appear on camera. "The quality of the set influences the quality of the actors' performances. If the plan of a house and the design of the rooms are done properly, the actors can move about in them naturally. If I have to tell an actor, 'Don't think about where this room is in relation to the rest of the house,' that natural ease cannot be achieved. For this reason, I have the sets made exactly like the real thing. It restricts the shooting but encourages that feeling of authenticity."

Most Japanese films at this time cost around $70,000. The Seven Samurai cost close to half a million. It was the most money Toho studio had ever spent on a film and the most expensive film ever made in Japan up to that point. The production closed down at least twice during the filming due to a budgetary shortage, but it didn't worry Kurosawa. At such times, he would simply go fishing, confident that the studio would find the money rather than throw away what they had already spent. His attitude was that the studio was so committed financially that they had no choice but to finish what was started in order to recoup their costs. Kurosawa felt that because his pictures were hits, he could afford to think that way. Still, he was vilified in the industry press for it, and many negative stories about The Seven Samurai emerged even before the film was finished. He came to be known in the media as tenno or "emperor," for his alleged dictatorial ways, although it was always the press, not his staff, cast, or crew, that used the term.

Kurosawa explained the reasons for the huge expense and lengthy shooting schedule: "Something always comes up. We didn't have enough horses; it rained all the time. It is just the kind of picture that is impossible to make in this country." Later, he snapped back about his bad reputation in the press: "You try to give a film a little pictorial scope and the journalists jump on you for spending too much money. That is what I really hate about them––they are only an extended form of advertising. They talk big and make pictures sound important to make themselves seem more important. The more they try, the greater they lie."

Kurosawa said in his autobiography that he began thinking about the music and sound effects at the very beginning of each film project, and pointed out how in some of his films, he used different theme music for each character or group of characters. In Seven Samurai he has a series of musical motifs: the peasants' humming chorus; the samurai theme; Kikuchiyo's theme consisting of bassoon, piccolo and bongos; a sweet, romantic theme for the young peasant woman Shino, Katsushiro's love interest; and the more aggressive, strident bandit theme heard over the opening titles.

The music in The Seven Samurai was composed by one of Kurosawa's oldest and dearest friends, Fumio Hayasaka, who was paid $1,000 for the score, a high sum for Japanese film composers at this time.

With The Seven Samurai, Kurosawa began his practice of using multiple cameras to film a scene "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." He found it to be so effective that he later used it in movies that were less action oriented. His method was generally to put camera A in the most orthodox shooting position, use camera B for quick shots and camera C "as a kind of guerilla unit." This method made for very complicated shoots, trying to choreograph the movement of all three over the course of a scene using diagrams that, he said, most camera operators could not understand. He said the only ones who really understood his method were Asakazu Nakai (the cinematographer on The Seven Samurai) and Takao Saito (who worked with him frequently and shot the massive action sequences in Kagemusha (1980), and Ran (1985).

Kurosawa introduced two devices to help clarify the location of the action in the story for viewers. He has the samurai closely examine the perimeter of the village and outlying areas with a detailed map that is shown on camera so that we get a clear picture of where we are later during the hectic battle scenes. Kambei also uses a tally sheet, marking Xs over symbols for each of the bandits as they die so that we know how many have been defeated and how many remain.

The director incorporated a number of techniques to give the film movement and a rhythmic pace that keeps it from dragging, despite its great length: cutting on movement; fast, intercut pans and tracks; short, often humorous scenes, connected with wipes; telephoto lenses to put the viewer very close to the frenetic action.

Toshiro Mifune was not a trained actor but took his work very seriously. During the making of The Seven Samurai (as with most of his films), he remained in character all the time on the set and constantly worked on bits of business for his role. He was also given unprecedented freedom (at least for a Kurosawa picture) to improvise. Perhaps this was due to Kurosawa's feeling that Mifune was so much like the character he played. Mifune later said Kikuchiyo was one of his favorite roles because he could just carry on and be himself.

In his memoirs, Kurosawa expressed admiration for his most famous star: "I'm not usually impressed by actors, but Mifune impressed me. If I tell him one thing, he understands ten. Other actors take ten feet to express an emotion, he takes three feet of footage. If I had to think of a flaw, the only thing I can come up with is his voice is a little rough and sometimes it's hard to understand."

Although his character, a farmer's son, is shown to be an inept horseman, Mifune was actually an accomplished rider, having learned at a school for mounted archers who rode with no hands on the reins. He was, in fact, a superb all-around athlete, which is evident in some difficult jumps and stunts he performs in The Seven Samurai.

Conversely, Seiji Miyaguchi never quite mastered riding a horse. He trained well for sword fighting, however, for his role as master swordsman Kyuzo, and what he did not learn was covered in the shooting and editing to make him appear to have superior skills to the other samurais.

Tatsuya Nakadai was not long out of acting school when he appeared in The Seven Samurai in an uncredited bit as a samurai spotted walking through town. He later went on to become one of Japan's most respected actors and a frequent player in Kurosawa films. At this point in this career, however, he was so inexperienced that the shot took a full day to complete due to Kurosawa's exacting perfection about Nakadai's highly choreographed movement of only a few seconds.

It was the end of winter by the time the last battle scene in the rain was filmed for The Seven Samurai. Mifune said he was never so cold in his life.

by Rob Nixon