Seven Samurai (1954)
July 13, 2015 12:51 PM - Subscribe

A village of farmers hires seven masterless samurai to combat bandits who will return after the harvest to steal their crops. Available to stream commercial-free to Hulu subscribers here; the film is also available for rent from iTunes, Amazon, and YouTube.

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posted by Ian A.T. (18 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
 
This was the film that taught me that:

- Rice is actually a luxury.
- Millet existed, and people at it!
posted by ignignokt at 5:14 PM on July 13, 2015


This movie sat at the top of my queue for more than a week. It was next in my chronological post-war Japanese cinema project. I kept putting it off because I didn't want to put in the time to re-watch it, but it was holding up the works so I bit the bullet ten days ago. It's basically the only samurai movie I left on my list because I felt like Kurosawa had a message less universally human and more specific to the Japan of 1954 .

This is the one Japanese movie, other than perhaps Godzilla (1954), that most people ever see. I've seen it dozens of times. If I had to guess, I'd say that this was at least my 40th screening. Dozens and dozens of books have been written about it. I'm sure more than one degree has been granted based on an analysis of it. I won't go nearly to those lengths, but I do have some observations.

The first thing I noticed was that the translation on the Hulu version is very different from the DVD I've watched so many times. It honestly was a little distracting at times because I am so familiar with the words, like remembering a well-loved book. For example, when Gorobei is about to enter the room while Katsushiro lies in wait to hit him with the stick the translation from my DVD says, “Please no jokes,” while the Hulu Criterion Collection version says, “Surely you jest.”

I've always admired the expert way in which light and shadow was photographed in this movie, but something that stood out to me for the first time is the blocking and shot composition. Especially after having watched High and Low a while back. Every movement by the actors is nearly perfect. Even simple things like taking a step forward and then a step back develop character and that's in the last scene in the movie. The use of music in this picture is also excellent. In addition to the iconic main theme, many characters have their own distinctive music or theme and it adds a great deal to the film.

I’m sure I read this somewhere else first, but the use of the village map in this movie is a masterstroke. It so effortlessly conveys all the information the audience needs to understand the situation. Where the houses are and where the village is weak. Where the bandits will attack from. Eventually it even shows how many bandits are left.

Kurosawa has made admonitions to the audience before, notably in One Wonderful Sunday (1947) and Ikiru (1952), but by now he's become somewhat more subtle. After a near mutiny, Kambei addresses the assembled farmers, but it’s clear that Kurosawa meant the message for the people sitting in the theater. "By protecting others, you protect yourself,” Kambei commands. “If you think only of yourself, you'll destroy only yourself. From this day forward, anyone caught doing that…." He leaves the threat hanging in the air as the film fades to the intermission.

Seven Samurai is a long movie, 3 hours and 27 minutes, but the battle for the village doesn’t begin until after the intermission, almost two-and-a-half hours into the movie. It’s not that there’s no action at all up to that point. Far from it. Still, the tension built up before the intermission, and then with the barley harvest just after, really pays off by waiting until one of the most iconic moments of the film — Kikuchiyo’s unfurling of the banner Heihachi made — for the reappearance of the bandits.

The photography for the final battle is just stellar, bringing into sharp relief just how finely crafted this movie is. The rain is pelting down the entire time. Kambei moves to where he’s stashed a bow and arrows to try and take a few of the bandits out. As he shoots, you can see the fine spray made by the arrows leaving the bow. It’s a tiny detail, a mere blink of the eye out of the whole epic, but it’s the kind of detail that can only be filmed if great care is taken.

To me, one of the most meaningful scenes in the movie is Kikuchiyo’s death. Right at the beginning, when he and Kambei meet, Kambei questions his lineage as a samurai. Later, he tries to prove it with a family record, but the samurai laugh at him when they realize the person he claims to be in the family tree would only be 13-years-old. Even when Heihachi makes his banner, he singles out “Lord Kikuchiyo” with a triangle rather than a circle. Despite the fact that without his strong personality they would have had a hard time building trust with the villagers, the samurai never really include him among their numbers. After his speech telling the samurai how farmers are, “nothing but stingy, greedy, blubbering, foxy, and mean!” he tacitly admits to being a farmer’s son. Thereafter, he goes to sleep in the barn with Rikichi.

At the beginning of the battle for the village, when he rescues the child, he becomes tearful saying, “This baby is me. This is just what happened to me!” When Kyuzo is praised for striking out alone to thin out the bandit force and silence one of their guns, Kikuchiyo does the same and is scolded for it.

In the end though, he fights and dies like a samurai. When the bandit leader shoots him, he continues to advance, using his last measure of life to kill his enemy. Just as any samurai hopes to do. When he is buried, he’s buried with the other samurai and his sword is placed atop his grave. In death, he finally achieved that which he could never manage in life.

With the bandits defeated, life returns to normal in the village. Just in case you forgot the message of the film, at the end Kurosawa back-fills it. As the villagers plant rice in the spring with traditional song and dance, Kambei says to Shichiroji, "In the end, we lost this battle too. I mean, the victory belongs to those peasants. Not to us." The war was a defeat for the militaristic elements of the Japanese aristocracy, not the people. Echoing Kinoshita's message from Morning for the Osone Family (1946), Kurosawa saw that Japan would have to become the people's country.
posted by ob1quixote at 8:27 PM on July 13, 2015 [13 favorites]


I've always admired the expert way in which light and shadow was photographed in this movie, but something that stood out to me for the first time is the blocking and shot composition. Especially after having watched High and Low a while back. Every movement by the actors is nearly perfect.

YES.

I only have a minute tonight, but there's this short little segment that just has me kind of stunned right now. It's after the intermission, at right around 1:59 on.

It starts with the farmers plowing the field. And just look at the motion and the flow, how perfectly choreographed it is, from the movement of the camera and the people moving in and out of frame in different directions, following the gaze of the characters in close up, tracking and orienting the layout, seamlessly switching who or what the camera is following, from the plowing to the stream flowing into the pond, to the reeds, fading to the children running, singing, and climbing, to the farmers beating the grains, walking and talking all in a circle, then to the scene with the horse and the laughing crowd, and then panning up to the two samurai walking back into frame from a distance.

That little snippet--it's about two minutes long--is just so jam packed with action and narrative and mood, it's kind of mind boggling, and it's the sort of thing that can only be done with film.

I really enjoyed the other 3 hours and 25 minutes, too!
posted by ernielundquist at 9:48 PM on July 13, 2015 [3 favorites]


(Mifune <3) Kikuchiyo is an interesting character.

I was talking with someone about American Hustle and how the best character in it is Jennifer Lawrence's, because she seems to understand that the premise of the movie is bullshit, that all the other characters are assholes, and she refuses to even play the game. It's like she's read the script and rejected it and they filmed her scenes anyway. That movie didn't like her as much as it should, but then again, it's a bad movie with dumb characters just like JLawr's character would tell you.

Kikuchiyo is not totally the same, but he is coming from a place like that, sort of mocking the other character's conceptions, the airs they put on as they claw at each other for advantage and survival. Seven Samurai is a good movie, though, so it knows there's something special and important about him.

It's easy to describe Seven Samurai in terms of plot that make it sound like some cool dudes getting together to save some peasants, in a way that gets the point of the film backwards. It's a film about how the warrior class has failed; it can't fulfill even the basic function of "protect the village from the bandits". Rikichi has to be crazily determined to hire some ronin instead of giving up, and on the samurai's side they are lucky to run into the saintlike Kambei who is introduced as someone willing to discard his samurai status to help out some peasants.

Even then, when it seems like things are settling into "good humble samurai protecting the simple grateful peasants", the samurai find out the peasants have been looting the dead on battlefields. The illusion is shattered and the class divide starts to open wide, but Kikuchiyo is there to laugh at the final shred of pretense.. he's a walking indictment of the samurai ideal and they are right to put him at the top of the banner.

There so much amazing stuff in this movie. It doesn't feel long or slow to me*. One of my favorite scenes is when the village women close down and kill a bandit with bamboo spears. Probably not how the bandit saw his day going.

(*Okay, I'd cut down the drunken Kikuchiyo lumbering around the inn scene a little bit.)
posted by nom de poop at 10:42 PM on July 13, 2015 [2 favorites]


I didn't mean to imply that the movie is too long or boring or anything like that. I actually meant the opposite. It's a three-and-a-half hour movie that just blows by. The bandits don't attack the village until the last hour of the movie and they really couldn't have come a second earlier. Every frame feels essential.
posted by ob1quixote at 4:21 PM on July 14, 2015


OH I was agreeing with that.

However I forgot about the sortie to the bandit camp, which seemed both risky and ineffectual, not really necessary except for resolving Rikichi's story, and his wife killing herself goes too far in borrowing on the drama of rape without paying back. It feels like a misstep in the story, when I've watched it.

(It almost goes without saying the relationship stuff from a movie filmed in 1954 would need to be thrown out if a film were to be remade. I've been watching older movies recently, like A Letter to Three Wives and Our Miss Brooks, and I can barely crawl under the weight of all the heteronormativity pouring into my eyeballs from these things.)
posted by nom de poop at 6:01 PM on July 14, 2015


Rice is actually a luxury.

I was curious about that...would the rice they were feeding the samurais have been enhanced with anything, like seasoning or mirin or maybe some sweetened sushi-style vinegar?

Please don't read this as me being appalled, like I can't imagine people would ever just eat plain rice. I'm just curious if a bowl of rice for the farmers was just grains boiled in water and drained.

And god, how heartbreaking was the scene of the farmer picking up spilled rice grains one by one off the floor?


The first thing I noticed was that the translation on the Hulu version is very different from the DVD I've watched so many times.

I noticed that as well. When Kyuzo returns with the musket, I'm used to him saying "Killed two," but here it's rendered as "Two more down," which seems metaphorical in a way that's not appropriate to his character.

Also, George Miller was TOTALLY referencing this scene in Fury Road, right? When Max goes off to take care of the [spoilers] off-screen?


The use of music in this picture is also excellent.

I think one thing that's lost to us now is how modern a lot of the music was at the time for the film. That is, it's not period music, but modernized film score that recalls the period. Some of it is quite modern, and there's multiple places where it sounds like jazz more than traditional Japanese music.
posted by Ian A.T. at 4:55 PM on July 15, 2015 [2 favorites]


“Behind the Camera: Seven Samuari,” Rob Nixon, Turner Classic Movies, Undated
posted by ob1quixote at 5:15 PM on July 15, 2015


Please don't read this as me being appalled, like I can't imagine people would ever just eat plain rice. I'm just curious if a bowl of rice for the farmers was just grains boiled in water and drained.

In other Japanese fiction (specifically Lone Wolf and Cub), plain rice was rare enough to come by in hard times to be considered a luxurious meal by itself.

I've actually been eating only brown rice for the past several years and recently accidentally bought white rice, and boy howdy, it does indeed taste decadent if you're not used to it. Incredibly soft and sweet. Whereas growing up, it just seemed plain as hell.
posted by ignignokt at 5:21 PM on July 15, 2015


Tony Zhou's Every Frame a Painting has some good things to say about Kurosawa and a couple of scenes in Seven Samurai:
Kurosawa and Composing Movement

About a different Kurosawa movie:
Kurosawa and the Geometry of a Scene
posted by LobsterMitten at 5:29 PM on July 15, 2015 [2 favorites]


Ian A.T.: “I was curious about that...would the rice they were feeding the samurais have been enhanced with anything, like seasoning or mirin or maybe some sweetened sushi-style vinegar?”
I'm having trouble finding decent links about 16th century cuisine, but I expect that plain rice wouldn't have been uncommon. More often rice would make up the bulk and it would be supplemented with tsukemono (pickles), fresh vegetables, fish, etc.

“Rice: It's More Than Food In Japan,” Linda S. Wojtan, Japan Digest, November 1993

“Japanese Rice as a National Treasure,” Aki Fuji Rice, Undated

“The Japanese and Tsukemono,” Toshio Ogawa, Kikkoman Food Forum The Japanese Table, Undated
posted by ob1quixote at 6:54 PM on July 15, 2015


I'm only half an hour into it but loving it so far. Kurosawa was such a craftsman, the camerawork, the blocking, the editing are all just so perfect. I'd love to know he (and crew) managed to get such beautiful deep focus shots in such dimly lit sets. You can see the ceiling and he does 180 degree turns with the camera but the lighting is always perfect. And in 1954 when you couldn't just add a freaking ceiling digitally.

It's going to take me a few days to watch this as I'm never going to have a 3.5 hour block of time free to watch it all the way through at once. Hope you don't mind me commenting as I go.
posted by octothorpe at 7:02 PM on July 15, 2015


Also, George Miller was TOTALLY referencing this scene in Fury Road, right?

I've mentioned a few times on MeFi that my ex-spouse's reaction upon finally watching some of my Hitchcock movies was "Oh, I have seen these. They just weren't Hitchcock movies when I saw them." Any film watcher has seen Seven Samurai, even if they haven't seen this Seven Samurai; and any action movie director is referencing Seven Samurai, even if they don't realize it.

This movie invented the "Let's recruit our team" montage and (according to Roger Ebert, at least) the intro scene where the hero is doing something totally unrelated to the plot. Those things are so baked into the language of cinema that it's kind of amazing that they were developed closer to now than they are to the invention of cinema.
posted by Etrigan at 7:10 PM on July 15, 2015 [2 favorites]


I would argue that it's actually pretty reasonable for white rice to be a luxury for the common classes and ronin. For what it's worth, in what you might call "samurai times," one of the basic units of currency was the Koku, which was the equivalent of about 5 bushels of rice. (4.97 if memory serves.)

Additionally, it was the prime ingredient in really the only alcohol of note in pre-modern Japan. Wasn't much white rice to eat, but several scenes show sake as not particularly rare, or at least pretty readily available. Likely, what rice was allowed to be retained by villagers would be more prized as alcohol than rice. It would be important both personally, because the life of a peasant is terrible, and economically, because Early Modern Japan's semi-isolation (in part) helped to create asurprisingly efficient internal market and consumer economy.

So, yeah, really only the rich could expect to get rice on the regular. Samurai with actual lords instead of vagabond has-beens literally got paid in rice, greater bushels depending on their status. Of course, from that stipend they would have to pay their own retainers, because Feudalism. But there you go.

It's probably not even worth nothing to a bunch of cinemaphiles like y'all, but I always thought that the fact all four samurai who actually went down were taken down by rifles. Filmed less than a decade after total defeat and total occupation, I can't help but thinking that story choice very intentional, especially considering the important role of firearms to the Sengoku period that created the order that social order that is pretty feckless and crumbling in Seven Samurai, at least by implication.
posted by absalom at 8:22 PM on July 15, 2015


Wow, what a movie. My only complaint was that my 32 inch TV is way to small to watch this on, I really need to catch it the next time it plays in a repertory theater around here. I feel like I need to watch it a few more times to really appreciate it, there's just so much going on in it.
posted by octothorpe at 4:01 AM on July 17, 2015


Wow, what a movie. My only complaint was that my 32 inch TV is way to small to watch this on, I really need to catch it the next time it plays in a repertory theater around here. I feel like I need to watch it a few more times to really appreciate it, there's just so much going on in it.


I've said this a few times to some of my friends' chagrin, but IMO, this is a movie you really really need to see on a big screen even though it's actually not filmed in Scope. There's something about a small screen that throws off the composition; I don't have the vocabulary to describe it but it's definitely there. Not to say it's not very much worth watching on a TV or computer screen, of course, but it definitely doesn't communicate its magnitude as well as on a movie screen.
posted by holborne at 3:25 PM on July 20, 2015


I'm one of those weirdos who thinks that you're not really seeing a movie unless you see it in a theater on a big screen. Watching on a TV is at best an approximation of that.
posted by octothorpe at 3:55 PM on July 20, 2015


“Still crazy-good after 60 years: Seven Samurai,” Jasper Sharp, BFI Film ForeverBlog, 07 May 2015
As Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece Seven Samurai is released on BFI Blu-ray and DVD to coincide with its 60th anniversary, we chart the rocky road to classic status of this most famous of Japanese films.
posted by ob1quixote at 10:02 PM on September 16, 2015


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