Despite however cynical life may ever make me I like to believe that there are certain great works that, even though we may not completely understand them, nor the symbols lying within, we can still stand in awe of them regardless of who we are and where we come from.
That is why I can’t just write of a medium, genre or style. Even though there will be times where the world is flooded with inferior copies (as is the way in this day and age) the truly great works will find purchase in people’s hearts.
I’ve been on something of a classics kick for a bit when it comes to film and one that’s long since eluded my viewing was Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. Until now.
Released in 1954 Seven Samurai is a story about a village in rural Japan set during a period of civil war. As a result this village has no protection from bandit raids that occur on an annual basis. The villagers, at long last pushed to an extreme solution come upon the idea of hiring samurai to defend them. Lacking money the village has only one option:
“Hire hungry samurai.”
Sure enough seven men are hired to defend the village and what ensues is a battle of profound emotional loss and amazing storytelling. One of the most unique aspects of the film is how rarely it uses a soundtrack, allowing the film’s own jarring scenes to become more powerful in its absence.
The film was imitated in the west with the film The Magnificent Seven, yet despite its equally star studded cast and being adapted for a western audience’s cultural history, it cannot measure up to the original film. This is largely due to the western interpretation frequently using an upbeat soundtrack (especially at the end when it ought not to) a stronger emphasis on the adventure aspects and a severe downplay of the tragedy of the deaths in the film. Plus it lacks the issues of class structure present in Seven Samurai.
Among the film’s amazing performances stands that of Toshiro Mifune as Kikuchiyo the would-be samurai. He begins as a bumbling fool and comical character but within the space of the film transforms into the bridge between the Samurai and the villagers and in many was his character is a metaphor for the deeper themes of the film.
I can’t speak of what sort of films came before on the subject of feudal Japan’s samurai but the film does much to lambaste and condemn much of the conditions during that time. Rather than being seen as heroes Samurai are seen almost as a form of angry deity that’s feared by the villagers despite their need for them. The villagers, in turn, are depicted as cowardly, vain, greedy and murderous if given the chance.
In the end the film’s greater commentary reaches its conclusion in its ending with the parting line of how this is not the samurais’ victory but rather the villagers. The villagers are shown singing and planting their rice fields. Juxtaposing this is the image of the remaining Samurai standing next to the graves of their fallen allies. The powerful image here with the villagers planting in rich fields and yet the graves are dusty and dry as a harsh wind blows. It is of such a moving quality that it caps off the entirety of the work.
The film stands at a good three hours and twenty seven minutes in length but does so with no padding or lengthening. In fact, several moments will leave the audience asking more questions about certain characters and wishing to see more.
In western cinema the film is universally praised by critics and remains a staple of film despite cultural differences. If that alone does not mark it as a great work, being revered despite cultural distance then the sheer grand quality of the work must stand as the evidence.
And so too does this work exist.