Seven Samurai / Shichinin no samurai (Japan 1954)

This is one of the undoubted classics of World Cinema. So it is good news that the Hebden Bridge Picture House is screening the film from a 35mm print and in a 190 minutes version: there are nine versions of different lengths but this is the 1991 almost complete re-issue. This is the sort of film that you can never see too many times; it always stands up to another revisiting. [Saturday November 3rd at 3.15 p.m.]

The story is set in the C16th during the Momoyama Period of Japanese history [‘warring states’]. A band of rōnin (masterless samurai) are recruited to defend a village from marauding bandits. The prime focus of the film are the samurai warriors, each carefully delineated and offering a particular aspect of the code and skills of this warrior class. Just a few of the villagers are delineated in an equal fashion but the contrasts between these two usually very separate classes is presented with great skill and clarity.

“[Its] universal appeal is partly because of the humaneness of the film’s characters. Each of the seven samurai is a distinct individual but never a caricature, about whom we come to care a great deal. It is a period in which the samurai class is declining. The rōnin samurai roam the countryside looking for work, but some have also become bandits. Because working for farmers would be below them, they kick aside the villagers seeking their help. What makes these seven samurai honourable is their continued adherence to the spirit of the samurai’s code of Bushido which allows them to reach past the class consciousness that normally separates knights from peasants.” (Beverley Bare Buehrer, 1990).

The early stages of the film depict the setting and the recruitment of the band and then their preparations for the defence of the village. And then in a long and detailed and dramatic section we watch as the battle ensues. This is one of the great presentations of samurai action but equally it is one of the great representations of armed conflict.

The film contains innumerable famous sequences spread across the narrative. Early on we watch as the samurai leader Kambei (Shimura Takashi) rescues a kidnapped child and then a demonstration of Samurai swordsmanship by Kyūzō (Miyaguchi Seiji). This varied group includes characters who are not traditional samurai; notably Kikuchiyo (Mifune Toshiro ) who later in the film give voice to the conflicting values of peasants and samurai. The final battle, which takes place in torrential rain, is a marvel of design, staging, cinematography and editing. And there is traditional musical accompaniment, not always the case in Japanese films.

The whole film is one of the finest productions directed by the master Kurosawa Akira. This is an outstanding example of his use of landscape within which are to be found fascinating and very human protagonists. The use of the telephoto lens and multi-camera techniques for much of the action gives distinct and very effective visualisation.

Seven Samurai is as famous as a model for Hollywood. The most well-known copy is The Magnificent Seven (1960, itself remade in 2016). Roy has some interesting comments on the Kurosawa film in a post on the 2016 remake. That is not up to the 1960 original: the latter is a good western but no substitute for the original. And, for me, the three hours fly by.

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