#271. The Seven Samurai (1954)

This is the third Kurosawa movie on the List and, from what I’ve read, it’s also apparently his greatest work—which is easy to believe because Seven Samurai is definitely a masterpiece, and it’s definitely a more sprawling and engaging movie than Ikiru or Rashomon, but the List has taught me to be leery of what the canon has deemed an artist’s greatest work. Consensus appears to say that The Gold Rush is Charlie Chaplin’s best film.

            I disagree.

            Folks say of John Ford that his masterpiece is The Searchers or Stagecoach.

            Again, disagree.

            So I’m excited to explore the rest of Kurosawa’s filmography to see if there’s some rivan gem to this—but I’m also coming right out of the gate swinging question marks like hatchets because (here we are again) Seven Samurai is one of the super epic movies that’s so universally beloved and so obsessively and incisively written about that my pen’s all aquiver about even discussing its qualities, which (in case you were wondering) are not only readily-apparent, they’re enjoyable, and despite the fact that (for readers of the blog, at least) it’s in another language, and takes place hundreds of years ago, Seven Samurai isn’t fraught with that feeling like it’s a direct and specific address to its own culture alone, like Spring in a Small Town or Tokyo Story or even (in a weird way) M. Hulot’s Holiday.     

            Seven Samurai reaches out to the viewer and scoops her into an embrace that isn’t unlike something outta Spielberg. Cinephiles might bristle at that comparison, but I would equate the near-universality of Seven Samurai‘s accessibility and allure to something like Saving Private Ryan: a confined story that’s caught up in the framework of something vast and complicated (a war, a feudal conflict, a political rift)—but that larger framework doesn’t matter too much.

            My favorite YouTuber is Steve Donoghue, a book critic who writes mostly for The Christian Science Monitor and Open Letters Review, and whenever he’s opening a book on camera that’s got something to do with a particular episode of World War Two, some concentrated skirmish or drama, he refers to them as “keyhole histories,” which is what this movie’s action feels like.

            The eponymous samurai are protecting a village from a horde of 40 bandits who wanna come in and do what bandits do (we get a sense of the savagery they might be facing in the first act of Ugetsu, when soldiers raid the protagonists’ village).

            Roger Ebert says in his review that what Kurosawa might have contributed to cinema with Seven Samurai, more than just one of the greatest stories in its catalogue, is the whole men-on-a-mission subgenre. Sounds odd, but I realize now that we haven’t seen another one on the List prior to this (although Mutiny on the Bounty comes close).

            And fuck, I don’t know what to say about it—which I guess is maybe something to do with the way that, no matter how accessible or relatable or resonant a foreign movie is, there’s something about the language barrier and, I think, the cultural differences between here and there (particularly East-West differences) that make me reluctant to opine about very much, or to ramble about characters’ mindsets and motivations and so on.

            The movie’s gorgeous and it’s got a distant kind of overcast mood, but there’s nothing flashy about it that screams of its director’s touch, like with Fritz Lang’s motif of parallel lines and gothic imagery throughout Metropolis and Dr. Mabuse; nothing here that boisterously calls attention to the man behind the camera.

            The story, as I’ve said, is really straightforward, the characters are somewhat archetypal (with Kurosawa’s muse, Toshiro Mifune returning to play a similarly feral-type role to what he had in Roshomon)—this movie is outstanding but also for some reason just seems to defy any effort at discourse or summarization (from me, at least). Some samurai are hired, for a pittance, to protect a village. They proceed to protect that village for three hours. When the job is done, the movie ends.

            I’ll keep coming back and touching on it but, for now, lemme leave it at this: the movie’s amazing, I really enjoyed it, but it’s not one of my favorites. I recruited Bob into the effort of watching it with me, cuz I figured the three-hour runtime was a harbinger of something dreadful, but we started watching it and the movie seemed to dissolve through time.


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