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We're told that serious foreign film theaters didn't become the norm in large American cities until the late 1940s. A new generation of film connoisseurs, the folk who might read English art film periodicals in the library, now could see neorealist pictures from Italy perhaps a year after they opened, instead of waiting for a museum to put on a special exhibition. Japanese films that did well on this circuit were Mizoguchi's Ugetsu and the unusual dramas of Akira Kurosawa, whose Rashomon won an honorary Academy Award for best Foreign Film.
Kurosawa's Seven Samurai had a different effect when it opened at one theater in Beverly Hills in 1956, two years after its Japanese release. Even with 70 minutes cut out (!) it captured the imagination of Hollywood writers and actors. They recognized a quality that had been criticized by Japanese critics: the movie revised the traditional period Japanese picture with a number of anachronisms and cultural adjustments that made it seem less Japanese and more occidental. Although the story upholds traditional Japanese communal values, the most interesting of the seven swordsmen heroes are stubbornly independent in their behavior. Not only are the samurai highly sentimentalized (not unusual in itself), they openly discuss their emotions and motivations. The rigid traditional-political class system of Old Japan is also stretched so that farmers and samurai can become allies for one unusual campaign. Kurosawa's Seven Samurai is a 1950s movie that encourages adapting to new conditions.
The movie made such a splash in Los Angeles that it was given a modest national distribution, something almost unheard of for foreign films. Although the term samurai became better known, the feudal swordsmen (actually, the word really refers to a social class) didn't catch on in American culture until the 1970s, with the import of a new generation of action films influenced by Spaghetti westerns from Italy -- which were themselves jump-started by Sergio Leone's plagiarism of Kurosawa's Yojimbo. 1
Seven Samurai is an audacious, original epic. Even at three hours and 27 minutes, it moves like the proverbial house afire. Composer Fumio Hayasaka's drums behind the stark main titles promise high adventure, and the film that follows delivers one fascinating, emotionally moving human problem after another. Lowly farmers survive by enduring every hardship that nature dishes out, but challenge society's rules when they dare to hire mercenaries to protect them. Masterless samurai (ronin) starve on the roads rather than accept work below their station; when times are tough and a glut of hired swords are on the market, five of these professionals offer their services for no pay, just bed and board. The born leader Kambei (Takashi Shimura) is recharged by the opportunity to once again take pride in his warfare skills. Others join for adventure or the chance to once again be part of a professional group. Katsushiro (Isao Kimura) is a gawking novice eager to learn from Kambei. The flea-bitten Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune) is a strutting braggart and drunk, a non-samurai barely in control of his temper. And finally there's Kyuzo (Seiji Mayaguchi), a master swordsman who has folded his skill into every aspect of his being: when not fighting, he's prone to sitting in quiet meditation.
The movie may be long but the script never dawdles or sprawls -- every incident is also an examination of character. The farmers are fearful and distrustful of the samurai. Kambei must use threats to make them follow through with their decision to fight. Again going against the grain of standard Japanese stories about groups of people, the strongest scenes concentrate on individual actions and emotions that are not subsumed into the communal flow. Kikuchiyo can barely be depended upon to follow an order. It is he who wins the adoration of the peasant children, a relationship that is explained in an irresistibly heart-wrenching scene of the rescue of a baby. Kambei insists on following the rules of war, but defers to the farmers' mob bloodlust to bolster morale in a tight spot. Katsushiro's apprenticeship almost fails when he and a farmer's daughter are drawn to each other amid the crisis, a forbidden relationship that becomes a public scandal.
Kurosawa makes a nice sidebar adventure out of a raid on a bandit camp in a narrow gorge, and even there inserts a powerful little drama-in-miniature. In the midst of battle a farmer-guide goes nuts over a bandit woman, forcing a samurai to rescue him. The samurai becomes the first fatality among the seven (all of whom are killed by ignoble guns). The capper is that the bandit woman was once the farmer's wife. Kurosawa doesn't have to explain whether she was kidnapped or ran away or what, as we immediately understand the crazy forces at work. In this movie action, character and drama are inseparable.
Kurosawa also has great fun turning us all into armchair generals as the seven warriors prepare wicked defenses against the savage threat to their village (in America, this is called a gated community). Their battle flag displays a number of circles, each representing a samurai-officer in charge of a platoon of farmer-soldiers. 2 By the time we're into the battle section of the film, we're practically jumping up and down in anticipation -- nobody wants to see any of the samurai and farmer defenders hurt, and when some of them fall it's a major heartbreak. The circles on the flag become mounds on a burial hill, with swords sticking out; as more defenders fall the mound appears to become taller.
When we finally get to the major action scenes, Kurosawa's skills as a director and editor really come into play. The battles are real action set pieces in full continuity. In traditional American moviemaking, complex big scale action was rarely analyzed in a realistic way. A medieval battle might be a lot of charging and rubber swords clacking together, with the directorial concentration on up-close fight portraiture of the stars, or specific stunts. Since the actual fighting is rarely the key subject matter of a film, combat was often covered in expressionistic montages, which telescoped the action and kept things from becoming repetitive.
If anything, action in other film cultures was even more primitive. If you've ever seen Eisenstein's Alexander Nevsky, you'll remember that its compositions and art direction are breathtaking but much of the action is primitive.
In Seven Samurai we get massive action scenes worked out as if choreographed, and then filmed by multiple cameras. Certain actions are singled out for master shots -- as when Kambei uses his longbow or Kikuchiyo uses his handy stash of swords. Most of the action is covered with long lenses, which squashes perspective, maintaining peripheral context but staying focused on the main subject. When a camera follows a wounded bandit as he clings to his horse, the image may blur and pan violently. But we know exactly where to look in the frame. Will the rider fall off? Does he have an arrow in his back?
Telephoto lenses also make things in depth look closer together, which adds a sense of danger to the action. In any given action shot there might be a hundred pointed spears in view, among five or six galloping riders, with actors swinging swords. Any of the actors might trip up and accidentally stick himself or his neighbor. The foreshortened perspective yielded by the long lenses allows the players to be farther apart than they look on film. Just the same, we wonder how many people were injured.
Kurosawa's most innovative trick is to heighten certain actions by filming them in slow motion and intercutting them with shots filmed at a normal rate of speed. When one unlucky swordsman bites the dust, he falls to the ground in a shot that lasts more than twice as long as it should. His face slams into the dirt sl-o-w-ly and a cloud of dust rises. It's like we're witnessing his last breath blow away. The shot is like a special effect in a Cocteau film.
When the weather adds mud and falling rain to the equation, Seven Samurai comes off as a breathtakingly physical experience. I don't believe that any music is used in these sequences, so all we hear is the rain, splashing hooves and yelling men. It's like being in a wild rugby game, covered with mud. We understand when Kikuchiyo gets carried away by the chaos and takes reckless risks.
Despite being remade, Seven Samurai didn't have an influence on American films for quite a while. The Magnificent Seven with its squeaky clean Mexican peons never attains the same stature, despite its super-cool acting styles and stylized gunplay. Sam Peckinpah was apparently as impressed by Seven Samurai as he was westerns by John Ford, and he planned to try Kurosawa's slow motion editing effects in Major Dundee. Note that this was before Arthur Penn's Bonnie & Clyde. Fate intervened and Peckinpah was never allowed to experiment with the reported thousands of feet of slow motion that he shot. But on his next film The Wild Bunch, Peckinpah's editors patterned his major action set pieces after Kurosawa, intercutting slow motion with normal-speed action. A slow motion shot of a man in mid-fall from a balcony in might have interrupted by cutaways three times. Each little bit of falling man resembles a graceful bit of ballet, thus the "dance of death" description given the action. Peckinpah imitated and extended Kurosawa's style experiment to produce bravura action scenes. The radical intercutting of different film speeds are now just another trick in the trendy director's handbook -- the ramp-up and and-ramp down film speed tricks, and even the exaggerated spatial tricks of The Matrix probably began with Kurosawa's manipulation of action montage.
Criterion's Blu-ray of Seven Samurai is the latest in a long line of superb presentations, each of which seemed like a revelation it its day. Back on Laserdisc, I believe that Criterion issued a two disc Samurai set, and a second four disc box in the old CAV format that enabled viewers to freeze on or skip to any frame in the movie. Of course, the downside was that one needed to flip or swap out the heavy discs eight times to see the whole movie. It was like listening to an opera on a set of 78rpm records: the product was a two-pound pizza box full of silvery plastic and paper sleeves. The first DVD (Criterion spine #2) came on two discs. The transfer and restoration available back at the time (1998?) was fairly basic, so the picture retained a lot of gate jump and fine scratches, even though Criterion put it through a lot of manual digital damage repair.
The new Blu-ray plays uninterrupted without the need to flip or swap out anything. It even has an intermission card with a music cue. The new HD transfer can't eliminate all of the fine light scratching that shows up at the beginning and ending of reels, but it seems greatly diminished due to the addition of new detail and texture. I've seen Toho-sourced 35mm prints of Seven Samurai on at least three occasions, and they never looked as good as this Blu-ray. When the bandits ride over the hills in silhouette, we can see detail in their armor, and they aren't surrounded by contrast halos. The added resolution makes such a difference that Toshiro Mifune's eyes seem to literally blaze in his wild drunk scene in the barn. In the scene where they drag the stolen samurai armor from Manzo's house we can see that the leather and metal armor is ornately decorated and intricately assembled -- the armor now looks like works of art. Night scenes are crisp instead of dank and those busy battle scenes look even busier. And the audio must have been given a going-over as well ... the base drums will rumble your stomach. Although the audio is obviously of a 1954 vintage, I no longer notice distortion in the playback.
Criterion repeats all of the extras from the last DVD special edition, that included a multi-critic commentary and an old one by Michael Jeck; a long making-of docu from Japanese television; a two-hour conversation-interview with Kurosawa and Nagisa Oshima from 1993 and a three part docu on the tradition of samurai films before Seven Samurai. We see surviving clips of Japanese films from the 'teens and '20s, something I've seen nowhere else. The disc extras also offer a selection of trailers and other coming attractions, still, design and artwork galleries, etc.
A fat booklet contains an interview with Toshiro Mifune. A variety of viewpoints on the film through short essays from Kurosawa biographers and Japanese film experts Peggy Chiao, Peter Cowie, Stuart Galbraith IV, Philip Kemp, Sidney Lumet, Arthur Penn, Alain Silver and Kenneth Tynan.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Seven Samurai Blu-ray rates:
1. Leone fans never seem concerned that their director hero broke through with by ripping off a Japanese film. When Hollywood reinterpreted the western-like Seven Samurai as a literal sagebrush western, they at least formally approached Toho and Kurosawa for the remake rights. All turned out well for Leone and for Kurosawa, who demanded redress from Leone's producers and won the right to distribute Leone's Fistful of Dollars in Japan and the Far East. The enormous profits derived from that deal enabled Kurosawa to make his lavish Red Beard.
2. The Criterion people designing the DVD and Blu-ray covers must have chuckled at the visual pun involved, for the Criterion logo on the box looks like an extra samurai-symbol with a bite taken out.
3.A note from Jeff Briggs, 10.23.10:
Hi Glenn, We met many years ago at Stuart Galbraith's old place in Los Feliz. I read and enjoy your reviews regularly and thank you very much for all the effort you put into them! Anyway, I wanted to correct a couple things regarding the history of Seven Samurai on Criterion. The first laserdisc release was the four-disc CAV box in (I believe) 1988. This marked the debut of the excellent Michael Jeck commentary. I rented this when I first got my laserdisc player in late 1989 and was eager to get my own copy but couldn't afford the $125 price tag. In either 1990 or 1991 Criterion reissued the film as a 2-disc CLV set for the more affordable $60. I owned this release for many years.
The first Criterion DVD release was a single-disc affair released in 1998, and contained the Jeck commentary, a trailer and a restoration demonstration. Apparently (and I'm sure Stuart could confirm this) Toho objected to the restoration piece and Criterion had to pull this pressing and then re-release the disc without it. I'm sure you're familiar with the next Criterion 3-disc release from 2006.
Thought you might be interested in this...have a great weekend! Best, -- Jeff Briggs
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