Akira Kurosawa came to Seven Samurai at a flux, but the ripples of his magnificent cultural clash are still felt today. Birthed on a long line of films seeking a sort of safety in cultural traditionalism, he’d by 1950 established a certain formal rigidity in his films to befit this traditionalism that he extended into the stratosphere and elevated to high art. But Seven Samurai was him flexing his muscles, and his attitude toward the world, in a bid to implicitly challenge the culture he’d grown with, even as he naturally upheld that culture all the same. In its own way, Seven Samurai saw him growing, bending, and testing the limits of the Japanese samurai film. It also saw him feeling the ensuing pain and cognitive dissonance of his actions, not unlike Western films like The Searchers and High Noon for American cinema around this time. But while those films saw America grappling with its fundamental lie, that of individual freedom and fluid class boundaries, Seven Samurai saw Kurosawa tackle the mid-century Japanese focus on static class boundaries by adding a dose of new-found fluidity and freedom to his formally composed camerawork, and to his strong, silent characters. Like those films, Seven Samurai is caught in its own dissonance, radicalizing even as it remains resolutely traditional to the point of fable– but here it’s a fable of a nation coming to terms with itself.
Kurosawa’s story, essentially that of a group of samurai who are hired to defend a village from invading bandits, is also the story of a world in transition. Released in 1954, Seven Samurai was arguably the pinnacle of a decade of Japanese film airing out its dirty laundry. Ozu did it through painterly dioramas of quiet despair and human honesty, Mizoguchi did it through openly mythic human decay and wide vistas brought to life by an elegiac, ever-probing camera that penetrated the screen and entered the mind, but Kurosawa did it through a contrast between human motion and standstill, and his wide-eyed grasp of deep focus precision that melded a sort of rigid framing with constantly moving in-frame action
Mizoguchi too knew the power of a moving camera and a lens that emphasized z-axis movement toward and away from the camera (Ozu preferred static, silent frames that told all about his perpetually distant characters – even within the same frame, Ozu’s formal, unmoving composition rendered them unable to truly move toward each other and connect). But while Mizoguchi used it to emphasize internal conflict, Kurosawa was more interested in interpersonal conflict. His films see people constantly moving and, indeed, free, but always boxed off or obstructed within the frame by screen-tearing objects. The effect, to capture people all in the same frame and all able to move toward each other, while also torn apart all the more so by immovable objects, captures more than anything the way the characters can be granted some freedom within their social roles, but a freedom which makes the still existent barriers and conservative structures around them all the more difficult to cope with. And it fits all too well with a mid-1950s Japan now open to the world, seemingly its oyster, but still stuck in a mire of the vestiges of traditionalism and a newly galvanized domineering foreign control.
But I’m getting ahead of myself – Kurosawa’s cultural subtext and his formal precision complement and define what is more basically a truly invigorating drama-adventure populated by extremely precise storytelling and pinpoint characters. To this extent, Kurosawa’s greatest decision is to paint his titular “heroes” as anything but. Flawed and lonely, the seven are generally skilled at fighting but they have much to learn and cannot individually hold off more than a couple of enemies at a time. They are not indestructible (several are slain unceremoniously), nor are they all powerful. And they aren’t saints either. They are a band of mercenaries looking for housing, food, and pay. One of them dislikes speaking to the others, one is completely inexperienced, and one is often belligerent and quite unheroic throughout. Nonetheless, they all attain some sense of human individuality – fitting considering the film’s clash of individualism and social structures. By defining them as individuals, Kurosawa effectively flies in the face of the sameness of social class. These aren’t glorious warriors, but everyday people who make complicated decisions and take into account their own individual survival in their actions.
The film is neatly divided into three segments: gathering the team, preparing for war, and all-out action. The first defines the seven ronin (samurai without masters) as flawed social outcasts struggling to make sense of their role in society. But the second is no less important for defining character – it allows us to grasp how these men work as a team, and how they relate to the peasant class they defend. Naturally, there’s a complicated mix: warm humanism, caustic sarcasm, bitter standoffishness, and fear. Here, Kurosawa develops narratives which test the limits of social class – one young samurai falls in love with a farmer girl, one who was born a peasant and wishes to be a samurai struggles to not see himself above the village, and leader Kambei (Takeshi Shimura) worries about the class tensions brought on by the need for peasants and samurai to work together.
Speaking of which: the battles. There are many (the last third of the film is in some sense of the term wall to wall action). But while they are expertly choreographed and beautifully filmed, they aren’t necessarily grand. They emphasize tension and suspense over flashy choreography, and each fight comes and goes quickly with minimal casualties. The overall strategy favors attrition, and there’s always a sense of desperation and malaise. The keyword is scrappy – blades clash, but they miss more often, and people swing wildly in the air to reflect not so much a lack of formal training but a purity of human frailty and chaos. When fighting for their lives, thinking sometimes takes a backseat to raw, guerrilla action.
The final battle takes place in a downpour, which would be copied by many subsequent films which miss the essence of Kurosawa’s decision here. As he depicts it, the downpour is an obstacle and a player on its own; it causes confusion and makes fighting messy and difficult. Individuals trip and fall over each other – the earth piles up and suffocates them. It only adds to the tangible nature of the whole film, its very concrete realness to contrast with Mizoguchi’s mythic haunt. The last 70 minutes of the film are riveting and frequently exciting, but Kurosawa never lets us lose a grasp for how much endurance it takes to continue the fight. The battles appear, above all, tiring, something few on-screen action scenes even attempt to convey.
And in the middle of it all, Kurosawa’s deep focus lens and gliding camera convey the geography of continuous space. He doesn’t cut through the action – he lets it breathe and bleed, allowing action to occur in the foreground, mid-ground, and background of one shot while also moving with the tide of the human motion. There’s a certain poetry to it all, a way in which characters move to reflect their personality and class, and a way in which Kurosawa presents them in groups or alone to define their visual identity. The peasants, for instance, are given a physical mass and weight of oppressive proportions, rolling down the screen with a force no samurai could equal – they make up for their lack of skill with community, something the samurai don’t have.
Most fascinating of all is the ending. Throughout the film, we’ve come to know and admire the titular samurai, as we would any Western hero in American cinema. After the final battle, the scene immediately shifts from an almost impossibly muddy, torrential rain to a pleasant, light day environment as the peasants rebuild. Ritualistic drumming and light, airy flute playing combine to create music which is both pragmatic and pointedly superfluous, designed for working and also for lightening the spirit.
The peasants are clearly happy, yet we then cut to the samurai, standing far off and observing the farmers pensively. The literal distance between them is significant and figuratively distances the two groups. The samurai walk away, arriving at the graves of their fallen comrades. These graves, positioned in front of and above the samurai, tower over them, revealing how the death of their comrades towers over them as survivors. At some level then, they’re all linked by class even in their individuality. And the link is unbreakable even in death.
The samurai then observe a few farmers pass by who do not return glances to them. One farmer, Shino (Keiko Tsushima), stops and looks at Katsushiro (Isao Kimura), the young samurai whom she’d been developing a relationship with. The film cuts to a close-up of her face, clearly anxious and backing off, and then follows with a cut to his face. He, in contrast, appears wanting, and this is matched by his face literally moving toward her in the frame. As a farmer though, she cannot stay. When she returns to the other villagers, the film clearly highlights her voice joining in with the other villagers while working. As an outsider whose job is done, Katsushiro cannot be with her. For the samurai, their distance, their outside status, and the loneliness and poverty many of them faced toward the beginning of the film, have not necessarily lessened. They have gained little and lost much. Their physical rewards total nothing. Throughout, they had always been individuals working to lead a community, individuals who despite being labeled a group (the seven samurai) never entirely seemed to connect with one another. The samurai save the day, but they do not necessarily save themselves, nor can they. It’s in Kurosawa’s visual craftsmanship, his depth of focus revealing the samurai, somber, in the foreground looking on at the peasants, joyously working in the background, where we see the profound distance between them and in fact, the tragedy of their being left out of society. For all their efforts, the film’s conclusion is melancholy in its profound humanism.
Humanist it is though. Kurosawa has made films which more successfully plumbed the pits of depression and rose to the mountaintops of life-affirmation, but here he paints his greatest statement on community and its value. If he bends Japanese traditionalism and social roles, he also undeniably critiques the individualist lens as well. At least, he finds individualism for individualism’s sake a waste, a fool’s errand. The peasants, more than anything, have each other, and that makes them happy. The samurai are more archetypes, the kind of lonely individuals who populated myth, perhaps the American Western mythic Kurosawa was most fascinated with. This is why, like every famous Western hero, they must ride off at the end, as lonely as they were when they started on their quest. After-all, they acted for pay and had no real investment in the town’s success; their life is one outside of society because it is predicated on violence, something Kurosawa for all his use of it was vehemently against. They’re a necessary evil, but they suffer the consequences of the very shared lifestyle they hold with the bandits.
By focusing on social outcasts who deny society’s rules (as he would do time and time again), Kurosawa creates a work decidedly un-like traditional Japanese film (in fact it is a critique of the samurai ideology almost to the core). But he never forgot where he came from – this film is as much a statement to the West as it is a statement for the West, a culture-bridging dual-critique that finds a melancholy magic in the space between cultures. Thus, if Kurosawa seeks to impose a little of the Western in his film here (as he would undeniably do in future films), he also critiques its heroic individualism and looks back to Japanese notions of community for sanity. Again, cognitive dissonance – Kurosawa doesn’t reach a conclusion on what to do with the social structures around him, but he messily prods them, which is all he really can do. What matters, more than the conclusion, is the dissonance of the journey. And few directors ever mastered the journey like Kurosawa – in all its messiness and nervy defiance of social roles, Seven Samurai is a giant heaving question mark of a film, and a hellishly entertaining one at that.