Adam turns another year and to celebrate the occasion watches his favorite film; Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai
So, that happened. The only difference from any other Tuesday during this Quarantine Pandemic bullshit is that I turned 42. It’s a strange number for sure. You’re still in your early 40s but you’re seeing those mid-40s coming up. During this time doing something special amounts to basically nothing… I do not usually celebrate my birthday for a variety of reasons. None, which I’m going to share here. Needless to say, I usually keep my stuff low-key.
A tradition I do not miss is the birthday movie celebration. This year it was just one movie. I decided it had been way too long since I had revisited this title. Funny, how your favorite movie of all time could be something that you don’t watch all the time. I know people who watch their favorite movie on repeat like its comfort food.
I guess it is comfort food for me but it’s the most lavish and expensive of comfort food. Like Gold-Flaked Nachos smothered in 10-year old smoked Gouda topped with shaved black truffles. It’s the richest of junk food meals. What is the film I’m speaking of?
Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai
It is not the first Kurosawa film that I saw. It is my favorite.
Being part Japanese, I was introduced to Kurosawa and Japanese cinema at an early age. The first Kurosawa film I saw was Ran. I was four or five at the time. My grandparent has the Z-Channel and it was the Saturday Night film. I remember the vividness of the color palette and the overpowering imagery or Ran. I was too young to read all of the subtitles but the impression it left on me was indelible. I dreamed of Samurai in primary color armor. I dreamed of wielding a sword. I dream of the imagery that Kurosawa built.
Slowly throughout my childhood began to see Kurosawa’s filmography. A feat I still have not completed yet, though very happily (as it always feels good to have one or two films unwatched from a favorite filmmaker to condense a theory that Spencer Howard of Super Massive Pop told me once). It wasn’t until I was 12 or 13 that Seven Samurai had griped its hands around me. My first viewing was on the Criterion Laserdisc CLV edition rented from our Local (10 miles away) Video store with a huge collection of LDs to rent. I still remember my anticipation as I looked at the cover on the way home and read the Essay on the back cover by Steven Prince.
Over the of 3 hours and 27 minutes (more like 4 hours and some change if you include bathroom breaks and snack grabbage), my world opened up to me. The tale I had seen before. So many filmmakers, all lesser than Kurosawa, took liberties from his story of a band of Seven Ronin who decides to help a group of farmers defeat the bandits that are taking their food and women. They took the story and action but left the humanity and character.
Seven Samurai has aged with me, finding new and profound bits of wisdom or humanity to revel in. The film is as exciting as any film half its run time but never feels quite as long. Quentin Tarantino talks about the luxury of the hangout film (see Rio Bravo). Seven Samurai at once feels like the ultimate QT Hangout and does not. The film is brimming with characters and life but never lingers. Kurosawa and his screenwriters Shinobu Hashimoto and Hideo Oguni put character above all else in their epic but do so in a way that never feels languidly paced.
We see the plight of the farmers. Their plan to hire Samurai to protect them. The men go to the city to find the Samurai. They begin to find the Samurai. They come back to the village with the Seven. This happens over the course of about an hour. It goes by in a blink. Kurosawa’s patented wit, humor, ugliness, grace all play a part in how perfectly paced it feels. In that hour we get to know a minimum of 15 characters! Not introduced but feel like we know them like they were old friends. Kambei’s sage leadership and good-natured wit and humor. Kikuchiyo’s fiery anger and buffoonery. The professionalism of Kyuzo. The simple klutziness of Yohei. And more.
Kurosawa builds towards the final confrontation with the bandits with the skill and grace unlike before or since. Every scene builds not just the story and stakes but individual arcs while being true to the human scale of the drama. It never feels like some sort of checkbox script but rather something that unfolds with the spontaneity of real life. The first time they come in contact with the bandits and are able to surprise them on their own ground feels genuinely shocking because you do not expect it or the way it unfolds. The same goes for how the actual final battle begins so suddenly.
Always at the center of even the most chaotic of action set pieces is the human heart and soul of the film. Never are we too far away from a moment that blisters with pain, joy, anguish of life. It isn’t just the death of the villagers or the samurai. The most painful moment is not one of death but of a father’s rejection of his daughter and her burgeoning romance with a young samurai. The truth of the moment with no simple right or wrong answer is unique and special in any film. That this occurs in the midst of a 3.5-hour adventure film is just a small indication of what one is in store for if you have not seen Seven Samurai.
Kurosawa’s epic ends with both life and death with the town happily moving on as the bandits are defeated. The remaining samurai leaving seeing that their sacrifice was both in vain and worthy. In an era of people sacrificing so much for others, Seven Samurai is a film that triumphs those heroes. Does so without foolishly giving them the grandeur they rightfully deserve but never get.