#19 — Seven Samurai (Akira Kurosawa, 1954)
Seven Samurai is an unassuming epic. It may seem a strange description for the three hour tale of a band of misfit warriors recruited by a desperate rural town to stand up to the bandits who plan to raid their food supply. This is arguably Akira Kurosawa’s most famous creation, the one that inspired a legion of other filmmakers, some directly (John Sturges’s acknowledged remake with The Magnificent Seven, John Lasseter and Pixar’s sly appropriation with A Bug’s Life) and countless more indirectly (George Lucas owes his billions to the many ways he lifted from Kurosawa for the Star Wars films). Its running time indicates the sort of scale that belies modesty. The sheer amount of story, of characters, of incidents all suggest a filmmaker of great ambition, one who is sketching out a cinematic adventure meant to stagger the viewer. And yet Seven Samurai doesn’t play that way. It lacks the sterling import of David Lean’s grand dramas or the shuddering grandiosity of the biblical sagas that were the norm for the era (Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments arrived in theaters two years later). Seven Samurai impresses not with its vastness, but with the tender intricacy of the work. At every moment, Kurosawa concentrates on the tiny details of the story — the characters, the motivation, the raggedness of a rough society. It’s only the accumulation of all these small details, a process that happens with the greatest of patience, that makes Seven Samurai big.
The threat of inflated rhetoric is also quelled by Kurosawa’s carefully consideration of the ravages of massive conflict. While incorporating battle sequences of physical vitality muscular enough to stir and then sate the urgent needs of any action film fan, Kurosawa and his collaborators take time to grimly assess the scorched earth after the aggravated flames have recede. The cost of confrontation shadows the film. There may be good guys and there are bad guys, but their swords don’t deliver damage in different ways. The separation between the nobility of battle and the futility of war is no separation at all. Either way, there is blood on the ground. Kurosawa doesn’t dwell on this or pound it into the viewer in didactic fashion. It is simply another part of his intellectual thesis, presented with an egalitarian compassion for all points of view. That evenhandedness, he seems to argue, is the only proper way to consider the rigors of a complicated world.
Kurosawa’s favorite actor, Toshiro Mifune, is present in a vividly juicy role, playing a passionate, unpredictable samurai anxious to prove himself given his suspect credentials when he joins the band of brothers. In keeping with the breadth of inclusion found in the title, Kurosawa refutes any temptation he may have felt to turn into a one-man showcase. In fact, Mifune’s character was a relatively late invention, an attempt to create a strident counterpoint to his half dozen compatriots, all of whom are more staid. Representing a fairly basic technique in shaping the dynamics of the narrative, the choice also reveals the film’s splendid interconnectedness. Rather than leads and supporting characters, Seven Samurai comes remarkably close to telling a story in which every person is central. The villagers carry as much narrative weight as the bandits, and the swordsmen-for-hire of the title don’t necessarily usurp anyone else. Seven Samurai effectively adheres to the adage that everyone is the star of their own drama. Of course, as with almost every film that bears his signature, the truest star of Seven Samurai is the artist in the director’s chair.