Seven Samurai (Shichinin no samurai)

Seven Samurai
(Shichinin no samurai)
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Screenplay: Akira Kurosawa & Shinobu Hashimoto & Hideo Oguni
Stars: Takashi Shimura (Kambei Shimada), Toshirô Mifune (Kikuchiyo), Yoshio Inaba (Gorobei Katayama), Seiji Miyaguchi (Kyuzo), Minoru Chiaki (Heihachi Hayashida), Daisuke Katô (Shichiroji), Isao Kimura (Katsushiro Okamoto), Keiko Tsushima (Shino), Yukiko Shimazaki (Rikichi’s Wife), Kamatari Fujiwara (Manzo, father of Shino), Yoshio Kosugi (Mosuke), Bokuzen Hidari (Yohei), Yoshio Tsuchiya (Rikichi), Kokuten Kodo (Gisaku, the Old Man)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1954
Country: Japan
Seven Samurai: Criterion Collection DVD
Seven SamuraiAt its core, Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai is little more than a great yarn extremely well spun. Its story is so simple, it can be summarized in a single sentence: Small Japanese farming village is threatened by bandits and hires seven ronin (masterless samurai) to protect them. Yet, the same could be said for many of Shakespeare’s greatest plays, or Hemingway’s greatest stories, or Chaplin’s greatest films, which reminds us that what is epic about great storytelling is not always the complexity of the narrative itself, but rather the conviction with which it is told. This is a film that could have been another simple jidaigeki--a Japanese period film featuring samurai--but Kurosawa’s careful attention to character and social issues elevated Seven Samurai above its roots and guaranteed it not only a place in the pantheon of great Japanese films, but in the pantheon of great world cinema.

Kurosawa had already directed or co-directed 14 films when he made Seven Samurai in 1954, including 1950’s Rashomon, which the great French critic André Bazin wrote “can truly be said to have opened the gates of the West to the Japanese cinema.” If Rashomon opened the gates, then Seven Samurai blew them off their hinges, not only with its worldwide popularity and acclaim, but with its deep affinity for and thematic/visual connections with American westerns. As Bosley Crowther wrote in his review in The New York Times after seeing a heavily cut version in 1956, “although [it] is set in the sixteenth century in a village in Japan, it could be transposed without surrendering a basic element to the nineteenth century and a town on our own frontier.”

Like many critics, Crowther was astonished by Kurosawa’s film and the power it evokes with its simple tale of peasant farmers rising up against a rampaging hoard of bandits who steal their food. Running nearly three and a half hours in its full version, Seven Samurai’s story may not seem at first like it deserves so much time, yet Kurosawa uses every minute of the film effectively, building his characters into fully realized human beings for whom we deeply care, which gives the movie’s bravura action setpieces a more defined edge and emotional core.

Each of the seven samurai is given a unique personality and set of gifts, which makes them intriguing as both individuals and in their interactions with the others. The two we remember most are played by Kurosawa’s two favorite actors, Takashi Shimura and Toshirô Mifune, who appeared together in 15 of Kurosawa’s 30 films. Shimura plays Kambei Shimada, the first samurai hired by the farmers and the group’s de facto leader. Shimada is a noble ronin of great skill, but he has fought all of his battles on the losing side, which gives him an edge of poignancy. Shimura embues him with a deep, resonant sense of honor and nobility that never feels cloying or forced; he simply embodies greatness and inspires others around him. We believe that other samurai would fight alongside him with no promise of monetary gain or fame.

Mifune’s character is quite the opposite: His Kikuchiyo is a scheming, lying, clownish samurai impostor who nonetheless inspires others with his gregarious enthusiasm (as a peasant who elevated himself to samurai class, Kikuchiyo reflects Kurosawa’s beliefs in democracy and social mobility). At the beginning of the film, he is little more than a punchline, a stray dog who barks a lot and gets no respect; but, by the final reel, he has achieved a kind of redemption through his tenacity and spirit. Along the way Mifune provides the film with its primary source of comic relief, as he bounces around whooping and hollering, mocking the peasants for their lack of fighting skills and timidity and then making a fool of himself by boasting that he can ride an old nag and promptly falling off. Kurosawa was clearly influenced by John Ford not just in the scope and thematic grandiosity of his films, but also in his use of bawdy humor to blow off steam between battles.

Seven Samurai was shot by cinematographer Asakazu Nakai, who worked with Kurosawa on 11 films over four decades, including his 1985 masterpiece Ran. Nakai’s black-and-white photography gives the film a bold, heavily contrasted look that works well with both its pulpy origins and noble intentions. Kurosawa’s love of the elements as a visual reflection of his characters’ mood is in full effect here (albeit not at the level to which he rose in 1957’s Throne of Blood), with wind whipping across the village during a tense training sequence and thunderous gales of rain pouring from the sky during the final battle.

The final battle between the farmers, the samurai, and the invading bandits is an exhausting masterpiece of mud and blood, with violence both overt and oblique. Kurosawa’s approach to violence throughout Seven Samurai was far ahead of its time, both visually and emotionally. His use of slow motion in an early death scene was among the first such uses of the device, which later influenced the “blood balletics” of Arthur Penn and Sam Peckinpah and their countless imitators. He also uses violence to achieve numerous, sometimes conflicting emotional states. There is the humorous violence of slapstick comedy, and also the exciting violence of action. Through his characters’ growing enthusiasm for battle, Kurosawa lulls us into a sense of action-oriented contentment, only to pull the rug out late in the game by reminding us of the price of war. It is not incidental that the film ends with the victory we’ve been rooting for, but closes on an image of a graveyard.

Seven Samurai Criterion Collection Special Edition Three-Disc DVD Set

Aspect Ratio1.33:1
  • Japanese Dolby Digital 4.0 Surround
  • Japanese Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural
  • Subtitles English
  • Audio commentary by film scholars David Desser, Joan Mellen, Stephen Prince, Tony Rayns, and Donald Richie
  • Audio commentary by Japanese-film expert Michael Jeck
  • A 50-minute documentary on the making of Seven Samurai, part of the Toho Masterworks series Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create
  • My Life in Cinema, a two-hour video conversation between Akira Kurosawa and Nagisa Oshima produced by the Directors Guild of Japan
  • Seven Samurai: Origins and Influences,” a new documentary looking at the samurai traditions and films that impacted Kurosawa's masterpiece
  • Theatrical trailers and teaser
  • Gallery of rare posters and behind-the scenes and production stills
  • Insert booklet featuring essays by Peter Cowie, Philip Kemp, Peggy Chiao, Alain Silver, Kenneth Turan, Stuart Galbraith, Arthur Penn, and Sidney Lumet and an interview with Toshiro Mifune
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateSeptember 5, 2006

    Stunning. Just stunning. Criterion’s newly remastered reissue of Seven Samurai, the first DVD they ever released back in 1998, is nothing short of a revelation. Comparing even a few minutes of the two discs is an object lesson in the vast strides DVD technology has come in the past eight years; trying to re-watch the original Criterion disc is almost painful. The new transfer was made from a dupe negative struck from the original fine-grain master positive (apparently, the original negative has been lost, so this is as close to the original source as one can get). Criterion’s 1998 transfer, despite being digitally restored (digital restoration at that point was comparatively primitive, to put it nicely), was marred throughout by scratches, flicker, and a generally soft image. All of that has been remedied, as the new image is clean, clear, and amazingly sharp, bringing out the image’s finest details. Blacks are much richer, and contrast has been significantly improved. The insert booklet lists four different digital restoration systems used to clean up the image, and it shows. Criterion has also wisely spread the film over two discs, which allows for a significantly higher bit rate.

    The soundtrack has been effectively mixed into a new four-channel stereo-surround track using the original optical track recordings, original stereo music masters, and original production sound effects masters. The surround mix does a fine job of opening up the musical score and giving the various sounds, including the dreaded thunder of approaching horses, more power and depth without straining for effect. For purists, the restored original monaural soundtrack, mastered at 24 bit from an optical soundtrack print, is also included, but comparing the two quickly shows the superiority of the surround mix in terms of both fidelity and effect.

    In addition to the vastly improved video and audio, Criterion has also added a host of new supplements to round out this impressive three-disc edition. They have kept Japanese-film expert Michael Jeck’s original audio commentary, which is a fantastic and detailed dissection of the film. To this they have added a second commentary, which is described as a “scholars’ roundtable.” It includes film scholars (and Criterion regulars) David Desser, Joan Mellen, Stephen Prince, Tony Rayns, and Donald Richie, each of whom contributes thoughts and analysis in his or her area of expertise. It’s a great approach to such a monumental film and definitely worth listening to in its entirety.

    There are three documentaries included. First there is the 50-minute documentary on the making of Seven Samurai, which is part of the Toho Masterworks series Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create (other episodes of this series appear on Criterion’s Kagemusha and Ran DVDs). It features numerous interviews about the film and gives tantalizing video footage of the inn where Kurosawa and his screenwriters wrote Seven Samurai and Kurosawa’s personal notebooks. My Life in Cinema is a two-hour video in-depth conversation between Kurosawa and director Nagisa Oshima, which was produced in 1993 by the Directors Guild of Japan. Finally, there is “Seven Samurai: Origins and Influences,” a new 55-minute documentary produced especially for this disc that takes a look at the samurai traditions and films that influenced Seven Samurai. All of the scholars on the “roundtable” commentary appear here, but the documentary’s real treasure is its inclusion of hard-to-see scraps of Japanese silent films.

    The first disc also includes theatrical trailers and a teaser, as well as an extensive gallery of rare posters and behind-the scenes and production stills. The lavishly printed 56-page insert book includes essays by Peter Cowie, Philip Kemp, Peggy Chiao, Alain Silver, Kenneth Turan, and Stuart Galbraith, appreciations from directors Arthur Penn and Sidney Lumet, and a 1993 interview with Toshiro Mifune. All in all, I don’t think anyone could ask for more from this stunning new edition of Seven Samurai.

    Copyright ©2006 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection

    Overall Rating: (4)

    James Kendrick

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