‘From the beginning the audience is breathlessly trying to catch up,’ writes MAMOUN HASSAN of Kurosawa’s Japanese epic Seven Samurai.
It is a challenge to do justice to my favourite film, Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. Not only because its startling images, its exhilarating momentum, its vast dimensions are hard to convey, but because writing is an inadequate means of interpreting a film so essentially cinematic. I should prefer to put the film on an editing machine, inch it backwards and forwards, freeze on a frame, examine a cut: that is, add to and focus on the life that exists on the screen. What I offer here is something like an examination of a body; the soul evades capture.
The story is set in a period of great unrest and civil wars. A village learns that it is to be attacked yet again by bandits. So it hires seven samurai, members of a professional warrior class, to defend it. The bandits are killed, four samurai die, and the village is rid of its enemies.
An exciting enough story, even without embellishment, as was seen in the undemanding Hollywood version, The Magnificent Seven. What Kurosawa achieves is a Homeric epic: on one level, the decline of the samurai class and rise of the peasantry; on another, the transition from the age of heroes to the age of men.
The opening scenes of the film set the tone. A troop of mounted bandits thunder across the screen. They halt near the top of a hill overlooking a village, the horses so disturbed they almost unseat the riders and crash towards the camera. The bandit chief tells his men that the village does not yet have anything worth taking after the previous autumn’s attack; they will return after the harvest. The horses wheel and spin, spattering mud towards the camera; the bandits sweep on. Suddenly part of a hedge begins to move; it is the brushwood carried on the back of a frightened old villager, who runs down towards the village. The next shot sees the villagers assembled in a circle, crouched almost in silence, except for the odd whimper.
From the beginning the audience is breathlessly trying to catch up. Establishing shots are dispensed with. Hardly knowing where we are, we are dragged abruptly into the middle of a scene. The narrative is swift and economical, vigorous action alternates with stillness, effect follows cause without transition or explanation.
In Kurosawa’s films the heat is hotter, the rain wetter, the spring more luxuriant. The men shout louder, run faster, fight harder; they prowl, they growl, they sob.
The scenery has an almost animal presence: rivers weep, fires burn with passion and anger. And there are the horses: Kurosawa’s horses are not Hollywood’s, well trained and quiescent, but uncontrollable creatures.
The villagers decide to hire samurai reluctantly, for they fear them almost as much as they do the bandits and, in any case, they can hardly afford them. Gisaku, the village patriarch, advises ‘Find hungry samurai — even the bears come out of the forest when they are hungry.’ The bearing of the first samurai approached by the quaking villagers explains their view of them: they are aloof, haughty, overbearing and ruthless.
It is ironic that none of the seven samurai is typical of his class, not one a ‘hungry bear’. Kambei, the leader, joins for reasons of compassion. Played by Takashi Shimura with authority and dignity, he is self-effacing and modest, but in time of war, expecting complete obedience. He is willing to accept the burden of leadership; but it is not important to him: he is seeking something beyond that.
Katsushiro, a young, idealistic and aspiring samurai, joins because he wants to become Kambei’s disciple. Kambei is embarrassed by the intensity of his admiration. ‘Listen. I have nothing in particular to teach you. I have just fought a lot of battles. That is all.’
Gorobei, the kindly moon-faced samurai, joins because Kambei interests him. So one by one they join: Shichiroji, Kambei’s deputy and comrade from previous battles; Heihachi, the cheerful realist, whose philosophy is: if you can’t kill all your enemies, run away; Kyuzo, the master swordsman, ascetic, kind, but with an aura of forbidding stillness, who joins to test his art.
The seventh, Kikuchiyo, is not a samurai at all, but the orphaned son of a peasant who was killed in a bandit raid. He is the central figure of the drama, played with an extraordinary energy, verging on the manic, by Toshiro Mifune. His unpredictable actions constantly threaten the balance of the story, and disturb the flow of the narrative. At first, Kikuchiyo is an almost unsympathetic figure, overbearing towards the villagers, bullying towards Katsushiro, loud-mouthed and mendacious. He is cunning and vain, kind and tortured, by turns comic and threatening. But most, if not all, of these characteristics are assumed veneer; he is in search of a personal, as well as a social, role.
The seven are not realistic in terms of a social drama; but, using Vico’s description of Homer’s heroes, they are ‘imaginative universals’.
If the samurai are heroic, the villagers have a human scale. They are cunning, ungrateful and ruthless, victims one moment, murderers the next. A bandit spy is captured by the samurai, who treat him like a prisoner of war; but the warrior code means nothing to the villagers, and he is savagely murdered. Kikuchiyo is insensitive to the underlying conflict between samurai and peasant. When he triumphantly presents his comrades with samurai armour, found in the village — presumably stripped from murdered samurai — he is attacked by his comrades. Kambei reproves him: ‘You don’t understand. You’ve never been hunted.’ But Kikuchiyo does understand. In a passionate outburst he accepts that the villagers are culpable, even worse than the samurai think them; but who has made them so? The bandits and the samurai.
Before the final battle, Heihachi is killed in a pre-emptive raid. He is shot as he tries to save the life of a young peasant, whose wife had been offered to the bandits by the village and carried off in an earlier raid. The villagers had never quite reckoned on the cost of defending themselves, and are dispirited. It is at this point that the bandits attack. But the samurai are ready for them.
It is perhaps the most perfectly orchestrated battle ever filmed. It is fought over two days: on the first the bandits are kept at bay outside; on the second the battle is fought in the pouring rain in the village streets. Gorobei dies on the first, and Kyuzo and Kikuchiyo on the second day. Each dies as he has lived. Kyuzo is shot by the bandit chief hidden in one of the huts; his last act is to throw his sword in the direction of the shot. Kikuchiyo, at last losing all sense of self, fighting on all fronts, more concerned with what he is doing rather than with how he is seen, has become a samurai warrior. But at the end, with foolhardy courage, he rushes the bandit chief, kills and is killed by him.
In one of the most memorable scenes, Katsuhiro, seeing his two comrades killed, reacts hysterically, screaming in a mixture of fear and vengefulness: ‘The bandits, the bandits!’ Kambei grabs him roughly. ‘All dead,’ he says. Katsushiro sinks to his knees in the flooded streets and sobs. In the distance the bandits’ riderless horses career through the village. Kambei turns to Shichiroji: ‘Again, we have survived.’ His next words come as three samurai leave the village and the victorious villagers plant rice sprouts in the paddy field to a rhythmic chant. ‘We have lost again.’
The village is rid of its enemies, four samurai are killed by the gun. But there are more battles and further changes to come.
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In 1971 Kurosawa was passing through London on his way to Japan. The British Film Institute, for whom I was working at the time, arranged for a reception for him. Kurosawa had recently made Dodeska Den, his first film in colour; his previous film Red Beard had been made six years earlier. For a director who had made an average of one film a year for over 25 years it was a lean period. However, that evening he was courteous, friendly and amused. Very much like one of his silent heroes, he observed rather than partook. He parried all questions about the meaning of his films but liked to talk about technique and technicalities. He drew me a sketch on a paper napkin of the tortuous movements of the cameras in his film Lower Depths; it looked like the path traced by a drunken spider. Later, it occurred to me that he might have been having me on; but I still have the napkin.
At the end of the evening, director Lindsay Anderson made a generous speech in appreciation of him, which was translated to Kurosawa. His reply: ‘Kurosawa thanks his friends. He cannot speak except in film. Let us drink.’
Mamoun Hassan is director of The National Film Finance Corporation.
Reproduced as originally printed in the Observer Magazine.