I plan on writing four different reviews on famous chanbara (or “samurai”) films. Initially, I wanted to save the best for last, but, after writing my review on Hiroshi Inagaki’s The Samurai Trilogy, I learned that I just couldn’t wait anymore. Were I to keep waiting, I would have to keep mentioning Seven Samurai every other line in the other reviews, and you would not have the foundational benefit of having read a review on Seven Samurai. So, I’m going to go ahead and save the best for second.
That introduction aside, I would like to proceed to my review of Seven Samurai, and, if you don’t mind, I’d like to give this one an additional title:
Akira Kurosawa and the Humane Violence
I hope that this title will help you, my reader, to understand the themes that I will try and tackle in this review.
Anyway, ask most any movie lover in the world what the greatest movie of all time, there are a few likely answers that you will hear. Vertigo. Citizen Kane. The Godfather. Casablanca. Seven Samurai. Why is it that so many people in this world consider Seven Samurai the best movie ever made? There are probably so many answers to this question that I couldn’t possibly write about them all in one review. But, I think it has to do with the themes that I introduced in my supplemental title: the Humane Violence.
I was inspired to create this terminology after reading an article put out by the Criterion Collection about Seven Samurai. In this article, the author described the violence in the film
“Seven Samurai is remarkable for the way its director stages and choreographs action scenes that are thrilling and engaging while leaving space for meditation on the bloodshed taking place. Indeed, Kurosawa’s particular talent for sculpting kinetic battle sequences was never at odds with his humane view of the world. Even in his bloodiest films…there’s a definite sense of moral weight. In its fleet nearly three and a half hours, Seven Samurai manages to enrapture and delight…but it is also a moving tale of life and death. None of the killing on display is gratuitous, and the director never takes pleasure in watching his characters perish. There is, in fact, a lyrical beauty to the deeply felt conscientiousness of these groundbreaking action scenes. Kurosawa once said, ‘If it is necessary to show violence in a film, it is good to avoid ugliness.'”
Contrast this with the more contemporary approach to movie violence, in films like those of Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese. Even the films with more “eloquent” violent sequences, like those of Saving Private Ryan or The Hurt Locker, are focused on a gruesome and ugly approach to violence. In some instances, that ugliness is stylistic and visually intentional, in others, it is an appeal to what is realistic. Notwithstanding, the current trend in violent films is to disregard the ability that movies have to show violence not for violence’s sake. Kurosawa embraced the ability that the camera has to capture acts of aggression and death without showing too much. He was focused, not on the violence itself, but on the lives that were being put at risk. After all, it’s not blood and guts and gore that define violence. It’s life, and the risk of losing it.
Few movies in the 1950s were as violent as Seven Samurai when it came to this issue of lives lost, lives saved, and lives put to the test. The violence created an aesthetic backdrop: death was a prop and conflict was the set. It was amid this aesthetic context that Kurosawa was able to make the most of his preeminent theme: the relationship of life and death. This is why Kurosawa couldn’t make his violence ugly. It would distract from the non-violence that was, by all measures, the focus of the entire picture.
Just because it wasn’t ugly didn’t mean it wasn’t up-close-and-personal, though. It had to be. Like many other classics that were filmed in black-and-white, Seven Samurai tells its stories and makes its points through contrast. In order to see the life, you had to see the death. Kurosawa would, in the words of Kurosawa scholar Stephen Prince, “give us, if not more fights, than fights filmed in a way that had never been filmed before.” In this regard, Kurosawa can be rightfully be seen as “one of the greatest poets of screen violence.”
It is the “kinetic level” (borrowing from another Kurosawa scholar named Donald Richie), this “up-close-and-personal” adjacency to the fights at hand that made these fights so unlike anything that had been made before. As opposed to films that preceded it, where fights were choreographed in much the same way that a Gene Kelly dance was choreographed, Kurosawa created a rawness to his conflict. Because his approach to the conflict had such kinetic proximity to the viewer, there was less space in which his characters could move. As a result, we were left with a cutting and bashing intensity unlike anything previously seen. Whatever we get, even if it isn’t ugly, is not pretty.
Richie, furthermore, would add that this was intentional. Again, it was necessary in order to understand Kurosawa’s use of violence to find humanity. In Seven Samurai, Richie would point out, we are emotionally bound to each death, even the deaths of the antagonists, because we are forced to see death for what it really is. Contrast this with other chanbara pictures, in particular, contrast it with The Samurai Trilogy. In the Samurai Trilogy, we see death as something to be overcome. Those who die are those who are beaten; as Musashi Miyamoto moves from one duel to another, we see him find enlightenment. In Seven Samurai, to die is not to be beaten, it is to be human. To live, on the other hand, is to be awarded a little more time before death eventually comes.
What you do with that extra time is what is really important.
Here is where the humane nature of the violence comes to a head. And this is why, in the context of the samurai genre, Seven Samurai is able to tell one fantastic story. See, Seven Samurai isn’t about seven samurai at all, it’s about seven ronin, masterless wanderers who are hired by a group of beset villagers to save their community from the onslaught of murderous bandits. The fate of a ronin, in many instances, was sepukku, or harakiri, the act of self-evisceration brought on by dishonor. That Kurosawa is commenting on both the romance of that old form as well as the seeming pointlessness of it is at the heart of the find cultural symbolism. Where other masterless samurai were disemboweling themselves, these seven, like it or not at times, were using the precious time allotted to them for good.
Hence, the humanity of Kurosawa’s violence. The film is not about the combat, but rather, it’s about an appeal to life. This is why the seven are so heroic, this is why they have been so enshrined in the pantheon of cinematic myth: they are the ultimate examples of humanity’s saviors.
The emergence of this team of heroes as a unit is at the heart of the movie’s epic scope. Physically, the creation of the team as a body, introduced a piece at a time, makes up the film’s first movement. In this party, we see the wizened elder, the stoic master swordsman, the brash peasant, and others join together to protect a village from the onslaught of terrible bandits. From this would emerge the establishment of a new sub-genre in popular film: the “team” picture, where a group of specialists are brought together to accomplish a mission. Ocean’s eleven con-men, the Avengers, the Fellowship of the Ring, and especially the Magnificent Seven may never have come to film without this, the grandfather of all “team” pictures.
It is not the physical emergence of the seven that is most significant to the film’s progression, but rather it is the spiritual one. At that point where life is fully realized, that moment after death, we see a fully actualized body of warriors. And what is most refreshing about these warriors, as opposed to the mythological warriors that we see in samurai movies like The Samurai Trilogy or Harakiri (or, for that matter, cowboy movies like High Noon or My Darling Clementine), is that these warriors are human despite the myth. Their deaths aren’t beautiful like that of the main character in Harakiri, they die in the mud.
Mud. What a profound motif that so penetrates the aesthetics of this visual masterpiece. Mud. What a telling symbol of humanity. What a way to make a non-ugly violence so frightfully real. What a way to humanize the characters at hand. There is so much mud in this movie, and so much rain, that one can’t help but see the symbols of dirt and cleansing, the symbol of the burial of death played out against the backdrop of fighting in dirt that literally sticks to you. Like birth, death, and rebirth, this squabble in the earthy mud is a necessary visual component to Kurosawa’s humane violence.
The spiritual emergence of the seven samurai makes up the second movement the film. In this movement, the samurai develop their relationship with the villagers who have hired them to defend their home. In some instances, samurai fall in love. In others, they seem to get annoyed at them. But in all things, Kurosawa is focused on the humane violence: in one instance, a couple is seen making love (in 1950s cinema-style) in the woods. This is immediately juxtaposed with an image of blood and banditry as one of the antagonists sparks his violent mischief. It is in these instances of love and death that the samurai become a real team, and they develop their own closeness to the villagers they are serving. This is particularly the case as they train the villagers to prepare for the inevitable battle that would come when the harvest was complete, when the bandits would come to gather their spoils. At first, the villagers are difficult, but eventually, they become a competent-enough force, with the samurai as their captains.
All, of course, leading to the third act, “the final battle”, as the chief samurai (played by Takashi Shimura) called it. Here, the violence reaches its head. The rain comes. The mud climbs up the warrior’s clothes. People die. People live. And—sorry for the spoiler—the bandits lose.
The thing that makes it all pulse, and that gives necessary life to the almost four-hour long epic, is Kurosawa’s dexterity with editing. Take for example, his embrace of montage with the juxtaposition of the aforementioned romance in the woods with the violent crime just moments afterwards. It’s not so much the composition of the ideas that give this scene its potency, but rather, it’s the composition of the images themselves. When it comes to the fight itself, the frame is always kept very full, a no point does Kurosawa halt the action to spare the mind. The viewer, like the villagers, the samurai, and the bandits, cannot escape the violence before them until that violence is complete. The battle is one of endurance. And is there anything more real than the need to endure?
There is so much more that I could say here. I could talk about how Seven Samurai came out at the same time The Samurai Trilogy did, giving life to the samurai film on the world stage as never before. I could talk about how the star of The Samurai Trilogy, Toshiro Mifune, was also one of the seven samurai, and at this point, would solidify himself as Japan’s greatest star. I could also talk about the fantastic script, or about the amazing fact that amid all this drama, blood, romance, and violence, Kurosawa actually made a movie with comedy, wit, and heart. There’s even a little slapstick humor. I could also talk about the cultural impact that the film had here in the states, spawning such films as The Magnificent Seven, Star Wars, and even A Bug’s Life and Three Amigos!. But, I really don’t want to detract from the theme at hand. And that theme is the humane violence.
Unlike other samurai films, this movie was about the darker side of conflict. By embracing the rawness of the battle, it embraced the rawness of humanity, those sorts of virtues and weaknesses that take center stage in a culture’s mythology. Surely, of all the samurai films, this one from Akira Kurosawa (a huge fan of John Ford), is one of the most similar to those classic Westerns that are the bedrock of our own culture’s founding myth. This film is the ultimate example of the role of conflict in myth: it brings out the humanity in both sides, good and bad. Just like the myths of Rome and Greece, the myths of Japan and America (the samurai and the cowboys) are centered on fight scenes. From these scenes of strife, we see the humanity of our deities, and come to understand the romance and wonder of overcoming.
Take, for example, these lines from one of the first English-language reviews of Seven Samurai (in The New York Times): “To give you a quick, capsule notion of the nature of this unusual film, let us say it bears cultural comparison with our own popular western High Noon. That is to say, it is a solid, naturalistic, he-man outdoor action, film, wherein the qualities of human strength and weakness are discovered in a crisis taut with peril. And although the occurrence of this crisis 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.”
How is it so transferrable? That’s simple, because it’s about humanity. And it tells its story in that way with which (for some strange reason) we all seem so easily to connect: conflict, violence, strife, and action.
*Note to Readers: Besides the obvious recommendation to read up on my essays regarding Westerns and Samurai films, which can be found at the provided links, I think that now is a great time to review my essays on action films and the proper place of sex and violence in cinema.