The Seven Samurai
Seven Samurai is deservedly called a masterpiece. Directed by famed Akira Kurosawa, the Seven Samurai set the bar for decades, and still influences modern cinema. This film is truly epic especially considering it was filmed in 1954.
The theme in Seven Samurai is about class structure, social roles and honor. In the early fifties Japan was recovering from defeat by America and its allies. This was a time when Japan was reevaluating their society and their goals. More importantly what roles would the Japanese as individuals play in the future, and what would that mean to the traditional caste system in Japan. This Analysis will attempt to explore how these themes are expressed by considering three major scenes and then covering the overall technical and style choices of the film.
There are so many scenes and even shots, within the Seven Samurai that give subtle clues to character and narrative, that it is difficult to single out certain sequences without feeling like you are cheating the movie. A few scant pages could not do justice to the power of this film. Someone not familiar with Japan or not very observant may miss some of the hints that are given as to character and narrative. As an example there is a shot in the city where Sitiji meets his old friend Kambei at the stable. When Kambei asks Sitiji if he is tired of fighting Sitiji stoops down and turns his slippers towards the door, signaling his willingness to leave with Kambei for another battle.
In order to pick out the main themes in this film it will help to delve into the choices that Kurosawa made in filming a few very specific scenes. Kurosawa’s past as a painter likely influenced his ability to compose a shot with several distinct faces at multiple distances performing and reacting in very different ways. This makes for very complicated but emotionally diverse frames.
The first very specific example I will explore is a classic shot. Even today we see this technique used but this kind of camera use and composition started with masters like Kurosawa. When the villagers have spent some time training with the samurai and have begun to trust them there is a scene where they all gather with the samurai in the village center. This is the same place where the entire village was earlier lamenting their fate, when they found out that the bandits would return. They have returned and are surrounding Kambei and Sitiji as he speaks to them. The villagers are sitting in an organized circle, shoulder-to-shoulder, and facing Kambei. The camera travels around the outside of the circle facing in on a long dolly shot. We see the sitting villagers and a full shot of Kambei and Sitiji from eye level. It is obvious the point made in this sequence is that the villagers and the samurai have formed a force and have chosen leadership. More striking than this is the fact that each villager has a spear over his shoulder pointing out of the circle. As the camera moves around the circle the points of the spears jut out at the audience almost appearing to stick out of the screen. This gives the previously confused and weak village a menacing and imposing appearance. I believe the intent of this scene is to represent the power of the old system in Japan.
A very militaristic hierarchy was necessary during the feudal period in Japan to protect the different clans from each other. Of course the scene ends with an example of what happened when someone tried to break ranks and be an individual. One of the villagers, whose house is outside the protective boundaries set up around the town, tries to lead a revolt and get his neighbors to join him. Kambei draws his sword and drives them back in line and warns them that if they do not act together they will fall. This is a clear example of the subjugation of individual freedom required by Japans caste system in order for a small group to persevere. This is illustrated beautifully with a crane shot looking down at a long line of villagers as Kambei herds these wayward villagers back to the flock, forming a wall of people. Adding momentum to the scene is a strong gale that blows dust and debris across the screen. The impact of this scene is not diminished by a lack of musical score. The blowing wind and yelling gives the scene a desperation that would be diluted by trying to force emotion on the scene with music. The center of the village plays stage to the most poignant scenes of the movie.
All of the main characters offer an archetypal persona or atypical social stance. Their dialogue with one another is a dialogue within a culture. The most powerful and outrageous character within Seven Samurai is Kikutio. It is impossible to analyze this film without addressing Tosiro Mifune’s orphan turned samurai. Mifune manages to cavort and holler and bark, while controlling and expressing and living a character that few actors could even now play with believability. Kikutio’s past is not revealed to us until late in the film. It is clear however that he was never a real samurai.
We see Kikutio in another important scene explain for Kambei, and by extension the audience, how the samurai and villagers have coexisted in the recent past. A cache of weapons and armor has been found. The samurai know from experience that the equipment was taken from the bodies of dead samurai or stolen from samurai who were killed while alone and on the run; likely by the very villagers that are now wanting the samurai to save them from the bandits. Mifune handles the dialogue expertly and to show the impact of this scene and its connection to the purpose of this film I will transcribe Kikutio’s diatribe.
Foxy beasts!, They say they have nothing but, dig under the floors… You’ll find plenty. They pose as saints but are full of lies. Farmers are stingy, foxy, blubbering, mean, stupid and murderous!…God Damn that’s what they are,…But then who made them such beasts!?…You did! You samurai did it!…You burn their villages, force them to labor, take their women…
Kikutio then breaks down in tears. Kambei also begins to cry and asks Kikutio if he was a farmers son. Unwilling to answer Kikutio stumbles out of the house and escapes down the road.
Again Kurosawa rightly makes the decision to have no musical accompaniment to this scene. Mifune is allowed and able to carry the entire emotional load of the scene. His impassioned yelling becomes a bray as we see a glimpse into his tortured past. Kambei is wise enough to see through to the truth behind Kikutio’s bravado. Kurosawa uses only one edit during Kikutio’s speech. The majority of it is a medium shot of Kikutio’s bust. He has dressed up as though he is a small boy playing at being a samurai. The only break is to show Kikutio throw a handful of arrows against the wall. I feel this shot of the arrows is an example of Kikutio’s anger throughout his life. No direction, lashing out at everything around him. All those who are caught between the shame of their position in life and their pride in that same position share Kikutio’s torment. Wanting to exist on the next level but resenting it at the same time. Kikutio has to find an outlet for his anger and passion. After the death of Gorobei and Yohei, Kikutio finds his place.
Feeling responsible for Gorobei and Yohei’s death Kikutio takes up the banner that Heinati fashioned before his death, and plants it on the roof of the villages tallest building calling out to the villagers and samurai to take up arms and not give up. The villagers are all standing on the hill that contains the burial mounds of the fallen samurai and villagers. This long low angle shot shows the villagers scattered on the hill around different mounds that are silhouetted against a cold grey sky. The samurai’s burial mounds have their weapons pointing into the sky and again a strong wind is blowing dust across the actors and the sky. The villagers turn and see the banner it says boldly ‘Farmers’ and has seven triangles representing the samurai. Their strength and courage is renewed and they are ready to fight again. This scene shows the villagers in the bleakest of circumstances. Defeated and literally facing death, until Kikutio calls down to them from the rooftops. They all must continue to work together.
The story behind Rikiti is another example of a code of honor and class structures effect on someone. We know from the beginning that something has happened to Rikiti at the hands of the bandits. He is the most desperate to find samurai and fight back. We find later in the movie the reason Rikiti is so filled with rage. Kyuro, Heinati, Kikutio and Rikiti head off to the bandits hideout to mount a surprise attack. They come down a tight valley and find the bandits asleep in their huts. The samurai set fire to the huts and prepare to kill the bandits as they are smoked out. Peering through the cracks in the hut Kyuro and Heinati see a young woman wake up. Kurosawa uses a soft focus and a medium shot to introduce us. She is beautiful but something is wrong. The woman appears dazed, maybe even drugged. She seems to have woken from a nightmare and realizes she is still living the nightmare. When she notices the flames licking up the walls she nearly yells out in terror, but then stops. Kurosawa gives us a close-up of the woman as she slowly smiles. The fire all around her is reflected in her eyes as she devilishly grins and then quietly lies back down. The samurai kill several bandits as they flee from the burning building unarmed. Just as they are about to make their get away the woman comes to the opening in the burning building. She is laughing at the carnage her captors have endured, when Rikiti sees her. This woman is his wife. He rushes to her against the commands of the others. Kurosawa, instead of using a series of close-ups to show the emotion of the scene, uses a single full shot of Rikiti and his wife to make the meaning of the scene our focal point. Rikiti’s wife sees him coming and turns and runs headlong into the flames. She is ashamed of what she has become. So much so that she destroys herself rather than live with the shame. I cannot help but wonder if Kurosawa may be drawing parallels to the young women seduced by American G.I.’s after the war. More importantly we see someone who believes that now that they have fallen out of their class position they cannot return. Self-destruction is the answer for the hopeless.
I could go on and on about the intricacies of the myriad of scenes and shots in this classic film. There are several techniques that Kurosawa uses in this film to add to the composition and content.
There are several shots where the focal characters are downtrodden and in despair. At these times Kurosawa films during heavy rain. The darkness and roar of the rain makes the situation seem more hopeless than any musical score could have done. Panning shots are used to add action to several shots of descending mobs. The descending mob has been used every since, even by George Lucas in Star Wars. Tracking shots are also used to give momentum to the shots with horses. This effect also allows for a great sight gag, where Kikutio tries to ride Yohei’s old horse. He charges off across the road and then is obscured by a long fence. The camera continues to track the unseen horse and when it emerges from the fence, it is being chased by a limping Kikutio. The entire village and the audience have a good laugh at Kikutio and the horse’s mutual stubbornness.
This film is a wonderful critique of the traditional caste system in Japan. Kurosawa gives this system credit for its usefulness in earlier times when he shows the villagers all sitting with their spears around the samurai like a pincushion. We see in later portions of the movie that ultimately the times change and this formula must change with it. We see how individually and socially this system does not translate successfully into these new times. I think that the final decision on what the new system should be is not given to us by Kurosawa. He asks us the question in the closing shot. We see Kambei and Katsusiro and the burial mounds of the dead heroes with dust blowing over them. The villagers sing while harvesting their fields. Life goes on and we must all decide individually what our place will be, because the old classes will never be able to mix. Ultimately we must all find our own place in helping our nation achieve success.