Seven months ago, personal responsibilities forced me to lay aside my goal of watching every available Kurosawa film in the order they were made. I’ve just restarted it.
The long break came in-between my two favorite Kurosawa films, Ikiru and Seven Samurai. I own both films on DVD, so I can’t even blame Netflix for the delay.
So let’s pick up as if the delay never happened.
Based on Kurosawa’s work so far, you’d have every reason to expect Seven Samurai to be a stinker. Up until now, Kurosawa has proved incapable of making two good movies in a row. The pattern of his career had been to follow very good to great films like Stray Dog and Rashomon (the odd-numbered ones) with messes like Scandal and The Idiot (the even-numbered ones). So naturally, Ikiru—one of the greatest films of all time and Kurosawa’s 13th film (an odd number)–should be followed by a real turkey.
It didn’t happen that way, and he wouldn’t make a bad film for a very long time. Kurosawa followed Ikiru—to my mind the greatest contemporary drama ever—with Seven Samurai, the greatest serious action film. Here’s how I describe it in the Bayflicks Newsletter when it turns up in a local theater:
If you think all action movies are mindless escapism, you need to set aside 3½ hours and watch Kurosawa’s epic masterpiece. The basic story–a poor village hires warriors to defend them against bandits–has been retold many times since, but Kurosawa told it first and told it best. This is an action film with almost no action in the first two hours. But when the fighting finally arrives, you’re ready for it, knowing every detail of the people involved, the terrain that will be fought over, and the class differences between the peasants and their hired swords. One of the greatest movies ever made.
That doesn’t begin to describe everything Seven Samurai has going for it, from the detailed portraits of the main characters to the critique of the Japanese class system, to the beautifully assured and controlled staging and camerawork. The battles look horrifying and chaotic, and never lose their excitement or kinetic beauty.
Kurosawa’s primary theme—the importance of kindness and charity in an otherwise cruel universe—comes through loud and clear. The title characters all have their reasons for signing on to this thankless little war, risking their lives for peasants (inferiors scarcely worth a glance) who can pay them only with food. But their leader, played by the great Takashi Shimura, offers his help and creates a team because he sees how desperately the farmers need help.
In my Ikiru post, I called Shimura “more talented than [Toshiro] Mifune…although less charismatic.” Yet in Seven Samurai, he displays the charisma of a true leader. This is a man whom other warriors will gladly follow into battle.
Shimura played the lead role, but Mifune got top billing. His name meant more at the box office, of course, but he also steals the picture as a boisterous samurai of questionable heritage. He acts like a man with something to prove and something to compensate for (note the size of his sword), a fighter both comic and tragic.
Eight of Kurosawa’s next nine films could reasonably be called Toshiro Mifune star vehicles. Shimura would continue to appear in Kurosawa films for the rest of his life, but he would never again get a leading role. I don’t know why.