A+ List: Seven Samurai on the big screen

Sunday night, I saw one of cinema’s greatest masterpieces, The Seven Samurai, at the Pacific Film Archive. It was the first time I’d seen it on the big screen in maybe 35 years.

Which isn’t to say that I hadn’t seen it plenty of times at home. I’ve owned this epic on Laserdisc, DVD, a better DVD, and Blu-ray – and all of them purchased at Criterion prices. But nothing compares to the theatrical experience. The auditorium was nearly full, and the audience was enthralled. People laughed, cheered, applauded, and gasped in horror at all the appropriate times. And this for a movie that runs almost 3 ½ hours.

There was an intermission, of course, and during that interval I realized how much this is a guy’s movie. For only the second time in my life, I had to wait in a long line for the men’s room while the women didn’t have to wait at all (the other time was at a tech convention).

Seven Samurai easily belongs amongst my A+ list of all-time masterpieces. I’ve written about the movie before, specifically in this 2010 Kurosawa Diary entry. But this time I have more to say.

This epic, set in the 16th century, tells the story of a war against evil, played on a small scale. The peasants in a remote village know that when their crops are ripe, bandits will swoop down and take everything. So, the would-be victims hire samurai to protect and train them.

The plot has been copied many times since, but no other film compares with the 1954 original. This is an action film with almost no action in the first two hours. Kurosawa takes his time setting up the characters, the village, and the situation. When the real fighting begins, you’ve invested a great deal of emotional capital in these peasants and their protectors.

It’s important to remember that peasants and samurai were not natural allies. A samurai’s job was to protect the wealthy, not the poor. Samurais thought nothing of taking farmers’ property, burning their fields, forcing them into work gangs, or killing them for a minor slight. And the peasants, on the rare occasions when they held the upper hand, could be equally cruel.

Yet here we have peasants hiring samurai. To make it even stranger, these peasants have no money; they can only pay the samurai with food – and that will last only until victory. Each of the warriors has his own reasons for going into a battle that will bring him neither wealth nor fame.

The second half of the film contains some of the greatest action sequences ever created. They’re messy, frightening, and brutal – and yet also exciting and beautiful. When the samurai leader (Takashi Shimura) pulls back his bow and shoots an arrow, the hand-to-hand combat behind him matches his actions.

Like everything else created by humans, The Seven Samurai isn’t perfect. Although the samurai and farmers are fully fleshed-out characters, the bandits are merely nameless monsters whose deaths we can cheer. I suppose that’s how it feels in war.

Kurosawa’s refusal to flesh out the bad guys papers over another problem with the plot: Bandits are not soldiers. If the fighting gets too rough, they look for easier pickings; they’d move on to another village as soon as they see that this one is well protected. But here, they behave like samurai – ready to fight to the death for their cause. I think I saw the film four or five times before this problem bothered me.

If you haven’t seen Seven Samurai (and you should), don’t read any further. Spoilers ahead.

Okay. Everybody here seen the movie? Good. Let’s go on.

Alfred Hitchcock used humor in his suspense thrillers to help the audience let off steam, and to remind them that it’s only a movie. In Seven Samurai, Kurosawa uses humor to soften up the audience for the kill. Few things in a movie is as shocking as the sudden death of a funny character.

The movie has three clearly comic characters, and all of them die in battle. An exceptionally amiable and joking samurai (Minoru Chiaki) is the first major character to die. His death is quick and unexpected. It’s also the moment when we, and the samurai, discover us that some of the bandits have guns – a rarity in 16th-century Japan.

Bokuzen Hidari plays a stupid, perpetually terrified farmer. He’s a funny character, but also, in 1950s Japan, a stereotype. Michael Jeck, in his Criterion commentary, likens the character to Stepin Fetchit, but he’s a Stepin Fetchit who kills one of his white oppressors, then dies due to a mistake made by a friend who was passing for white.

That friend is Toshiro Mifune’s low-borne samurai – easily the most loved character in the movie, and played by the biggest star. A peasant by birth, he’s managed to turn himself into a samurai, which wasn’t supposed to be possible. He’s outrageous, insecure, funny, reckless, and very courageous. He serves as a conduit between the farmers and the samurai. His death is the only truly courageous one in the film.

Four of the seven samurai die defending this little village. And they all die from gunfire. Swords have their limits.

One thing I noticed for the first time in this screening – probably because of audience reactions: Seiji Miyaguchi’s supreme swordfighter is the template for every cool, calm, and collected action hero since. When he matter-of-factly ran towards the bandits to steal a gun, the audience applauded. When he came back, holding the gun, and calmly told the other samurais that he killed two more bandits, the audience cheered.

The Seven Samurai is, among other things, a thoroughly entertaining action movie. But it’s so much more than that.