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Retro Review: Seven Samurai

Everything old is new again, or so it seems. In Retro Review, our resident film buffs take a dive into a movie classic -- and tell us why it worked then, and whether it still works now. This week, Dominic Uber looks back at Akira Kurosawa's 1954 classic film Seven Samurai THE MOVIE:

Seven Samurai"(1954) by Akira Kurosawa, a strong contender for Greatest-Of-All-Time status. Kurosawa is often credited as one of the most influential filmmakers in cinema history, and is possibly the most well known Japanese director due to his body of 30 works consistently showing in Western cinemas. His five-decade long catalogue remains ever relevant to modern cinema, with Seven Samurai still regarded as the blueprint for the classic tale of a "band of motley heroes protecting the village from bandits". Zack Snyder, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Quentin Tarantino, and Martin Scorsese have all cited Seven Samurai as inspiration for their own work, so something must've gone right. Often likened to a wild western, ironically enough, the movie was Japan's most expensive film to make at the time. If you want to be a filmmaker, you NEED to watch this movie. A legend in cinema history, Seven Samurai is not only an enjoyable film but also a stellar lesson in storytelling.



 



 

WHO'S IN IT?

Takashi Shimura plays our aged but experienced ronin, Kambei Shimada, who assembles the seven in defence of a little village. Among other notable actors, Toshiro Mifune shines through as Kikuchiyo, the drunken samurai, and takes centre stage beside Shimura in their equally enthralling portrayals.


DO I KNOW THEM?


Toshirô Mifune: Acting in lead roles all the way until 1995, just two years from his death, Mifune was a cinema giant who played more than 180 roles during his career. However, despite his impressive and vast tenure as a acting legend, he famously proclaimed that of working with Akira Kurosawa: "I am proud of nothing I have done other than with him." In Seven Samurai, Mifune captures your attention as the temperamental rogue Kikuchiyo, a crazed drunk who proves his worth in the face of adversity, stealing the screen in every scene. Mifune received a BAFTA nomination for Best Foreign Actor in 1956 for his portrayal of Kikuchiyo.


Takashi Shimura: Shimura appeared in 19 of Kurosawa's 30 films, the most of any of his peers, and received both of his BAFTA nominations from Akira's films; as lead ronin Kambei in Seven Samurai (1954), and Ikiru in Ikiru (1952). Shimura takes control of the screen as the seven's bonafide leader and the helpless villagers' protector, his portrayal as a war-weary ronin cementing the film as a shining example of how A-class acting can transform a simple story into a world-class tale. Every scene with Shimura is sure to suck you in to his multilayered theatre.



WHAT'S IT ABOUT? On the surface, it’s a story about a small village that needs saving from a group of bandits who enlist the help of samurai; a classic tale of embittered heroes standing up for ideals long lost in a changing world. 

On the way, the villagers find a mixed bag of unlikely characters to help:

A young man, out to prove himself a real samurai. 

An old wondering warrior always finding himself helping others. 

A crazed drunk pretending to be a samurai. 

A man who cheated death once, who comes back for round two. 

A woodchopper to burn bright when times get dark. 

A perfect Samurai. 

And an intelligent man spared on by curiosity. 

Together, they agree to fight the bandits and risk their own lives for their own individual reasons. On a deeper level, it's a deconstruction of Japanese 'bushido' (moral code) and the artificiality of it concerning the ways of the samurai. Through our heroes, the film looks at what honour really means, and how the values and customs that were once made to protect society, now hold it back. 



WHAT MADE IT WORK THEN? The story is laid out in front of you from the start, yet the morals of the character's choices and interactions are complex, leaving you to decide on your own what is right.  The simplicity cannot be stated enough: it’s why this movie broke through cultural and language barriers to see success in the west. Along with healthy pacing and believable action, it keeps you engaged. 


It was also the the first movie to popularise the 'gathering a gang’ formula in storytelling, where the little guys have to find and put together a gang made up of interesting characters to achieve an objective, i.e: fight the big guys. You would have seen this style in films like The Magnificent Seven (1960), Ocean’s Eleven (2001), or many times in the Star Wars franchise. 


This formula allowed Akira Kurosawa to tell multiple 'B' stories, with the 'A' plot working as a backdrop for the 'B' stories to be told. Each character has their own moral dilemmas or interactions that help illustrate bushido’s flaws within Japanese and samurai culture and enhance the overall complexity and beauty of the film.


DOES IT WORK NOW?


You bet your beeswax it does! 


This movie is legendary and timeless because on the surface, it is such a simple story; but underneath it all lies a deep and complex analysis of culture and relationships. Despite being 69 years old, the movie actually holds up quite well. If you're a western viewer, since it is a Japanese film, you don’t have the cultural awkwardness that you might see in other older films like The Maltese Falcon or Citizen Kane, since Seven Samurai may feel foreign to some other films you may watch. However, that does come as a double-edged sword; the film is only in Japanese, and some of the plot requires an understanding of bushido, samurai, and Japan during the Edo period. 

DO I NEED TO SEE IT? If you care about filmmaking? Yes! See Seven Samurai to better understand how contemporary cinema got to where it is today. After watching Akira Kurosawa's masterpiece in storytelling, you'll better understand how some of your own favourite films came to be.


Rating: 10/10



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