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When watching “Seven Samurai,” one must remember two things: The first is that Asian cinema has been at a great disadvantage to their western counterparts. At a time when Asia was still trying to come out of the shadow of World War II, America and other Western powers were already a dominant force in world cinema. The Asians had a hard time trying to find the balance between art and social commentary and simple entertainment.
The second thing to keep in mind is that before 1990 — and even to a point after 1990 — a lot of Asian films were shot on terrible filmstock. Many films were actually using filmstock that were dozens of years old. This usually resorted in grainy pictures and scratches on the film. Filmmaking was an expensive venture and required a lot of time and dedication, not to mention money. Which leads me to this conclusion: I cringe every time I see “Seven Samurai,” because the filmstock is so bad that it tries its damnedest to destroy Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece. And let’s not talk about the quality of film cameras available back then.
“Citizen Kane” is commonly regarded as the greatest movie ever made, especially in light of its time period and the many innovations that Welles pioneered. In that same light, “Seven Samurai” is one of the greatest, if not the greatest, Asian film ever made. Although, as prefaced, its grainy filmstock leaves a lot to be desired. Unlike Welles, Kurosawa had neither the budget nor the technical resources at his disposal to film the movie the way he might have wanted to. Anyone who has seen Kurosawa’s later samurai work understands that the man had a great eye for cinematography.
The plot of “Seven Samurai” is well known, so I won’t bother to go in great detail. Long story very short: a town is constantly under attack by bandits so they send out men to hire samurais to defend them. They find one samurai, who recruits others. Like the westerns and other movies that came after it, there is a seventh samurai (gunfighter, mercenary, etc.) who isn’t chosen, but tags along anyway, and is eventually brought into the fold after proving his worth (and in some cases, her worth). The samurai fight and half of them die by movie’s end.
The action in “Seven Samurai” is very brief and shown in spurts. The only action scenes that are drawn out are the major battles with the bandits. As in reality, samurai sword battles consisted of long periods of standing and scrutinizing each other — what you might call posing — and then the actual fight, which lasts for less than a second. The person still standing is the winner. In that regard, it’s similar to a gunfight. Long periods of contemplation followed by a brief flash of action.
“Seven Samurai” is a masterpiece that has spurred many foolhardy imitators. The American western “The Magnificent Seven” has been the only movie to ever approach “Seven’s” greatness, and it was able to achieve this by transplanting the samurai to the Wild West. The change of scenery worked. Others have not been so lucky.
Akira Kurosawa (director)
CAST: Takashi Shimura …. Kambei Shimada
Toshiro Mifune …. Kikuchiyo
Yoshio Inaba …. Gorobei Katayama