Akira Kurosawa | 207 mins | Blu-ray | 1.33:1 | Japan / Japanese | PG
Seven Samurai used to be a striking anomaly amongst the top ten of IMDb’s user-voted Top 250: it’s a three-and-a-half-hour subtitled black-and-white movie. These days it sits at #21, presumably through a mixture of IMDb tweaking the voting rules and it being rated lowly by people keen to see all of the Top 250 but who don’t typically like three-and-a-half-hour subtitled black-and-white films. Nonetheless, it has a claim to wide popularity (alongside its critical renown) that is rarely achieved by three-and-a-half-hour subtitled black-and-white movies.
In 16th Century Japan, rural communities are terrorised by gangs of bandits stealing their crops, raping their women, and all that other nasty to-do. One village has had enough and, knowing they can’t defend themselves, sets out to employ a band of samurai to defend them when the bandits come again the next year. Samurai aren’t cheap, but the villagers have no money, so they’ll have to make do with what they can get. Managing to snag Kambei (Takashi Shimura) to lead the defenders, he assembles a team, including wannabe Kikuchiyuo (Toshiro Mifune) and five others (Daisuke Katō, Isao Kimura, Minoru Chiaki, Seiji Miyaguchi, and Yoshio Inaba), who then set about preparing the villagers for battle…
Despite its epic running time, Seven Samurai isn’t really an epic film — this isn’t the story of a war, or even a battle, but of a skirmish to defend one village. How does it merit such length, then? By going into immense detail, by having plenty of characters to fuel its narrative and its subplots (and if you think there’d be plenty of time to explore seven characters in over three hours, turns out you’d be wrong), and by using the time to familiarise us with these people, so that when the final fight comes — and that’s a fair old chunk of the film too — we care what happens. Plenty of other films make us care in a shorter period of time, of course, but here we feel truly invested in the outcome.
It’s also unhurried. As Kenneth Turan explains in his essay “The Hours and Times: Kurosawa and the Art of Epic Storytelling” (in the booklet for Criterion’s DVD and Blu-ray releases of the film, and available online here), the film “unrolls naturally and pleasurably… luxuriating in its elongation — it takes an entire hour just for the basic task of choosing the titular seven.” As a viewer, I think you have to be mentally prepared for that pace, in a way. Most other films would use a snappy montage to collate the team, with key scenes or moments later on being used to highlight their personalities — witness any number of Hollywood (and Hollywood-esque) ‘men on a mission’ movies that do exactly that. Kurosawa’s expanded version makes the film more a marathon than a sprint, with only some of the negative connotations describing something as “a marathon” entails.
In truth, this is not the most fascinating portion of the film, but nor is it without merit. As discussed, it’s establishing these characters in full so that we are more attached to them later, but it’s also commenting on, perhaps even deconstructing, the image and role of the samurai. In “A Time of Honor: Seven Samurai and Sixteenth-Century Japan” (again in Criterion’s booklet, and available online here), Philip Kemp explains how Kurosawa’s depiction of the samurai overthrows some simplistic ideals that had become associated with them, and shows them instead as normal human beings, more likely to run away to save their own skin than pointlessly fight to their death. The villagers have indeed managed to employ professional combatants, but they’re not so different to the villagers themselves, just better trained.
The length ensures our investment in the village, too, just as it does for the samurai. They’re not being paid a fortune — in fact, they’re just being paid food and lodging — so why do they care? Well, food and lodging are better than no food and lodging, for starters; and then, having been in the village so long in preparation, they care for it too. It is, at least for the time being, their home. You can tell an audience this, of course, but one of the few ways to make them feel it is to put them there too — and that’s what the length does. To quote from Turan again,
The film’s length works in its favor in ways both big and small: It allows the samurai leader, whose head is shaved in an opening scene, to gradually grow his hair back. It allows the eternally uneasy bond between the samurai and the villagers, as well as the villagers’ martial confidence, to grow believably over time. … When the bandits finally do attack, our hearts are in our throats — we know the defenders so well, and we can sense that not everyone will survive.
It can seem like a blind alley to go on about a film’s length — many an epic is long just because it has a long, or large, story to tell — but in Seven Samurai, the sheer size, and the way it uses that, are almost part of the point.
The film ends with a melancholic note. That “eternally uneasy bond between the samurai and the villagers” comes to an end — with victory won, the surviving samurai are no longer required. The farmers return to farming, the samurai return to… what? They are not really at home in the village, they were just guests; nor are they rich, because there was no pay — so what have they got out of the conflict? As Alain Silver notes in “The Rains Came: Kurosawa’s Pictorial Approach to Seven Samurai” (in Criterion’s booklet, of course, but not online), the final scene, the way it’s edited and framed, ties the remaining samurai to their deceased comrades, the living and thriving farmers a distant and separate group. Fighting is the way of the past, perhaps, and peaceful farming the future. Or is the samurai’s only purpose to be found in death, because other than that they are redundant?
Even if you don’t want to get into the film’s philosophical underpinnings, there are plenty of other, more visceral thrills to enjoy. The characters provide humour as well as emotional depth; there are scattered “action sequences” throughout; and the big climax may technically only be a skirmish, but it’s one played out in detail, to epic effect. There’s not the choreography that viewers used to modern blockbusters or Hong Kong fisticuffs might expect, but that doesn’t meant the rough and realistic fighting isn’t exciting or well-constructed. Drenched in rain and covered in mud, it’s messy and, in its own way, beautiful. The whole film is visually stunning, as you’d expect from a Kurosawa picture. You may not realise it at the time, but many a familiar type of shot actually originated here, and then was copied down the ages.
It might seem difficult to credit now, but Seven Samurai was only fairly well received in Japan on its initial release: as Stuart Galbraith IV reveals in “A Magnificent Year” (also in Criterion’s booklet (where else?)), most of the awards for Best Picture went elsewhere, and at the box office it was comedies and romances that were the big crowd-pleasers. And it wasn’t as if it was overseas viewers who hit on the magic: as Turan reveals, “Toho Studios cut fifty minutes before so much as showing the film to American distributors, fearful that no Westerner would have the stamina for its original length.” The more things change the more they stay the same, I suppose — how many Great Films from Hollywood are ignored by awards bodies and audiences, only to endure in other ways?
Seven Samurai is definitely a case of the latter. Its standing on the IMDb list may have slipped with time (and rule changes, no doubt), but it’s still a trend-bucker — a three-and-a-half-hour subtitled black-and-white film that can appeal, if not to the masses, then to some people who wouldn’t normally go in for that kind of thing. A marathon but not a slog, requiring investment rather than passive absorption, Kurosawa’s epic rewards the viewer with one of cinema’s most enthralling, gorgeous, and vital experiences.
Seven Samurai placed 1st on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2013, which can be read in full here.
This review is also part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2014. Read more here.