A couple weeks ago we discussed Gojira (1954), and as promised this week, we will cover the other masterpiece that came out of Japan that same year, Seven Samurai (1954). Seven Samurai is the quintessential Japanese samurai film from the quintessential Japanese director, Akira Kurosawa. The global impact this film had is sometimes overlooked but its status as a defining work of cinema is not. Perhaps we are getting ahead of ourselves, though. Get ready to turn up some ska and jive music as we travel back to the spring of 1998…
It was one of the first warm days of the year, you know the kind that just make you want to go outside. I, on the other hand, was stuck in a classroom during my senior year at Tallwood High. Thankfully, we were saddled with a substitute teacher during one of the last classes of the day, which meant one thing… movie! The featured film on this day’s docket was, you guessed it, Seven Samurai.
While some of my classmates rolled their eyes and decided that this would be the perfect time for a much-needed nap, I was amazed by what I was seeing, in glorious black and white, 35mm film. The complaints of having to read subtitles have never factored into my mind (though this is a serious consideration for some). All I knew was that after that 50 minute period was over, I could not wait for the next day to pick right back up where we left off.
We never finished the movie in that class. The next day came, and the sub was gone. Apparently, someone had complained that we were watching a violent “Japanimation” film in class. Here are the facts…
Fact Number One: Seven Samurai is not “Japanimation,” it is a landmark, foreign language film and seriously, who calls anime “Japanimation” anymore?
Fact Number Three: This same year I had an Oceanography teacher show a bootleg copy of Titanic (1997) during finals! I mean, seriously, it was a camcorder recording. How did that fly?
Needless to say, I never finished Seven Samurai in a school setting. Instead, I scoured the local video store scene for a copy to complete my viewing. Finally, I found a copy at the Naro Expanded Video in Ghent.
Having completed my quest, I finished the film. To this day, I think Seven Samurai is one of the best cast and well-paced movies ever committed to film. The 202 minute running time seems to race by, and it is easy to see why it was so influential to other filmmakers. The samurai films coming out of Japan in the 1950s were the equivalent to the Westerns that were being produced in Hollywood during the same time. They both harkened back to a time of outlaws and danger, which is exactly what Seven Samurai was selling.
The story follows seven samurai as they help protect a village from bandits that annually arrive for tribute. Led by the legendary actor, Toshiro Mifune, the ensemble cast expertly builds seven unique and fully realized characters. A true feat for any work with that many unique leads.
If all of this sounds familiar, it should, because it ended up influencing many of the Clint Eastwood, Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns of the 70’s. The Man with No Name trilogy is based heavily on Yojimbo (1961) and Sanjuro (1962) by Kurosawa and The Magnificent Seven (1960) is a western remake of Seven Samurai. Even Pixar’s Bug’s Life (1998) is a loose adaptation of the film.
Hollywood filmmakers sought to capture that magic that Kurosawa controlled in 1954, but none were ever able to achieve the level of brilliance. Kurosawa is certainly a master director that should be mentioned in the pantheon of great directors such as Wells, Coppola, Ford, Spielberg, Hitchcock and Bergman. This is his masterpiece. Over the grand course of the blog we will return to Kurosawa from time to time. I greatly respect him as an artist and several of his movies rank pretty high on my list of all-time favorites.
Heck, I even named one of my dogs Akira!