This epic set in the 16th century deals with war, honor, courage, and yes, that homo subtext ever present in male bonding movies – punctuated by Toshiro Mifune’s bold butt-baring performance.
Many official “classics” have a faintly musty aura, particularly historical epics, which are rarely revived. It’s as if the distance between modern audiences and the culture of the 1950s, the golden age of the epic, has become too daunting. Add another distancing layer, a foreign culture like Japan with its very different historical traditions, and the gap would seem unbridgeable for American audiences. And, for the final overwhelming touch, throw in a three and a half hour running time.
It’s more than surprising, given these conditions, that Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954) is as riveting today as it was when it was released, an annihilating melodrama that works equally well on the epic and the intimate scale.
Set in the social chaos of 16th-century Japan, the story (co-written by Kurosawa) tells of a poor farming village besieged yearly by bandits, who steal their women and raid their precious rice crop. As harvest time nears, the bandits begin to appear and in desperation, the farmers solicit the services of a group of samurai – once noble warriors who can now be had for as little as the price of a meal. Kanbei (Takashi Shimura) is the leader, and he recruits five others. The seventh is Kikuchiyo (Mifune), a buffoonish, drunken samurai wannabe, who follows the men and eventually endears himself to them. The first half of the film details the bonding of this group, their uneasy relations with the villagers, and the strategies they formulate for fighting the bandits. The remainder of the film is a series of stunningly visualized skirmishes that lead to the final battle.
Kurosawa was well aware of the limitations of the genre he was working in, and Seven Samurai is in part a record of his strategies in overcoming them. He said of the film, “I think we ought to have richer foods, richer films. And so I thought I would make this kind of film, entertaining enough to eat as it were.” This “richness” comes from many sources: dynamic framing, editing, and camera movements; authentic historical detail; a “tapestry” plot that weaves together many strands; and a range of performance styles from mute-stylized (Seiji Miyaguchi as Kyuzo the swordsman) to operatically intense (Toshiro Mifune as Kikuchiyo). From his early training as a painter comes the film’s strong pictorialism, reminiscent of both western (John Ford) and eastern models (Eisenstein). In particular, the small, struggling community whose village he often shows in long shot, is reminiscent of John Ford’s motley band of settlers in films like The Searchers. Also like Ford (much admired by Kurosawa) is Kurosawa’s powerful sense of moral outrage at human exploitation, seen especially in lingering close-ups of the miserable masklike faces of the villagers and in Mifune’s long speech in which he indicts all samurai for having robbed and killed villagers throughout the country. Unlike Ford, Kurosawa was a leftist, both men arriving at the same conclusion from different directions.[PIC: Samurai group]Kurosawa’s desire to entertain pushed him to experiment. To bring to viewers the immediacy of the final rain-soaked battle, the director employed a device rare in films of the time, the telephoto lens. This is extremely effective in the three-shot technique seen throughout the battles: a bandit enters the village on a horse; one of the samurai attacks him; in close-up the horse’s feet dance in frantic entrapment through the mud as the bandit falls and is set upon by the villagers.
In the midst of this epic sweep are small personal stories and incidents, always staged for maximum emotional effect. Typical is a scene where Kurosawa shows us the frozen face of one of the villagers in close-up. Approached by the samurai, the camera glides back to show the villager holding an enormous pole on which one of the bandits is impaled, the villager too shocked by what he’s done to let go. In another scene, a villager fails to prevent the theft of some rice, and Kurosawa shows him miserably picking up the few remaining grains, gleaming white on a black table.
Mifune as the exuberant but doomed Kikuchiyo brilliantly embodies the very different aspirations of the two groups. He exists precariously between them – a farmer’s son who hates the samurai for having destroyed his village during his youth, but now a man who’s drawn to their honor code, camaraderie, and lust for adventure.
The homoerotic undertones, inevitable in such a masculine world, ripple through the story and add weight to it. The young samurai’s devotion to both Kanbei and Kyuzo skirts the masochistic, as he repeatedly kneels before both in praise and supplication. Kurosawa is well aware of this, as he focuses repeatedly on the boy’s intense, transported smile and burning eyes. Mifune, always praised as an actor but vastly underrated as a hunk, is a vision of butch bravado. In one scene, he entertains his fellow samurai by stripping to a g-string to catch a fish. In the whole last sequence, he wears a sort of abbreviated chain mail vest that shows his smooth muscular arms and exposed ass – one of cinema’s finest – to great advantage.
A few critics have carped that Kurosawa sublimated character to historical sweep, that the samurai and the villagers are not flesh and blood men but “types,” lost in the director’s elaborate epic canvas. But the director’s masterful manipulations never confuse the parts each person plays in the story, and he does indeed bring life to those we need to know intimately – the swordsman Kyuzo, the novice Katsushiro (Ko Kimura), the leader Kanbei, and, supremely, Mifune as Kikuchiyo. If other characters seem less defined, this is absolutely right – an indictment of the destruction of individual identity that’s perhaps the most devastating effect of war.