Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Akira Kurosawa’s ‘Seven Samurai’ – A Review

Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai has received and will be receiving numerous glowing reviews. Mine, for this 1954 film which is set in the 16th century Japan, should be forgiven for its limited understanding and constrained knowledge.

This is my second experience with Kurosawa, the first being his ‘Rashomon’, another classic. I was to write about Rashomon, but watching ‘Seven Samurai’ made the decision reversed and an immediate urge to express my feelings on this masterpiece was irresistible.
The film is 3 hours 27 minutes long, co-written, edited and directed by Akira Kurosawa. Music is by Fumio Hayasaka and cinematography is by Asakazu Nakai. Story revolves around a village of farmers who are repeatedly looted by a group of bandits hire seven samurai to fight and destroy the bandits.

Kurosawa’s two preferred actors for most of his films play the lead roles. Takashi Shimura plays Kambei Shimada, the aged, strategic samurai who is the leader of the seven. Toshirō Mifune, the energetic bandit in Rashomon, plays the role of Kakuchiyo, the playful, show-off, brave outcast who is later accepted as a samurai.


Very slick and concise in camera movements, cinematography for this black and white film is memorable for three reasons: one, as widely acknowledged, Kurosawa’s use of wide angle lenses which tends to flatten the depth of field. He addresses that issue by enhancing the contrast between foreground, midfield and background subjects. Combining light and darkness/shade for the foreground objects to the background creates a stunning painting like quality, hallmark of Kurosawa.

Second, composition of frames. Shots without faster camera movements are invariably composed systematically, symmetrically and aesthetically. I could not recollect even one frame which is not elegantly composed.

Third, creating sense of movement. Be it horses speeding through mountainous jungles or samurai running across the thick shrub, the speed with which camera moves with the subject creates the sense of viewer moving with the subject. Be it difficult terrain with steep gradient or thick forests, the precision and maintenance of focus is absoloute.


As in Rashomon, mostly single instrument is preferred, but in Seven Samurai, there are certain orchestration and strings involved, often mingled with chorus. In critical situations, Kurosawa leaves with actual BGM and cuts off any instrumental accompaniment as in the climax.


Very sensitive and meticulous mixing of actual BGMs run throughout the film. The hut in which the seven samurai stay has a small stream running by the side. Whenever the camera enters the hut, distant gurgling of water starts. Not one scene misses it.

In the climax, a calculated mix of sounds of rain, feet crumpling in the mud, trampling horses’ hooves and human cries with the editing of Kurosawa projects a very powerful visual. Larger legs of horses and thin legs of men move in an intertwined pattern of back and forth in the close-up shot creating the mayhem in the viewer’s mind.


Takashi Shimura as Kambei Shimada, the leader of the samurai, is a philosophical, war scarred veteran. The wry smile and cool headedness, even during the most trying times like unwelcoming attitude of the farmers initially, their accusations, losing his men – he holds aloft the character.

Only scene where his eyes gloss with tears, that too a suggestion, was when Kakuchiyo pours out that it was samurai who had made the farmers greedy and ruthless by killing them and raping their women. By his histrionics, Kakuchiyo reveals unintentionally that he was not a samurai by birth, but a farmer’s son himself. Kambei Shimada, sitting quietly all through the show, lifts his head to Kakuchiyo and as camera moves to a closer shot, one could see his face as calm as ever, lips uttering, ‘You are a farmer’s son!’ but eyes filling up.

I do not recollect such histrionics in performing an ebullient and rebellious character. May be M.N. Nambiar of Tamil filmdom, I think I can equate to Toshiro Mifune’s Kakuchiyo in Seven Samurai. Kakuchiyo is fun loving, poking the villagers to be brave, loud and often mischievous. Brave and often trying extra hard to prove a point to the leader (probably because he is originally an outcast and not a samurai) in his commitment to the cause, he dies in the climax, killing the bandit leader.

There was this 3 minutes solo scene for Mifune, when the samurai team finds out that the farmers are not as innocent as they look and they have killed samurai earlier in fear of losing their women to samurai. As the team sits and muses over it, Kakuchiyo (Mifune), wearing an armour of a deceased samurai, performs a scene which I think is matched only by Al Pacino in the climax scene of ‘The Devil’s Advocate’ as a Satan, for its grace and intensity.

Kikuchiyo accepts that the farmers are deceiving and yes, they had killed samurai earlier as well. But who had made them do that? It was samurai, he accuses, pointing his finger at the other six sitting watching his intensity. He finishes, breaks and falls to the ground and weeps.

Again the composition of the shot is marvelous. To Kakuchiyo’s back was the opening to the hut, outside which was brightly lit, so brightly lit that no objects were identifiable. The squarish opening to the hut forms the background canvas for the bearded Kakuchiyo with dark metal helmet and armour, moving across the canvas in a mid long shot. Looking directly into the camera for almost the entire shot, Mifune gives an unforgettable performance.


Akira Kurosawa’s editing is crisp, to say the least. Not one shot or the length of any frame is superfluous in the entire film. Uncomplicated cuts and mix of close-ups and mid shots make one wonder how adequate it would be for master director to be editors themselves!

Human Values

When samurai enter the village, the farmers are unwelcoming since they fear that samurai could covet their women and say so to them. Yet they finally settle down amicably with samurai to fight against the bandits. Kambei, the leader of samurai, commits nothing to the villagers on that and sets about setting the place right.

But mid way through their preparations, the youngest samurai of the seven, Katsushiro falls in love with Shino, a village girl, who stimulates him to be with her. When he hesitates, she even calls him, chicken.

On the eve of the final battle with the bandits, she pulls him into a hut and they come out of it after a union. Father of the girl catches them red handed and becomes furious. In front of the leader, he accuses that the samurai had seduced his daughter. The girl cries silently not refuting the allegation. The high point of the scene is Kambei remains silent and when the father refuses to get calm, one by one, the crowd, the father, Kambei and his men leave the scene, all in different direction into the night, leaving the weeping girl on the ground and the young samurai alone facing different directions – from an aerial view.

The girl was selfish – representing the farmers’ collective opinion about samurai and their utility to them. When the final battle with the bandits was won, losing four samurai, including Mifune, they prepare to leave the village. The villagers were enjoying, playing drums and singing songs and planting paddy seedlings – none of them accompanying the remaining three samurai.

As the three depart, the girl approaches and crosses the young samurai without a word, goes over to her field. The samurai hesitates, turns from his master toward the girls and steps with a hurt look. The girl glances back on him, and in a swift move to her work as it to swipe everything off what happened the previous night, she starts to plant the seedlings with a hurried song.

She had, while luring the samurai into the hut the previous night, says to him that they may not live the next day, meaning time is short and that they should make love. The unsuspecting young samurai replies, “We may live”.

The farmers feigned weakness and fear of the bandits. Yet they hid the fact that they had killed some samurai earlier. The farmers had lost very few in the defeat of the bandits for paying just three meals a day to the samurai and as their goal is achieved, their innocence or cowardice was taken over by their crude happiness. Kambei muses dryly to the other samurai that they were defeated and it was the farmers who had won. He means that they had fought other’s battle and were not reciprocated.

That single statement was the only expression of resentment from the samurai who otherwise was a committed soldier. This questions the values of fighting for a cause and the reciprocation for the losses suffered. How a class is ruthless, extracting and yet surreptitiously vile to others is depicted subtly.

Use of Nature as Elements

As always Akira Kurosawa uses all natural elements – jungle, mountains, streams, trees and even wind to maximize the composition of frames and enhance the impact value of the scenes.

His favourite element, rain, returns in the climax to a grand effect, creating a dark mood. Felling of humans and horses, mud sodden bodies and criss-crossing shots amidst the non-ceasing rain and thick BGM adds to the heightening climax.

In contrast, the immediate next scene depicts the samurai leaving the village, as the farmers return to their fields, singing in bright sunshine, in clear mix of shots. The shock value created of this intentional mix of mood and contrast is immense.

A master’s true masterpiece!


Anonymous said...

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Saravanan said...

Thanks for your comment!

I will live up to your expectations!

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