Wednesday, September 14, 2005

SEVEN SAMURAI (1954) - Akira Kurosawa

So after two back-to-back nights of dutiful viewing, with a perfectly timed Intermission in between, I can finally say that I’ve seen Seven Samurai in its entirety. And I still don’t feel like I have really much I can say other than: “It’s a classic.”
I mean “classic” in the sense that it should be shown and discussed in schools alongside Shakespeare, Dickens, Melville, Twain, Cervantes. Shit, if I had to endure both the Bronte sisters in high school, the least they could do is throw in a little sword play. I’m sure many schools nowadays probably do show Seven Samurai, at least in a Film Studies or Japanese History class. That is, those teachers who don’t just phone it in and show the latest Pixar drudgery, letting their students text message in their book reports “Subverting the Fairy Tale: A Study of Shrek 2.”
Where I went to school, calling Seven Samurai a classic in equal standing to “The Classics” would probably have been heresy. You see, I had this long-standing argument with my AP English teacher. Her claim: “Books on the whole are better than movies.” My retort: “It depends on the movie.” To give her due credit, her definition of “movies” at the time was probably confined to the only type of crap that came to our little Virginia multiplex in the late 80s-early 90s – blockbuster Hollywood crap. In this case, she was right.
But my argument was this: There are certain things that great movies can do that even great literature cannot touch. It has to do with the word “movie” itself. It’s MOTION. And the SUSPENSION OF MOTION. It’s “in the cut.” There is just something in the kinetic nature of a cut, the direct juxtaposition of two elements that is more immediate, more affecting than any ten cent metaphor the Bronte sisters can pony up.
And Seven Samurai uses motion brilliantly, whether it the slam-bang staccato cuts of the seven aforementioned warriors running through the tall reeds one by one. Whether it's the horde of attacking warlords moving through rain in the climatic battle. Or whether it be the crazy chicken dances of Toshiro Mifune’s seventh, and certainly most gleefully unhinged, samurai as he taunts the villagers into shape so that they can face down the foe that threatens their way of life.
Kurosawa even uses NON-MOTION brilliantly. Holding long on a transitional shot of a fire that’s slowly drowned out by rain. Holding on the outside of a village hut as a samurai does his nasty but necessary unseen business inside. Holding on a still shot of the faces of the old samurai and his young protégé as they look over the field of now safe and happy farmers, singing and tilling their land, the protégé realizing that he can never be one of them now that he’s taken up the sword.
And, dammit, I just love Takashi Shimura as the samurai master. He’s the Morgan Freeman of this film, all wisdom and all business. I figured when I popped this one in, it was going to be all Mifune’s show. Mifune does have the flashier role, but it is Shimura’s quiet determination that’s going to stick with me. The whole motion / non-motion thing is captured right there in the interplay of those two performances, even the contrasting ways in which they dispense their opponents. One’s a model of clean, swift efficiency. The other all fiery pandemonium. Luckily, Shimura’s in two of my other three picks for this week. I can’t wait.
So film buffs, after six lengthy paragraphs here, I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know. Seven Samurai is indeed a classic. I guess this review is more for AP English teachers than anyone, because I’m also saying it should be a “Classic” on the order of the Great Works. My argument is right there in the run-on length of this review itself – sometimes words can fail you. Kurosawa could have probably said it in a single cut.

1 comment:

Jordan Hoffman said...

I was always fond of the way the whiny villager cried, "We are eating gruel!!!"

Is Kagemusha on your upcoming list? That kicks much ass.