By William Benker
Seven Samurai – 1954 – dir. Akira Kurosawa
The philosophical insight Akira Kurosawa unleashes in his epic Seven Samurai stands above most war films ever produced. Though the portrayal of war is common among films, the true essence of conflict itself is often times overlooked. The manner and tempo with which Kurosawa delivers his epic is where the message emerges. With a steady pace and extensive view into every facet of struggle, the director breaches the threshold of cinematic philosophy into a new realm of artistic meaning. In 16th century Japan, the framework of conflict is embodied within seven selfless warriors who use all of their abilities to defeat a clan of bandits. Kurosawa’s stark vision of life itself is extrapolated in the picture. Constantly put into question by smaller battles along the way, the director paints a decadent landscape of morality, giving audiences the very essence of cinema and story in its most ancient form. Seven Samurai is a perfect step-by-step guide into the very heart of conflict.
Kurosawa’s battlefield is a small village of terrorized farmers. We see the sides have already been drawn as the villagers plead on the ground for salvation, pity and even death. Left destitute by bandits, they are without hope; for Kurosawa, this signals the greatest weakness of all. By losing themselves in defeat, the conflict has descended upon the village’s interior and exterior. The political implications are clarified when the farmers seek out advice from the village patriarch “granddad.” In the director’s eyes, the village has reached the lowest of the low and is in dire need of aid. Kurosawa makes evident that the villagers see no hope in their future and are truly beaten.
Kambei (the original cinematic incantation of a future Obi-Wan Kenobi) arrives carelessly, approaching a river, cutting his hair to assume the identity of a priest. Within moments the audience is given some of the most powerful slow-motion seconds in cinema history, as Kambei kills a kidnapper. (Notice, you rarely see Kambei strike at all throughout the film.) Kurosawa’s entrance of the noble warrior resonates well within the tone of the film, as Kambei is uninterested in any sort of thoughtless battle and only agrees to help the villagers upon realizing they’re feeding him the best of their scarce supply of food. But more than once the modest warrior reminds his fellow recruits that their battle will bring them neither fame nor fortune. Kurosawa’s leading samurai has little interest in battle at all. Throughout the careful steps taken towards the films climax, the audience too realizes that fighting is only a small fraction of war. What you have here is a simplified guide to the proper initiative necessary when entering any sort of struggle – when running away is no longer an option.
As any good leader should, Kambei constantly delivers insight on the nature of struggle. Often times in good humor, the more experienced samurai illustrate conflict through minor tests and decisions geared towards two of the less professional warriors. The real philosophy comes in the simplification done throughout the narrative to rid the town of unnecessary distractions and problems ahead of time (with a little help from the villagers, who initially hide their woman from the samurai). The careful planning by Kambei and the others come into play when the battle begins, as they remain calm and collected in the midst of the panic induced chaos of the clumsy villagers. Kurosawa is careful to emphasize the distinction between clear-minded intelligence versus a backdrop of messy public mayhem.
Although each of the seven samurai embody the heroic archetype, only two are given enough faults to illustrate their growth. The youngest samurai, Katsushiro, is anxious to learn from the more experienced of the gang, and is often set aside from the action to observe. He’s allowed the only real romance of the entire picture, introduced several times in a vast bed of flowers. However, his aristocratic background reveals his inability to see the perspective of the common farmer, ultimately illustrating his naivety. Katsushiro serves as the perfect template for the next generation of samurai, emulating each warrior in their own particular skill (wisdom, modesty, humor).
And then there’s Toshiro Mifune’s character, Kikuchiyo. Both farmer and warrior, Kikuchiyo’s chaotic, often humorous behavior keeps the heart of the film light while delivering weighted philosophy through his own actions and insight. Upon the discovery of former samurai armor, Kikuchiyo reveals the duel nature of the farmer/samurai relationship. The farmers are afraid and helpless due to abuse by the stronger (sometimes samurai) forces, but are clearly in need of their aid (you may draw your own allegorical conclusions). Still, Mifune delivers the complex character flawlessly with a perfect mixture for the audience to digest. Kurosawa’s most renowned samurai hybrid helps bridge the gap between the two conflicts inside and outside the village fence.
Seven Samurai stands as a perfect testament to all art. It encapsulates what all great entertainment needs: heart, struggle, anger and fear, as well as humor, intelligence and style. Kurosawa’s epic illustrates the best maneuvers with which to face to an oncoming attack. The warrior protagonists have fought in countless battles before and are certain of the outcome each time. As the long shot rests atop of the horizon of graves and the farmers celebrate their temporary resolution, Kambei sits aside and reflects. The ongoing struggle is relinquished for the time being and Kurosawa acknowledges the casualties. To watch Akira Kurosawa is to study the battle within and ponder the decisions necessary to survive. This is why Seven Samurai stands as an ever-idolized monument of cinema and a testament to the skillful art of its master. A film depicting its director’s own philosophy on the very nature of conflict – a philosophy that has never been so entertaining to watch.