Seven Samurai / Akira Kurosawa / 1954 /
Active Ingredients: Richness of character and theme; Epic scope; Framing
Side Effects: Some tones might feel unfamiliar to Western audiences
Seven Samurai is a film so rich and prismatic as to belie its simple, elemental narrative. The compelling moral fable advanced by Kurosawa (and copied so relentlessly in Western cinema) is justly remembered, but what’s often overlooked is the geometrically interlocking subplots, the universe of human experience the film establishes and the complex ways those experiences group and interact, reach out and perhaps ultimately fail to truly integrate.
Never has the individual and the group been so richly explored narratively, and compellingly dramatized visually. Again and again, Kurosawa frames exquisite, dynamic compositions emphasizing layers of alignment between characters, either deepened into discrete fields with wide-angle lenses, or flattened into stark juxtaposition by telephoto ones. The facility with which these tableaus are composed and intercut is just one of the film’s many miracles.
Another is in the way these framings and orientations of characters resonate with the film’s themes of powerlessness, righteousness, bravery and social station. These themes come to bear within the relationships between the farmers and the samurai, but also within the different shadings of the samurai themselves: Katsushiro’s implied wealthy upbringing, for example, subtlety emphasized by costuming; or Heihachi’s uncommon kindness and softness, emphasized by his lightheartedness and connection to the farmers. Watching the film again with each character in mind reveals unimaginable depth of personality and precise emotional shading, each strand entire structurally sound with its own complete arch and compelling resolution. Katsushiro’s coming of age, for example, is a total story in its own right, just one circle in the Heihachi’s tapestry representing all of Seven Samurai.
The most memorable of these strands, of course, is Toshiro Mifune’s absolutely titanic performance as Kikuchiyo. He’s jester, fool, outsider, protege, rebel and moral center all at once, and his journey to reconcile (or the impossibility of reconciling) his past as farmer with the ideals of samurai righteousness constitutes both the most emotional elements of the film, and the most intellectual compelling. Mifune seethes with rage, sharing equal mistrust of and distain for both social classes. This speaks to a tragic and destabilizing self-loathing, an anguished wail at the universe for its unjustness and suffering. Mifune brings all of these dimensions to Kikuchiyo to the screen through the unique physicality, even athleticism, of his performance. His body and its array of movements and contortions equals any of the action fireworks Kurosawa delivers in the film’s climax.
There’s an entire universe to discover in Seven Samurai, a constellation of themes, characters, narratives and formal style. It’s both this richness and the elegance of its execution that make it one of the greatest and most enduring of films.