Seven Samurai was not the first criterion in my collection, but it probably should have been. When I first watched this film–a loan from my library–I started to see my ignorance of cinema history clearly, without bias or defensiveness. If it had taken me this long to see Seven Samurai, there must be so many other films I was slow to discover.
A dear friend gifted me the criterion edition of the film. I watched the copy almost immediately, but then Seven Samurai remained on my bookshelf for years. If I had to guess why it took me so long to re-watch the film, I would say the simplicity of its plot is able to trick the person who has forgotten the details. Simplicity is not a bad thing, but when you forget particular images and only remember the story of samurai defending peasants against bandits, the reasons to return to Seven Samurai are hidden from your mind.
Being a samurai is hard work
The samurai film is forever linked with the western. Seven Samurai shows us that the American genre might not be able to translate everything. The easy part is substituting seven samurai with seven gunslingers; the harder part is compensating for the loss of Kurosawa’s curiosity about the physicality of being a samurai. They swing swords as cowboys draw pistols, but Kurosawa emphasizes how much a samurai needs to work, run, climb, build, run and run even more. Seiji Miyaguchi’s character, Kyūzō, is seemingly indefatigable, which is visually contrasted by the stillness of his face.
John Ford’s Stagecoach demonstrates that in the universe of the western, the cowboy is limited in physicality because he is the center that action revolves around. Even as the stagecoach barrels across the plains, the target of the camera is a crouching John Wayne; it is his attackers, indigenous warriors on horseback, that come in and out of frame by the acceleration of their horses. Parts of Seven Samurai show us what happens when bodies move in a universe with no fixity. Even with repeated shots of Kambei Shimada (played by Takashi Shimura) strategizing with a map of the village, the audience cannot assemble shots of huts, rivers and pathways into something logical. The samurai organize the space for themselves, but with a lot of hard work. In fact, Kurosawa gives a lot of the film’s running time to show us all of the human energy behind the plan to have bandits attack from just one direction.
Laughter in melodrama
Plenty of comedies are funny because nobody in the film laugh. It is good that nobody laughs because we need flawed characters to accept the ridiculous premises of a situation with absolute seriousness. This is Spinal Tap, for example, is funny because you are watching an unbelievably bad band dedicate itself to producing great rock ‘n roll. No member of band can see that it is their fate to always fail in embarrassing ways.
Parts of Seven Samurai are humorous and I would even guess some viewers would audibly chuckle at some of its bits. Interestingly, people in the world of Seven Samurai frequently laugh, particularly at the oddball behavior of Kikuchiyo, the ronin jester. This decision of Kurosawa–to let characters laugh when failure, trickery or buffoonery would be funny in the film’s internal world–is important to have the film carry emotional force. The decision works because it balances the darker sides of the melodrama.
I do not know if there is a definite point where Kurosawa’s use of humor would have gone too far and become cheap comic relief; but there might be a way to intuitively know Kurosawa achieved something masterful. Melodrama in film is a tricky balancing act, where so many little things can cheapen or kill the rousing of emotional feeling. Kurosawa shows that moments of sorrow or despair can actually be amplified when characters prefer the emotional states of joy and laughter to anger and sadness. The other samurai laugh at Kikuchiyo because they need an antidote to the cold structure of feudalism. In fact, laughter is a democratic wrecking-ball that breaks the social barriers between samurai and peasant.
This is not our victory
Kurosawa puts an exclamation point on his story by giving the cruelty of medieval Japan the last word in Seven Samurai. When the remaining samurai can only watch the celebration song of the peasants, the audience shares their feelings of exlcusion. In the last remaining minutes of a 207-minute epic, Kurosawa carefully lets the barriers of feudalism return to their repressive heights. Earlier in the film, villagers were rebuked for shamelessly begging for help at the feet of passing samurai; now, during the finale, nobody can imagine that samurai and peasant are equal.