lots ot say about this film, but it’s probably all been said before. it belongs amongst the top 4 films (citizen kane, vertigo, rules of the game being the others) of all-time from a critical standpoint. of those four films, this one is my favorite.
from a macro perspective the two things that strike me the most about this picture are the storytelling and characters. to me, kurosawa is one of the best storytellers in film. when i first watched this film i was a bit turned off by the 207 minute running time. this time around, though, it didn’t phase me. i attribute this to two things: kurosawa’s storytelling and my recent string of long films which may have increased my endurance in this category. much is made over the pacing of kurosawa’s storytelling – that he contrasts quick scenes with longer ones and that the pace of the film increases as it wears on. frankly, i haven’t noticed that, but i assume they’re right. to me, the success of his storytelling isn’t any magic formula of alternating short and long sequences or shortening the length of scenes as the film progresses (though i’m sure that has an effect), rather it is about his ability to constantly reveal new wrinkles in the plot and characters to keep the audience interested. the story never stagnates and characters are never static. we learn about a farmer’s (yohei) daughter early in the film, then we see that he doesn’t have a wife and then we see what has become of the wife. this is just one strand of the stories that make up the entire film. it’s this same ever-changing dynamic that makes the godfather such a compelling film, even at three hours long.
in my reviews i make no secret that i am primarily drawn to films with compelling characters. plot, cinematography, music, mise-en-scene, etc. are all essential, obviously. but characters drive great films and the rest is there to complement, supplement, or contrast those characters. seven samurai has a host of interesting characters, chief among them is toshiro mifune (kikuchiyo). it would be easy for a detractor of this film to minimize and simplify mifune’s character since he dances about like such a buffoon at times, but this would be missing the point. mifune represents both the samurai and farmer world, yet he doesn’t truly belong to either. this sad reality is most poignantly expressed when he grabs a screaming child from his mother’s dying arms. he looks down at the child and then at a fellow samurai and remarks “this child is me” (an orphan of farmer because of raiding by bandits). it may be the best part of the film because, as is often true with kurosawa, it concisely summarizes what would take most good directors an entire film to convey, and is beyond the grasp of the average director. mifune is such a great director not only because he is able to inhabit and round out each character he portrays, but also because of the range of characters he has done this with. in rashomon he plays a few versions of a bandit, here he is a wild samurai and the crux of the comic relief, yet also one of the most emotionally rewarding characters in the film, in sanjuro/yojimbo he plays an extremely capable ronin, in red beard an old doctor, etc. he’s one of my favorites.
strangely, and not so strangely, the film that seven samurai reminds me of the most is the grapes of wrath. strangely because the occur hundreds of years (1930s vs. 1586) and thousands of miles apart. not so strangely because both have farmers at the core of the film and because kurosawa was a great admirer of john ford’s. their endings are also similar. in the grapes of wrath ma joad remarks that we (farmers) will always go on because we are the people and at the end of seven samurai kenbei shimada (played by the great takashi shimura) remarks that the samurai have lost and that the farmers have won. i presume he means that the farmers have won their freedom, but that the samurai, in completing their mission, have become ronin again; a commentary on the age in which they live and their line of work.
i have remarked before that no one films rain like kurosawa. i’d like to amend that to include rain AND wind. no matter how much it rains or how hard the wind blows in other films, it never looks as imposing or beautiful as it does in a kurosawa film, and seven samurai is as much a testament to that as anything else i’ve seen of his. weather is but another character in this film.
lastly, certainly some of the writing is lost/changed in translation, but the writing in this film is still something to wonder at. it’s brilliant in its simplicity and language. just great. everyone has a different method of determining how good a film is. one i heard recently is applying this question: “would i see it again tomorrow?” yes.