This post is a part of The Criterion Blogathon, a massive assortment of movie blogs writing about another massive assortment, namely the Criterion Collection, and our love for the films they champion. Click the image below to take you to headquarters (or the link above for the schedule), and join me in reading the work of a lot of other folks who love movies:
1. Opening Shot
Moving from one city to another is never easy for a child, and honestly, I had it better than some. I really only got uprooted three times as my father’s work in the construction trade moved us around the state. The last one really hurt, taking place in my raw adolescence and severing my first love affair in mid-sigh. Things did improve, as they often do; after a year or so we moved into a larger house, where I even got my own room and TV.
While we were at that first house, the PBS station in Houston was showing a series of great silent films, and I watched quite a few of them with my grandfather, who was living with us as he slowly died of cancer. The second TV I would eventually inherit was in his room, and he seemed to enjoy the old stuff with me. This is how I checked off classic horror movies like The Phantom of the Opera and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Monster movie kid that I was, these were the only ones I deemed important, though I was surprised how much I enjoyed Orphans of the Storm.
The PBS follow-up in the year we moved to the larger house was Great World Cinema. I admit I intended to tune in only to watch Fritz Lang’s M, but then a funny thing happened. The movie one week was Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai, and I decided to watch it mainly because samurai were cool, they carried big swords. I vaguely knew this was the basis for The Magnificent Seven, which I had watched on TV in another town years before, but that was about all I knew.
And so I was completely unprepared to have my mind opened that night.
I had some small acquaintance with classic cinema, thanks to my mother, and also thanks to the TV format of my youth, where movies were used as filler, both late at night and in the afternoons, even the mornings on occasion (“Dialing for Dollars”, you are missed). She loved movies, and remarkable among Moms, she liked a good horror movie. So though I had watched some higher-toned fare like Meet John Doe or Here Comes Mr. Jordan, my taste honestly ran to movies with giant insects and men in rubber monster suits.
So I sat in front of that second-hand black-and-white TV for three and a half hours, watching a tale of bravery, deception, fear, love, false identities, social classism, action, camaraderie, sacrifice, joy, victory, defeat, and an overwhelming desire to do what is right.
I knew that movies could be good, but I had no real idea they could be magnificent.
I had been forced to abandon a love affair in South Texas, but that night a new love affair was born, between myself and movies, certainly, but most especially between myself and The Seven Samurai, which that night became My Favorite Movie Ever Made, and has remained so for forty-five years.
2. Shooting Script
If you look at me and ask, “What is The Seven Samurai about?” you will first have to forgive me for taking a moment to try to find your spaceship, because you are obviously an alien. The movie has been remade several times (most famously – and openly – as The Magnificent Seven, Battle Beyond the Stars and A Bug’s Life), has been the basis of an animated series, a (terrible) video game, there are constant talks of a remake… this is a story that should be in the cultural consciousness, and to a degree it is… but a synopsis will only give you an impression of the entire canvas; it will not give you an inkling of the brushstrokes involved, and Seven Samurai is a movie of details.
Nonetheless, I will try, hopefully without doing too much damage.
During the Sengoku, or Warring States period of Japanese history (roughly the entire 16th century), a poor farming village finds out it will once more be raided by a gang of horse-riding bandits after their harvest. Close to panic, they ask their village elder for advice, who recalls a similar village in his youth that was untouched by bandits: they had hired samurai for protection. When it is protested that the village could only offer food as payment, the advice is, “Find hungry samurai.”
A party of four villagers begin searching for these hungry samurai, and after some angry refusals or being fooled by charlatans, they luck onto Kambei (Takashi Shimura), an aging warrior who at first demurs, citing his age, and saying he has survived many battles, but never won a single one. Only when he realizes the sacrifice of the villagers – they are eating millet while feeding him rice – does he accept.
Kambei – and a young samurai who desperately wants to be his disciple, Katsushiro (Isao Kimura) – begin searching for the seven warriors he estimates will be necessary to protect the village. He finds Gorobei (Yoshio Inaba), a scholarly soldier who agrees because he is fascinated by Kambei’s character; the good-natured Heihachi (Minoru Chiaki), whose swordplay is only mediocre, but “will be a treasure in hard times”; Kyuzo (Seiji Miyaguchi), a deadly swordsman interested only in perfecting his technique; Shichiroji (Daisuke Katô), Kambei’s former right-hand man – both had thought the other killed in their last battle together; and finally – and reluctantly, on the part of the others – Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune), a boistrous drunkard who has been haunting Kambei’s steps, and will eventually be revealed as a farmer’s son trying to pass himself off as a samurai.
After a rocky reception in the fearful village – during which Kikuchiyo proves his true worth as a sort of missing link between the samurai and villagers – the seven begin to train the villagers to use bamboo spears, in between their farming duties. The village is fortified as well as possible , and then, one day, the scouts arrive after the harvests, and matters turn serious. Kambei’s master strategy is revealed, allowing the village to pick off one and two bandits at a time, and repel nighttime incursions. Eventually, it comes down to the final battle, all the remaining villagers and samurai against all the remaining bandits – a battle in a driving rainstorm that would set the bar extremely high for action scenes in the following years. Of course, the samurai do not win the campaign unscathed – only three of them will still be standing at the end. And as Kambei states, “The farmers have won. Not us.”
Those four paragraphs do not begin to do the movie justice. It does not mention the remarkably full characterizations of the villagers. Rikichi (Yoshio Tsuchiya), the farmer driven not only by his desire to find the samurai that will defend his village, but also by a dark secret related to the bandit’s last raid that eats at him; Manzo (Kamatari Fujiwara), so possessive of his daughter Shino (Keiko Tsushima), that he forces her to cut her luxuriant hair and dress like a boy, inciting the other villagers to panic; and Yohei (Bokuzen Hidari), the long-faced, perpetually fearful old man who will become a comic foil for Kikuchiyo. Manzo’s plan to preserve Shino’s virtue will fail, of course, as Katsushiro will accidentally discover her true identity, but keep her secret even as their love blossoms; eventually they do what desperate young people do on the night before the final battle, consummating a relationship that cannot be at this point in history, between samurai and peasant.
These added details still do not give the full picture; Seven Samurai is the work of a master storyteller at the top of his form. There is not a single shot, not a single scene, not a single line that does not serve a purpose in the furthering of the complete story. People complain about its length, and after I calm myself, I ask what they would cut, and the response would always result in a lesser film. This is one of those three hour movies that doesn’t feel like a three hour movie. Toho reportedly cut 50 minutes from it for the American market, thinking the Yanks wouldn’t want to watch the whole thing. Bitterly, I reflect they were probably right, but that is a version I do not wish to see. It was, in fact, nearly impossible to see the movie in its intended form until the early 70s, so luck was definitely on my side for that first viewing.
True to practically every other classic film I’ve examined here, The Seven Samurai was not immediately hailed as a classic, and in fact very nearly did not happen. Kurosawa repeatedly went over budget and schedule, and production was halted many times, prompting showdowns between the director and Toho Studios (which was also dealing with another expensive monster, a little movie called Godzilla). A major part of that expense was the construction of the village, which is very much a character in the story. Toho already had a peasant village set it thought was perfectly good, but Kurosawa disagreed, preferring authenticity and control over convenience. It was the most expensive Japanese movie ever made, costing around 2 million US dollars, a record it held until 1964’s Kwaidan, which weighed in about a little less than 3 million.
Kurosawa’s main ambition had been to make a realistic samurai movie. There had been chanbara, or samurai action movies before, of course, but those were heavily influenced by kabuki theater, and the action scenes tended to be very stylized and not a little fantastic. The original thought was to make a movie about a day in the life of a samurai, ending with the main character committing ritual suicide over some trivial matter. That idea simply didn’t come together, but Kurosawa and his crew had done a tremendous amount of research, and there was one anecdote that stuck with him, of a village hiring ronin, masterless samurai, to protect them. The research also allowed him to easily create the six true samurai of the story, each based on historic personages. The one exception, of course, is Kikuchiyo, a character created in the eleventh hour when the screenwriters realized they had six highfalutin’ characters and no everyman, no comic relief to balance them out. Toshiro Mifune was originally supposed to play the Miyamoto Mushashi character, Kyuzo, but was instead (and brilliantly) recast as Kikuchiyo, to his and cinema’s great enduring luck.
Mifune’s Kikuchiyo and Shimura’s Kambei are literally the heart and soul of The Seven Samurai, but in the logline description I give everyone who asks, “The movie gives you twelve major characters and takes each of them through changes.” Going back over my synopsis, above, I keep thinking, “Oh, I didn’t mention this… and this… or this…” So many good moments. So many favorite little scenes.
I really love this movie.
3. Enter the Criterion Collection
My first encounter with The Seven Samurai was back in the early 70s, so that was the last I would get to see of my great cinematic love for a while. VCRs would be along eventually that decade, but it wasn’t until the mid-80s that I could afford one; even then, the movie was a two-cassette box set, priced beyond my exceedingly modest means. There was a wonderful two week event where the local repertory movie house, The River Oaks Theater, showed a restored print. I was there almost every night, bringing a different person with me each time; none of them regretted it. Yes, perhaps if I had taken all those movie ticket prices and combined them, I might have been able to afford that pricey VHS package, but the chance to see it on the big screen was, to quote an old commercial, priceless.
I eventually left my warehouse job and wound up at a video production company, at a decent rate of pay. Once essentials were taken care of, I took the plunge and invested in that hot new technology, a laserdisc player, the preferred home format of the discerning cinephile. Those of you who grew up on DVD have no real idea of the tremendous step forward laserdisc presented over VHS – the clarity of the picture, the crispness of the audio, the magic of the subwoofer – not to mention something called a secondary audio track. And the picture? Letterboxed! Correct aspect ratios! Chapter settings, allowing you to skip to specific scenes! Sure, a laserdisc was the size of a long-playing vinyl LP and twice as heavy, but who cared? This was the ultimate, it couldn’t possibly get any better than this!
So having bought this magical device and wired it into my system, there was the next step: software. Luckily (for me, if not for my bank account) I lived a few blocks away from a branch of the biggest video store in Houston at the time, and they had a large laserdisc selection. And what do I find there, in the foreign film section, but The Seven Samurai, from some outfit called The Criterion Collection. That sounded sufficiently elite, and I made my very first laserdisc purchase.
My mania for Seven Samurai was not all-consuming, I must admit – there were two versions, and I got the cheaper one (hey, I had just bought a laserdisc player, no small investment). The more expensive set was encoded in CAV, which meant a flawless still frame every time you hit pause, not the blue screen you got with the more standard CLV format. This also meant more discs, because while CLV could fit close to an hour on one side of a disc, CAV and its density limited you to 20 minutes or so, if memory serves.
Truthfully, the plea of poverty doesn’t hold all that much truth, either, as the very next day I went back and bought the Criterion laserdisc of Ghostbusters.
I still have all my laserdiscs – I guess I’m still hoping for a vinyl-like resurgence in popularity, though that seems highly unlikely. DVD and Blu-ray simply does everything laserdisc did, and does it effortlessly, at a fraction of the cost. But pawing through my old collection has dredged up a ton of memories, and a number of Criterion titles I keep hoping will make the leap to their blu-ray line. Some, like The Fisher King and The Devil and Daniel Webster (DVD only, at present), did come to pass. But then I look at my Criterion lasers of Citizen Kane, King Kong, Help! (for which I hold out hope, given their lovely blu-ray of A Hard Day’s Night), Lawrence of Arabia, Confidential Report aka Mr. Arkadin, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Dr. Strangelove, Boyz n the Hood, Akira, The Player, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Supercop, and the three lasers I would conquer nations to have on Criterion blu-ray, John Woo’s The Killer and Hard Boiled (both released on DVD, now out of print), and Jason and the Argonauts.
An obsession began there, at the end of a century, and it has continued into this one.
But we were talking about The Seven Samurai, weren’t we? This laserdisc allowed me to once more be evangelical about my favorite movie, this time in the comfort of my own home. The audio commentary track by Michael Jeck helped me tease out stuff I hadn’t noticed before, movie connections that weren’t obvious in my multiple viewings (Then again, I still wasn’t as conversant with film, particularly international film, as I should have been). It also allowed me to begin my practice of watching the movie at least once a year.
We all know what’s coming, don’t we? Toward the end of the 90s, there was this thing called DVD that started making waves in the video world. I successfully resisted it for a while – not another format! Not something else that will be obsolete in a few years! That’s it! I quit! But, like diets, that sort of thing never lasts. I was writing for StompTokyo (over here if you like cobweb sites) at the time, and a sister review site – Attack of the 50 Foot DVD -was born, and I received a refurbished player in the mail and a Netflix account. And thus was my doom sealed again.
The Seven Samurai is spine number 2 in the Criterion DVD Collection, and was actually released before spine number 1, Grande Illusion (mainly because new film elements cropped up for Renoir’s film). It’s practically a clone of the laserdisc, right down to the Michael Jeck commentary, with the added benefit of not having to walk across the room to flip or change discs (I had bought the fancy laserdisc player that eliminated having to flip the disc, at least). I could now freeze frame whenever I wanted. I hated to admit it, but it seemed to look and sound better than my precious laser.
And I know you’ve been waiting for this. Yes, as I groused and prophesied earlier, HD CAME ALONG. I resisted this trend even longer than I did DVD, and my recalcitrance actually paid off this time (honestly, it usually does with new technology, if only from a cost standpoint). This time, it was our old friend, the Format Wars, in a shiny new battlefield. HD-DVD vs Blu-ray in a fight to the death, and by the time I broke down and bought an HDTV and a Blu-ray player, HD-DVD was only a curiosity, crammed to the side in resale shops, next to VHS and cassette tapes.
About a decade after the DVD, Criterion released a newly restored blu of The Seven Samurai. I think we know what one of my first purchases was fated to be. The blu-ray is amazing; there is some sort of digital voodoo involved, resulting in a picture that is sharper and clearer than any print I have ever seen; I doubt the movie looked this good the first time it was run through a projector. There’s an enhanced stereo track and a mono track for traditionalists. Our old friend Michael Jeck is represented, and even yet another commentary track by David Desser, Joan Mellen, Stephen Prince, Tony Rayns, and Donald Richie. Each of whom take on about 40 minutes of the running time individually, which was a relief to me, as I find audio commentaries with more than two people usually irritating and pointlessly confusing. This is going to be the preferred version across all media, until holographic crystals, or whatever new wizardry is going to be used to pick my pocket next.
The supplements, always a strong point with me, are likewise amazing. A two-hour (!) conversation between Kurosawa and fellow filmmaker Nagisa Oshima; a fifty minute making-of from the Toho Masterworks series, another featurette on samurai history and historical influences, the usual gallery of trailers and posters. And a thick little booklet – another standard feature of the Criterion Collection – with essays by Kenneth Turan, Peter Cowie, Philip Kemp, Peggy Chiao, Alain Silver, Stuart Galbraith, Arthur Penn, and Sidney Lumet. And, oh yeah, an interview with Toshiro Mifune.
There are also New and Improved English subtitles supervised by Linda Hoaglund, which represent possibly my only complaint about the package (this is how you know I’m a fanboy – I finally found something to whine about). It is foolish and a bit churlish of me to grumble about these subtitles. They are superb, and reportedly do a better job of translating Japanese idiom into English. If there is anything technically wrong with them, it’s that at one point it subverts one of my favorite moments by erring on the side of readability, truly one of the best reasons to do so.
(It’s one of those small moments that nonetheless speaks volumes about the characters. Kambei, almost immediately after his reunion with Schichiroji, tells him “We’re about to engage in a tough battle, and not for money or rank. Will you join us?” And Schichiroji answers, without a picosecond’s hesitation, “Yes.”)
It is the usual fanboy’s bete noir, misplaced nostalgia, at the base of this. I simply miss my old Janus Films print’s subtitles. In the exchange above on the blu-ray, the subtitles for Kambei’s question and Schichiroji’s reply are shown on the same screen, when the camera is focused on Kambei. In the original version, the subtitles were split up, with the subtitles for each character in his own shot, preserving the rhythm of the scene and the impact of that moment. I’ve always been a fast reader, though, and had no problem following that; someone slower would miss something. But on those magical River Oaks Theater nights, I always enjoyed the admiring laughter that exchange provoked.
The other line I mourn from the old days belongs to Kikuchiyo, in the scene leading up to the final battle, as he sticks one sword after another into the mound at the village’s center. Schichiroji asks him, “What are you up to?” and Kikychiyo now replies, “Can’t kill five with just one sword!” In the old days, Kikuchiyo, who spent the night before mourning the death of a villager he had caused, said, “Today I must kill many.” Yeah, that’s a little too stilted for Kikuchiyo, but it is the last thing we will ever get to hear him say, and it was a fine battlefield elegy.
These are so terribly minor, though. My old friend has changed a little, but is still my old friend. I forgave this old friend all those years for having the subtitles mis-timed during an important sequence, giving lines that made no sense to a character and thus imposing visual silence until the movie caught up; that bobble is forever gone, and good riddance. It’s like my grumbling about a couple of good lines from Peter Beagle’s screenplay adaptation of The Lord of the Rings not making it into Peter Jackson’s version – I should just shut up and stop talking just to hear my head rattle.
So no offense, Ms. Hoaglund, your work is splendid. I just had to say something critical about something, to keep this from being four thousand words of gushing and sweetness and light. That might damage my credibility, doncha know.
Because as you know by now (though I haven’t mentioned it in a thousand or so words), this is my favorite movie of all time. Akira Kurosawa took a reified social class that was trained for war and sacrifice in the name of a titled lord, and instead showed that class using these tools to protect and aid the weak and suffering, even if it caused their own demise, both immediately and eventually. In that respect, it is a timeless tale of a world the way it should be, and yet so rarely is. In that way, it also represents movies the way they should be – and frequently, incredibly – are.