A village of farmers, poor, weak, and cowardly, are being threatened with starvation as a cadre of bandits is set to return with the harvest. They decide to hire samurai to protect them, but what sort of samurai can poor farmers be able to afford? Will they be strong enough to protect the village?
There is no other word for "Seven Samurai," than Epic. It is an absolutely stunning film in every regard. The cinematography is brilliant, the character development is second to none, and the attention to detail is border on obsessive compulsive.
Any film lover knows that Kurosawa is a master craftsman with a camera. I director who loves movement, whether that movement comes from the camera, the actors, or the environment, he sees movement as the most interesting thing and makes sure he uses it to his advantage.
Characters don't just get angry. They stand and get angry. They sit and get angry. They stand, run across a field with the camera tracking, then run up a hill and plant a sword and in it and get angry.
Everything that happens opens and closes the frame to make you feel small, or trapped, or powerful, or close and intimate. The camera speeds along side the horses, which terrify the villagers. It looks up from the perspective of the disheartened samurai, to watch the fool among them, raise their banner high on the roof of the village huts, higher than they feel at the moment.
Seldom do I, as a writer, feel as stretched, as when I must attempt to make what is beautiful in a visual medium, accessible through a written one, and never as stretched as when I must write about the most truly cinematic films amongst which "Seven Samurai" walks as a giant.
The cinematography is beautiful but the story that is told must match. Luckily, once again, we are in good hands. Each character is painstakingly laid out so that every viewpoint on the conflict is represented in a real, fleshed out way.
In most films like this, you would expect that three of these samurai would be sort of nameless fighters who follow the other four, but in this film, everyone of them is individually recruited, talked to, and given time to develop as a person. You learn to love all of them, and not just the samurai.
You even get to know the different villagers, whether it is the scared father, who fears his daughter will be taken by the samurai for payment, or the silly old man, who tries to fight despite is malnourished brain's incompetence, or the millworker who cannot bear to lose his lively-hood for the sake of the village.
The entire first half of the film is all character development and preparation for the battle that is to come. This is where "Seven Samurai" may lose some viewers, but to me, this is where it shines. It lets me grow attached and love these characters so that when the fighting starts, I feel the stakes. I fear the horses the way the villagers do. I fear the muskets as the Samurai do. I feel the loss of every person who falls, because I know them.
If the first half of the film is character, the second is battle. The previous scenes have laid out what this fight will look like, what strategies will be employed, and which characters will be to the south or west or east.
Now, we get to see all that preparation come to fruit. Which barrier will the bandits break through? Which Samurai will fall? How many bandits will descend upon them? All there is to do is watch it unfold.
Thankfully, once again, we are never lost. Over the previous scenes Kurosawa has built a visual vocabulary which he will now use to tell the story, with far fewer words. We will always know what is happening, to whom and where, and how far away, and in what direction everyone else is.
And because of that work he did we can enjoy the action with no confusion. No need to think hard. Just watch the Horses attacking and rebuffed, outlying houses being burned, and heroes sacrificing for the village, for each other, for their honor.
The fool, who has so long been looked down on for being silly earns the respect of his heroes, the samurai. The young student, falls in love only to find he must leave when battle is done, and learns the lessons his master had been trying to teach him all along. The villagers learn that they can be strong and brave, not at the mercy of the whims of bandits.
The battle culminates not in a final crescendo of blazing blue energy, but in the revelations of the heart that come to rest, when the days battle is done.
It is truly remarkable what director, Akira Kurosawa accomplishes in this film. It is so impressive that it inspired the American reimagining, "The Magnificent Seven," which, while good in its own right, is not nearly as good. Unfortunately, its lengthy runtime, black and white photography, and subtitles, will put this film outside of most American audiences interest.
However, for those that make the commitment to watch it, "Seven Samurai" stuns. It is a film that you will never forget. So here is my challenge. Watch it. I know it's long and in Japanese, but try.
Maybe, set aside a day to watch it with friends, take a break at the intermission to have dinner, then finish with a huge battle scene. Or maybe, split it up over a couple of nights, binging it like you would a Netflix streaming show. It's only three "Game of Thrones" episodes long, and I bet you could do that without blinking an eye.
If you do, I promise you, you will not be sorry you did. And I feel confident making that promise because there is one sentence I have NEVER heard escape ANYONE's lips. "Yeah, I saw Seven Samurai and I just don't think it's that good."
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