On the anniversary of the birth of Akira Kurosawa, I find it necessary to write about one of the finest films ever created: Seven Samurai. A review by me would be wasted words. Everything I want to say about it has been said so much better by film critics everywhere. What I will talk about is how it came into my life, because like many good things, it came to me by a circuitous path.
If I remember correctly, Seven Samurai first came to my attention via Cheers, that staple of Thursday night TV in the 80s. The gang was going to Sam Malone’s place to watch The Magnificent Seven. Diane, ever the scholarly dork, invited herself along, saying that she wanted to compare it to Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, upon which it was based. I’m sure there was rolling of eyes and snide comments by Carla, but these are erased from my memory. So. That was the seed. And it lay dormant for many years.
That seed was watered and germinated by a staggering, punch-in-the-gut novel I read sometime in 2002 (I think): Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai. No, this is not the novel that the Tom Cruise yawn-fest was based on. It is the story of a single mom, trying to raise a gifted son, who in turn is searching for his biological father. One of the more intriguing aspects of the book is that the mother uses Seven Samurai to present her son with male role models, in the absence of a father. This simple stroke of genius got me thinking that I really need to watch this film. And so I did.
Like I said, it came to me by round-about means. It’s like the movie was trying to find me, waiting for the right moment. Yes, romantic fluff, but that’s what it feels like. But I finally watched it for the first time, not long after reading the novel. And I fell in love with a movie.
The tale is not complex: the struggle of the weak against a stronger foe. What makes this film so special lies in how well it was written, the nuances in character of the various Samurai and villagers, and the way it was filmed. Each of the Samurai (technically, they’re Ronin, since they all are without a master) adhere to the same code, but all are slightly different in character. Likewise, the villagers: all face the same threat, but they see things differently regarding how to deal with that threat. Sometimes, motivations are up front and obvious. Sometimes, character is revealed bit by bit, with hints here and there, until we’re presented with shattering A-HA moments.
And then the film itself. It is basically a masterclass in the various techniques of filming and editing to tell a story that will keep people interested for over three hours. This is when it’s handy to have the Criterion Collection’s DVD or Blu-Ray to watch: for the two brilliant commentary tracks, one of which deals with the more technical and artistic aspects of the film.
I will put it this way: the movie as a whole is a masterpiece, but there are moments within that masterpiece that are so beautiful, so well filmed, that even if I am watching it by myself, I will get up out of my seat and shout “You fucking genius” or some such thing (some variation of “fuck” is usually involved, no other word will suffice).
Enough. All these words are just my lengthy way of saying this: there is no way to overstate how good this film is, how beautiful it is. All superlatives (with or without expletives) apply. Make sure, however, to buy or rent the Criterion edition. You will thank me.
To close, here’s a trailer: