Director: Akira Kurosawa
Screenplay: Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto, Hideo Oguni
Starring: Toshirô Mifune, Takashi Shimura, Keiko Tsushima
Producer: Sôjirô Motoki
Running Time: 207 min
BBFC Certificate: PG
My name is David. I'm a 31 year old film fan and before today I'd never seen Seven Samurai.
I've lived with that shame for so long. It may seem over the top to call it shameful but it's not just the fact that it's considered one of the greatest films of all time and is one of the films long set in the prescribed viewing 'canon'. I've been a lover of Asian cinema since I was a teenager, especially samurai films (although admittedly I haven't seen that many) and a fan of action films for as long as I can remember. I've seen a number of Akira Kurosawa films too and hugely enjoyed every one of them. So the fact that his most famous, well respected title, which also happened to be his most action-oriented, managed to pass me by all this time is baffling. I taped it off TV when I was younger but never got around to watching it, I even bought it as part of a Kurosawa Samurai Film DVD set, but still it gathers dust on my shelf. My sole poor excuse has always been the length of the film. Anything over 3 hours long seems a daunting prospect to me. I don't know why, as a number of my favourite films are particularly lengthy and this was clearly the sort of film I would enjoy. I just have the habit of checking running times whenever I'm picking out films to watch, as though my life is in a constant hurry.
Well thank God for the BFI. When I got emailed a press release for their newly remastered Blu-Ray edition of Seven Samurai, asking if I fancied a screener, I literally yelled out loud for joy. Not only would I finally have no excuse not to watch this film which had passed me by for so long, but I would be viewing it in the best possible home video format, as close to catching a print screening as is easily possible these days.
So please excuse this review for being largely about my personal background of not watching the film, but lets be honest, hundreds if not thousands of people have written about and expressed their love for this film in the past, so I'm not going to add much new to the pot. I'd just like to say that even with around 20 years of hype (the length of time I was probably aware of the film), Seven Samurai fully lived up to expectations and I'm going to point out a few of the reasons why I loved it. I'll try not to ramble on as I imagine many of you will have already seen it and if you haven't, please don't wait as long as I did.
For those that share my (prior) shame, let me fill you in on what the film is about. In the 1600's, a Japanese farming village has been suffering from regular attacks from a group of bandits that raid their crops and abuse and murder their residents. At the end of their tethers, the villagers decide to hire some samurai to defend their land. Unfortunately they have little to offer other than their own share of rice and meagre hospitality and most samurai will not fight for payment in such a way. Through much persuasion however, they manage to group together a rag-tag bunch of six ronin (masterless samurai) and one unkempt wannabe samurai nicknamed Kikuchiyo (Toshirô Mifune). The seven warriors do their best to drum the villagers into shape and work as a team to bring down the villainous thieves once and for all.
Or, a shorter way of explaining it is to say it's The Magnificent Seven but with samurai instead of cowboys. The hugely popular John Sturges film was famously an (uncredited) American remake of the story.
Well, what can I say about Seven Samurai? The biggest thing that hit me, due to my worries about the length of the film, is how tightly written and edited it is. It's a staggering three and a half hours long, yet I couldn't spot a single wasted frame or unnecessary side-story. It doesn't sound possible considering the running time, but I'd actually call it a fast paced film. This is apparent from the offset as no time is wasted in setting up the story. The bandits ride straight in, view the village and tell us their plan and we cut to the villagers discussing what they're going to do about it. No frills, straight to the point.
What aids the pace of the narrative is the sheer vitality of the film. I've seen few films so full of life and I mean that in a number of ways. Not only does the film have a naturalism rare to the chanbara/jidaigeki (samurai/period drama) genre, especially from the time of production, but it's also full of humour, drama and passion. Each beautifully framed shot is packed with life too, often utilising multiple layers of moving visuals and never containing any empty space. The film also makes great use of the natural elements. On top of the famous climax in the rain and mud, Kurosawa uses dust blowing in the wind, flowing rivers and waterfalls, mist, forests, fields of flowers and raging flames, all to enhance the drama and create a living, breathing experience which is exhilarating to watch.
Adding to this visceral nature is the presentation of the action scenes. Kurosawa doesn't have stagey one on one duels (other than in one early brief scene), he has characters getting down and dirty, stabbing wildly and violently, often rolling around in the dirt. Hordes of desperate villagers get in on a lot of the action too, furiously skewering their victims with bamboo spears. This, mixed with the kinetic camerawork and editing, makes for action set pieces which more than stand up to this day. It might not have the elaborate choreography of The Raid or its sequel which I reviewed last night, but it still has the impact, even if there is far less blood on display.
On top of all of the critical praise you can give the film and the wanky reasons you could come up with for why it's so loved, it's also a wonderfully rounded piece of entertainment. As well as being action packed, it's very funny at times, rousing, occasionally quite moving and there's even a bit of romance thrown in for good measure. So, like some of the other cinematic greats (Casablanca springs to mind), here is a film that doesn't require chin-stroking to appreciate it. Just sit back and enjoy three and a half wonderful hours of pleasure.
Why oh why did I wait so long to finally watch it.
Seven Samurai is out on 21st April in the UK in a special steelbook Blu-Ray edition alongside a new DVD re-issue, released by the BFI. I watched the Blu-Ray edition and it looks pretty decent. A couple of scenes are a bit scratched and it doesn't look quite as remarkable as some HD re-releases I've seen, but I imagine it's still the best it's ever looked (in the UK at least). The audio seemed a bit muddy, but most pre-70's films lack clarity and oomph because of the technology wasn't there.
There aren't many special features, but you do get a lengthy (49 min) interview with Asian cinema expert Tony Rayns. He shows up on a lot of these classic Asian DVD/Blu-Ray releases and he's always a pleasure to listen to. Deeply knowledgable yet unpretentious, he relates all the history you'd want to know about Seven Samurai and Kurosawa in general. You also get the customary booklet crammed with essays and background information too. This makes for great reading as always.