The Detroit Film Theatre wraps up its retrospective of the cinematic collaborations of director Akira Kurosawa and actor Toshiro Mifune with what is generally regarded as the director’s best film, 1954’s Seven Samurai. It’s the type of film one is supposed to call a “masterpiece,” but that’s become such a devalued hype word in the world of movie criticism-reviewing-reportage that it doesn’t quite convey the film’s essence or impact. Besides, whether or not it’s a masterpiece — what that even means and whether or not it’s the director’s best (with so many extraordinary films to his credit, can one really tower above the others?) — seems irrelevant in light of the fact that Seven Samurai is one of the most entertaining films in the critical canon.
Like so much of Kurosawa’s work, the film’s appeal is more emotional than intellectual — and for all its innovative visual technique, it’s the storytelling that draws us in. It has the virtues of a traditional mainstream novel: a cast of characters who each personify a specific type (the wise man, the clown, the greenhorn, the professional, etc.); an overall simple story that ebbs and flows at the mercy of continual complications; and the inevitable triumph of good over evil, though at a very high cost and with a decidedly modern tinge of ambiguity.
The setting is early 15th-century Japan. A small village of rice farmers has been repeatedly terrorized by a roaming group of 40 bandits who, at each harvest time, descend on the village to pillage and plunder, and even carry off some of the farmers’ wives and daughters. The farmers, faced with starvation if their next crop is stolen, are divided between those who just want to kill themselves and a few who actually want to fight back. It quickly becomes clear that this is a very rigidly stratified caste society, where there are people who resort to force and violence and people who don’t. The farmers are hesitant to fight back, not because they’re cowardly — though they’re certainly scared — but because changing their role from passive to aggressive is such a difficult conceptual breakthrough for them. They have to start thinking outside the box, and it ain’t easy.
Desperate, they seek counsel from the village elder, a nearly mummified old-timer everybody calls “Granddad,” who comes up with a third way, which is to hire some samurai to do the fighting for them. Traditionally, samurai had been part of a warrior caste whose loyalties were to one of the several existing clans, but during this period in Japanese history there were also many freelance samurai, expert swords for hire. These freelancers, at least as presented in Kurosawa’s film, are individualists in a society of groups (the equivalent of the lone gunmen in American westerns), albeit mercenary ones, who come into a town either to wreak havoc or restore order, or a little of both. Their outsider status and their awareness of not being connected to the people they risk their lives to defend make their struggle seem more heroic and their Pyrrhic victory more bittersweet.
It is, as I said, a simple story that Kurosawa takes three and a half hours to tell (the 1960 American remake, John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven, clocked in at just over two hours), while still managing to make a lean, if sometimes leisurely film. The samurai, asked to risk their lives in an endeavor that will bring them neither reward nor glory, have a variety of motivations, from sympathy for the farmers to the desire to face a daunting challenge. The film is filled with familiar faces from Kurosawa’s other productions — his use of reoccurring supporting players who show up in similar roles and give a sense of continuity to his oeuvre is reminiscent of John Ford. But the two standouts are Mifune as a samurai wannabe (a manic nutcase and contrarian who tags along for the adventure mainly, it seems, because nobody wants him to), and Takashi Shimura, the leader of the septet who is as coolly calculating as Mifune is explosively impulsive.
Seven Samurai works as an action film, as historical drama and as one of Kurosawa’s patented philosophical examinations of the struggle between good and evil, a struggle complicated by the imperfect nature of men and women, and the unforeseen consequences of good intentions. And while waiting for the word “masterpiece” to be redeemed, we can comfortably say that this film is a great one.
Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), Friday through Sunday. Call 313-833-3237.
Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].