Directed by Akira Kurosawa
Starring: Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura
Studio: Toho Films/Janus Films/The Criterion Collection
Video: 4:3 B&W (3 DVDs)
Audio: Dolby Mono, Dolby surround mix, Japanese
Extras: Illustrated bound booklet with “8 Takes” on the film, Two English audio commentary tracks = one with five film scholars and the other with Japanese film expert Michael Jeck, Theatrical trailers and teasers, Posters and behind-the-scenes production stills, 50-minute documentary on the making of Seven Samurai, Conversation between Kurosawa and director Nagisa Oshima filmed in 1993 (2 hours), New documentary: “Seven Samurai: Origins and Influences”
Length: 207 minutes for feature
After watching this glorious restoration and checking into most of the very extensive extras provided by Criterion, I understand why many experts vote this one of the greatest motion pictures ever made. I began with the printed booklet, which has essays by Kenneth Turan, Peter Cowie, Philip Kemp, Peggy Chiano, Alain Silver and Stuart Galbraith IV, tributes from Sidney Lumet and Arthur Penn, and a wonderful interview/reminiscence by Mifune about his experiences acting in the film. Criterion used the highest coding rate, DVD-9, in making this transfer, even though of course the film is in black and white. This is not an appropriate film to stretch to fill a 16:9 screen. Even though the subject is often perfect for widescreen vistas, all the shots were beautifully composed to fit the squarish ratio and you will lose image details if you select Wide or Stretch. The possibility of offering surround sound from the original mono soundtrack interested me. According to the DD symbol on the box it is stereo with a mono surround. I was able to get stereo (actually two-channel mono) playback, which to me sounded better than the mono confined to my center speaker only. However, I couldn’t access the surround mix on any of my DVD players.
The story grew out of Kurosawa’s fascination with Hollywood westerns and his idolization of John Ford. In the years following the film’s great success internationally, three different new Hollywood westerns were made retelling the same basic story. [We have reviewed the best-known of the bunch, The Magnificent Seven.]
The informative extras reveal that actually the seven heroes of the story are not samurai – who serve a master – but ronin, who have lost their masters for various reasons and are seeking their fortune independently. This is a major struggle in 16th-century Japan during a period of civil wars, because samurai/ronins are not supposed to do simple labor. (One of the seven is discovered chopping wood because it’s the only way he knows to survive.) The primary reason the farmers are able to recruit the ronin is that they are hungry.
“Auditioning” the warriors is the suggestion of the old man of a farming village which is continually attacked by bandits each season, who steal most of the crops they raise. The farmers have nothing to offer the fighters financially – only rice and sake. (Though later it is discovered the farmers have hidden a cache of weapons and armor they took from dead bandits and samurai in the area. One wonders why they were reluctant to offer that.) The first ronin they recruit in the city proves himself a fine leader willing to sacrifice his topknot – an important samurai symbol – to masquerade as a monk in order to save a baby kidnapped by a thief. This ronin directs the acquisition of the other six. Some aspects of the auditions become quite humorous.They decide to make do with six, but are trailed by an odd-acting renegade played to the hilt by Mifune. He seems their object of ridicule but eventually demonstrates some of his abilities and becomes part of the seven – though always somewhat apart from them.
The warriors’ arrival in the village is greeted with all the villagers hiding. It is only when a false reports of bandits approaching circulates that they all come out in a frenzy and seek the aid of the ronin. The seven have a challenging job training the farmers and preparing for the expected attack of the bandits, which will come – as the bandits had promised – after the barley crop has been harvested. They have to overcome fear of both themselves and the bandits (some ronin have become bandits as a last resort). One farmer cuts off his daughter’s long hair because he fears the attention of the ronin. The ronin make a map of the village and work on each border in groups – putting up barricades, preparing fields for flooding, taking out a bridge, etc. By the intermission in the film (end of the first DVD) things are nearly ready for the battle.
The ronin find out some of the bandits have a fort nearby. Three of them go there and set it on fire, killing most of those within. A women turns out to be the wife of one of the farmers, who has been living with the bandits. Evidently there are many more bandits elsewhere. Back at the village there is concern that they have not yet appeared. Then three scouts for the bandits show up at one of the barricades. They are all three killed by the ronin and farmers. Eventually the main confrontation occurs. It is segmented into various incursions by the bandits on horseback from different sides of the village. Usually the ronin’s orders are to let two or three get in and hold back the rest while the farmers kill those who ride in. The final battle takes place in a pouring rain. The shots are skillfully composed and cut. Kurosawa often has the camera down between the hooves of the horses in the mud, making the viewer almost feel you are in danger of being trampled.
All the bandits are killed but at great cost to the ronin – only three remain of the seven. Mifune’s character is killed by musket fire – the bandits had three guns, but the ronin had stolen two of them from them. As the farmers happily plant their rice to the accompaniment of drums and other native instruments, the first ronin observes that they really lost – it was the farmers who had won. The epic tale is rich in philosophical meaning. Due to the film’s length, we really get to know the seven ronin individually and are therefore more affected when some of them die. A couple bits of dialog reveal Kurosawa’s interests in modern psychology as well as his immersion in great Russian literature. For example, the farmer whose wife either left him or was kidnapped is always glum and refuses to talk. One of the ronin tells him he’s found that it’s good to talk about your pain and concerns; that sharing them can make you feel better. Not a likely 16th-century Japanese concept!
– John Sunier