Monday, November 29, 2004

#2: Seven Samurai

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So, after a long delay thanks to Netflix sending me the wrong version, I've finally seen Seven Samurai (1954, dir. Akira Kurosawa, written by Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto, and Hideo Oguni). If you're a language purist, you can call it Shichinin no samurai, or for real deal insane purists, 七人の侍.

I've got a sordid past with this movie, actually. In fall of 1997 I took The Feature Film at Williams, which was a great class, despite being a gigantic lecture-type thing. Jim Shepard, Shawn Rosenheim, and Stephen Tifft taught it; they were great, the class was great, and what interest I have in film these days has a lot to do with that experience. If you'd like a taste of the class, here's Jim Shepard's review of Analyze This, which ends up being more or less about The Godfather and Goodfellas. I think he wrote a more recent essay about those movies in The Believer but I don't have that issue. Anyway, point is, these guys were solid; I never missed a lecture. For me to be up in the morning that fall was no small feat. So. As I recall, screenings of movies were Monday nights at 7:00 and 9:00, class was Tuesday & Thursday mornings, and we did a movie a week. Being the kind of slackass I am, I pretty much only made the 9:00 screenings. When Seven Samurai was showing, I came, as always, to the 9:00 screening. I was there a few minutes after 9:00, and the movie had already started. So I sat down and watched an hour and a half long movie about samurai. I didn't think Kurosawa did a great job developing the characters, but I enjoyed it. The next day in lecture, we watched a clip, which I'd never seen, and which was far too long to have been shown between 9:00 and 9:05. So I did a little research on the web and realized there'd only been a 7:00 showing; I'd been two hours late and had no idea. Point is, this is a long, long movie, a solid 207 minutes. So be prepared for that.

That said, watch it in one sitting, it's great. The movie suffers a little from the sense of belatedness that I talked about when writing about Grand Illusion, and I want to revise my comments there. I mean belatedness in the "arriving too late at the party to appreciate the innovations in the movie since I've seen them revised and improved upon since then" sense, if that is, in fact, a sense. For non-English majors, the English major sense of the word is "having arrived too late on the historical scene, at the end of a Western modernity that had completely mapped out the landscape in advance." Not my definition (stole it from here), but it's pretty good. It's usually a synonym for "why I can't finish my novel." Point is: when writing about Grand Illusion, I implied that belatedness was mostly a problem for technical innovations, and now I see that isn't true; narrative innovations suffer from it too. And I guess I mean narrative innovations in the sense of "plot points," not storytelling techniques. Seven Samurai has been ripped off more times than I can count. It's about a group of villagers in midieval Japan who hire a group of Samurai (one guess how many) to protect them from a roving gang of bandits. The first half of the movie covers hiring the bandits and building defenses around the village; the second half is all about the attack. There are entire scenes that have been lifted out of this movie into others; the whole sequence where the ragtag band of Samurai are recruited is in heist movies, escape movies, defend the village from the bandits movies, and so on and so forth. The samurai themselves have been put in other movies; there's:

  • Kikuchiyo: The wild and crazy guy who doesn't seem to have the discipline to be a samurai at first. Desparate to prove himself worthy. Has a mysterious past.
  • Kambei: The wise, older samurai who leads the group. He has a great sense of the absurd and tragic, but perserveres.
  • Heihachi: The guy who can always be counted on to make a good natured joke and brighten the mood when things seem hopeless.
  • Katsushiro: Rich, young, inexperienced, over-eager, he proves himself in the end

And so on. These characters have shown up in some version or other again and again and again. Kurosawa didn't invent these characters, but if you take any movie that features a motley gang facing impossible odds, from The Usual Suspects to Hard Ball (that's right, I said Hard Ball), you'll see these guys show up. And as Hard Ball taught us all, the most important thing in life is showing up.* Kurosawa does these characters better than most other people, but I've seen them before. So don't expect many narrative surprises from this movie.

The acting is solid straight through. Toshirô Mifune is a whole lot of fun as Kikuchiyo; he takes an insane amount of glee in causing chaos. There's a great sequence where he goes behind enemy lines to steal one of the bandits' three matchlock rifles. Kikuchiyo kills a bandit, wears his clothes, sits happily down next to another bandit on guard, who thinks he's one of them. The bandit says something about what a rough time they're having and Kikuchiyo says something along the lines of "Don't worry. Your suffering will soon be over." They have a whole conversation like that, and finally the bandit realizes what's up just in time to be gutted. It doesn't sound as funny as it actually is. Also, throughout the whole movie he torments Yohei, one of the most feckless of the feckless villagers, and his imitation of him is priceless. I'd like to see Mifune in other movies; I'm not sure if any of his other films are part of the collection.. Looking at his credits, I see he was cast as Admiral Yamamoto no fewer than four times; did he resemble him physically or was he just the go-to guy for Yamamoto impersonations?

The DVD includes the intermission, which has an overture. It's a nice touch. It reminded me of a question I've had for a while that isn't related to Seven Samurai. In Italy, movies are always shown with an intermission. Even if there's no break, they have a slight pause in the middle, and sometimes they break for as long as ten minutes. This is true when movies are broadcast on television as well; there's a break (and that's where they run commercials, about five minutes worth, but the rest of the movie is uninterrupted, which is much nicer than every fifteen minutes). Anyway, when I asked about it, I was told that the break in the middle was for a reel change. But reels of film are much shorter than 45 minutes to an hour, on any projector I've seen, and if they're using platters, they shouldn't need to change reels at all. So what gives? Are Italian movies projected on platters or with five or six reels like American ones? I thought projector designs were pretty standard internationally. Is the intermission just a tradition there? The break is actually on the films, it's not like they stop it arbitrarily; there's a title that comes up announcing the first part of the film is over. If anyone knows the answer to this, please let me know, cause I've wondered about it for years.

Back to Seven Samurai, random notes and observations.

  • Seeing the word "Sheeyit" in a subtitle (spelled like that) is an interesting experience.
  • Kurosawa does this thing where he cuts onn an action, e.g., you see Kambei draw his sword in a shot from behind and halfway through drawing it, you cut to a shot facing him and he charges toward the camera. I'm mostly interested in screenplays right now but if I ever start editing film that's a trick I'm going to remember, cause it makes the action seem very fast.
  • I've never seen a movie with more detailed tactical information about the critical battle. You're walked through every step of defending the village and really know all the weak points. I could draw a map of the village. The sequence where Kambei plans the defenses and simultaneously shows you each part of the village is really genius: it gets an incredible amount of information across but every scene in that sequence advances the plot; it's not exposition.
  • That said, the longer the battle for the village goes on, the more the tactics fall apart, and the end is just this giant mess of a battle. In pouring rain, which just makes it messier.
  • Kambei knows how many bandits there are, and he has a drawing with a circle for each one. Every time they kill one, he crosses out a circle. It's a really nice visual, and it also lets the audience know exactly where we are in the battle. The DVD menu mimics this: there's a circle for each menu item and you move a cross from circle to circle to select things. It's a very nice design job.

That's all for this one. The 400 Blows is going to have to wait until I can borrow the Criterion Collection edition from my friend Chad Shonk. So next will probably be A Night To Remember. Non-Criterion Collection recommendations: The Incredibles, Maria Full of Grace, and Final Destination 2. The last one less than the first two.

*N.B.: I don't actually like Hard Ball.

16 comments:

kian said...

Nice, astute comments, Matt. I also recall that course as being both educational and entertaining to high degrees.

If you remember me, drop me a line. Not at this address, though, which is a spam-centric one. Use kian at uchicago dot edu.

-Kian

Matthew Dessem said...

Kian,

Thanks!

Ben said...

My girlfriend and I watched Seven Samurai and loved it. As a fun comparison, we watched The Magnificent Seven the next day.

Magnificent Seven sucks. Sheeyit.

Anonymous said...

I realize this is three years late but I have an answer to your intermission question. On a platter system, when your spinning the reels to the platter you decide where you want the intermission (usually after the third reel) you attach the Intermission leader that announces the intermission. At the tail end of this piece of film there is a piece foil tape that is applied to the side. This foil triggers an auto shut-off in the projector. The lights come up and after everyone has enjoyed the break the projector is restarted.
You've done a great job with this blog.

Jeff said...

Just discovered this blog and have been going through the reviews today. The "RoboCop" entry inspired me to pull out that film and watch it again!

In one of the "Star Wars" commentaries or documentaries, Lucas identifies one scene as the "map scene", saying that most adventure films should have a map scene, which lays out the physical locations that will be involved in the climax of the story. In "Star Wars" and "Phantom Menace" there's a sequence where they look at computer animations of the invasion they're planning.

Lucas singles out the scenes in Seven Samurai and the one in Hidden Fortress, where they literally draw the map in the sand. Just thought that was an interesting thing.

Matthew Dessem said...

Ben,

If you can believe it, I still haven't seen The Magnificent Seven.

Matthew Dessem said...

Anonymous,

Thanks for the answer to my question and the kind words!

Matthew Dessem said...

Jeff,

The "map scene" info is very interesting; it certainly works wonders in Seven Samurai.

Michael said...

Just found this blog on a link from a friends live journal.
Seven Samurai is my favorite movie, saw it back in '88 at college in a cramped little campus theatre.
We had an older, uncleaned up print, and I would up reading the subtitles for the whole audience. ( As my HS musical director said, "You have a voice that hits the back row and keeps on hitting it." ) Getting to say "Sheeyit" was a hoot.
Enjoyed your review and glad you liked the movie.

Matthew Dessem said...

Michael,

That's a really wonderful story--it reminds me of lining hymns. The next time I see this, I'll imagine someone reading out the subtitles like that, especially at the "Sheeyit" line. Thanks for sharing that!

Lewis Saul said...

>>>Kurosawa does this thing where he cuts onn an action, e.g., you see Kambei draw his sword in a shot from behind and halfway through drawing it, you cut to a shot facing him and he charges toward the camera. I'm mostly interested in screenplays right now but if I ever start editing film that's a trick I'm going to remember, cause it makes the action seem very fast

I detail AK's use of this "trick" in my blog [see Stray Dog, for example] -- it is an extraordinarily simple thing -- but it makes his action sequences so vibrant and smooth.

Ford did it (probably AK's inspiration), and it's commonplace today, but I'm not sure how many filmmakers other than Ford did it pre-Kurosawa...

Lewis Saul
www.lewissaul.blogspot.com

Matthew Dessem said...

Lewis,

It's an amazingly effective technique.

steve roberts said...

I loved this movie. It made me like samurai more than ninjas when I was a teenager, an important distinction when you're a teenager.

The suspense, to me, was what made this movie great, and it is accomplished by breaking the battle down into parts, letting us know how many bandits have been killed, etc. By having this information, it's much more gut-wrenching to wait for the next assault.

I'm sure you're right about Kurasawa not being the first director to have made these distinct character types, but I'm hard pressed to think of an earlier movie with them done so well. Probably why the movie is still considered a masterwork.

Anonymous said...

Yojimbo and Sanjuro are Kurosawa films that are both in the Criterion Collection...They follow Toshiro Mifune in a role that was later adapted for Clint Eastwood in the Fistful of Dollars trilogy.

Mike Johnston said...

You've got a typo in "The first half of the movie covers hiring the bandits and building defenses around the village"...you mean samurai, not bandits.

Mike

Austin said...

A Bug's Life is very inspired as well :)