Path breaking in its truest sense
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Seven Samurai is one of the greatest action movies of all time. The great Akira Kurosawa showed the world the infinite possibilities of highlighting emotional conflicts and its intensity in an action film. It also gives us a glimpse of the class divide prevalent in Japan at the time. It simultaneously tugs at your intellect while mesmerizing you with the visuals.
The story starts off with a village being attacked by a gang of bandits. The villagers were fed up with the constant threat of these bandits and want to do something about it. They consult the village elder and he counsels them to hire samurais. Not all are happy with this as they feel the samurais are expensive and would lust for their women. The elder however is firm and advises the villagers to find poor samurais (“Hungry Samurais” in his words) to help them in exchange for nothing more than food and board.
A few of the villagers set off to find these samurais at a nearby town but are initially fruitless in their efforts. But they are able to recruit on kind hearted Ronin called Kambei. He is then able to help them recruit a few more from the Ronins passing through the town. The recruited team includes: Kambei (The first ronin to be recruited and by default the leader of the group), Katsushiro (a young samurai very much impressed with Kambei and wants to be his disciple), Gorobei (Kambei’s deputy), Shichiroji (an old friend of Kambay), Kyuzo (a master swordsman), Heihachi Hayashida (a friendly Samurai whose humor sense helps the group to keep its spirits).
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The seventh member of the team is actually the most complex of them all; Kikuchiyo. He first comes off as an eccentric and maybe even insane. He does not seem to have the finesse of a Samurai. As the story progresses we realize why he is like that. Kikuchiyo is not a Samurai. He was born as the son of a farmer and he aspires to be Samurai in an effort to leave the life of a farmer behind him. He later on proves to be a vital link in the relationship between the farmers and the samurais. The villager do find their hungry samurais, but they are hungry not for food but for honor.
The seven thus formed goes to the village to help the villagers defend against the threat of the bandits. The fragile relationship between the samurais and the villagers, how they manage to overcome their differences for the common good, and their eventual triumph over the bandits forms the rest of the story.
Even though on the face of it Seven Samurai appears to be a simple story of good and evil, it is in fact more complex than it may seem to appear. There are various underlying complex themes that open a window into the societal conflicts and the lifestyle of the people at the time.
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The samurais for instance are shown as ordinary men who happen to possess great skill and resourcefulness. They are however alone in the world for all their skills. The plight of a Ronin (master less samurai) is even more pitiful as he does not have a livelihood until he is employed by another master and have to resort to menial jobs to earn his living. In the end only 3 of the samurais are left alive after the final battle. One of them even has to let go of his love for a young girl from the village because she chooses a life in the village to a life with him, prompting Kambei to say “The winners are those farmers. Not us”. He means that it’s the samurai’s masters who are always the winners. The samurais come out of each battle either alive or dead but never victorious.
The villager’s plight is even more depressing. They are a lot who live their life in constant worry. They worry if it rains as they are afraid if it might rain too much and spoil their crops. They worry if there is no rain as they begin to think that a drought might be imminent. In the movie this is best illustrated when fearing the bandits the villagers go to get the samurais. Then once the samurais arrive the villagers begin to worry if they would take a fancy for their women folks. So they hide them instead. But when Kikuchiyo raises a false alarm they again come running to the samurais along with the women pleading for protection.
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Kikuchiyo is the vital link in making the farmers more understandable to the Samurais. When the samurais are enraged upon discovering a cache of armaments (obviously taken by the farmers from defeated samurais) Kikuchiyo gives one of the movie’s most emotional moments. During his outbursts he says that the farmers are not saints but are conniving foxes. They claim to have nothing but they have everything. He says dig the floors or search the barns and you will find plenty of grains. If they smell a battle they hunt for the defeated. But he turns around asks who made them that way. He accuses the Samurais of oppressing the farmers, destroying their houses and villages, raping their women and plundering their harvest. And if they resist, the samurais would kill them. How else do they expect a farmer to behave?
The movie is also path breaking in some of the styles it has used to tell the story. As Michael Jeck says in his DVD commentary it is one of the first movies to have used the now common tool of recruiting and training sequences for telling a story about a team. This technique can be seen in some of the sports movies even today. Kambei’s introductory scene, where the hero is seen to perform an act of valor unrelated to the main plot of the movie, has also been repeated many times.
The genius of Kurosawa is reflected in the way he tells the story using lights and brilliant camera work. This is ably supported by some of the most brilliant editing that you will ever find in a movie. Long sequences are used so that we never lose out the vitality of the battle sequences. Some of the more intense sequences like the death sequences are shot in slow motion to make it more poignant. His sudden close ups enhances the emotions of the characters and leaves no one in doubt of what the character is going through. His deep shots of the various groups, be it the samurais or the villagers, showcases their unity as well as their division. His cast is also superb led by the vetran Takashi Shimura as Kambei and Toshiro Mifune as Kikuchiyo.
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Seven Samurai is one of those movies which attain perfection and has attained immortality among movie lovers. Even though many have used some of the tools that Kurosawa has used they have not been able to get the audience involved in an action movie as much as Kurosawa was able to. The remake of Seven Samurai, “The Magnificent Seven” was mediocre in comparison. Even our own “Sholay”, a brilliant movie on its own and inspired from The Seven Samurai, falls a few notches below the original. It was truly a path breaking piece of work in all it sense.
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