Do you like samurai films? Kurosawa is the master of the genre. His films also introduced the world to the beauty of Japanese cinema.
…because if you see one samurai film in your lifetime, this is it. Akira Kurosawa's "Seven Samurai" created the template for the modern action film through its combination of serious themes, well-defined characters and comic relief. The groundbreaking fight sequences used multiple cameras and elaborate choreography to create a thrilling sense of movement with artistic composition. Certainly one of the most influential films of all time, "Seven Samurai" has inspired countless future directors, including (but definitely not limited to) Sergio Leone, George Lucas and Quentin Tarantino.
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For a film that runs almost three-and-a-half hours, "Seven Samurai" has a remarkably simple story: a group of villagers grow tired of bandits raiding their homes, so they hire seven rogue samurais to defend the town. Within that framework, Kurosawa devotes most of his energies to developing the characters and their relationships. Believe it or not, the film does actually have seven samurais who serve as the main characters. Each one has a set of defining characteristics and personality, which drives the tension of the film. Essentially, "Seven Samurai" asks one very big question: can seven very different people overcome their instincts to fight one another and work together? Complicating this further, they are defending people they have no connection to and, in fact, are superior to within their society. By focusing on the human elements, Kurosawa is able to explore different themes within the film, such as class, honor, loyalty and obligation. Although the story remains simple – will they be able to defend the town – complexity emerges through the characters existential progress and the serious issues that surround this straightforward central dilemma. "Seven Samurai" is perhaps the best example of how a plot driven narrative can effectively use character conflicts to create a much richer story.
Of course, the other part of the film’s epic run time is the innovative action sequences. Kurosawa had originally wanted to be a painter, and he famously drew detailed storyboards that made him one of cinema’s all-time masters of shot composition. In "Seven Samurai," he combines his artistic framing of scenes with exciting choreography to depict the fights and battles throughout the film. The result is a heightened sense of motion that paradoxically increases the sense of realism in the scenes. In fact, Kurosawa actually broke away from his notoriously rigid shot compositions when filming the action scenes of "Seven Samurai." He used multiple cameras for the first time, which allowed him to combine more fluid tracking shots with close ups and traditional static shots within the scenes. The results are sequences that have a kaleidoscopic effect, utilizing multiple perspectives and senses of scale. Rather than maintaining a more objective distance, the action scenes in "Seven Samurai" deliberately draw the audience into the fight…much like the main characters themselves.
It’s really, really difficult to overstate the influence of "Seven Samurai." George Lucas and Sergio Leone were fairly open in their admiration for Kurosawa’s films, particularly "Seven Samurai," which helped inspire their most well-known films. But everyone from Steven Spielberg to Martin Scorsese to John Lasseter has drawn on Kurosawa’s masterpiece in their own work. In case you hadn’t heard, Quentin Tarantino is a pretty big fan of the samurai film genre, and it’s difficult to imagine any of the fight scenes from "Kill Bill Vol. 1" without this film or, for that matter, Bill’s collection of diverse assassins. If imitation is the highest form of flattery, the film was directly remade by John Sturges as a western, "The Magnificent Seven," which itself is again being remade for a 2016 release directed by Antoine Fuqua. The controversial Japanese filmmaker Takashi Miike also gave "Seven Samurai" a hyper-violent update in his film "13 Assassins." The “team-of-outsiders” narrative model has appeared again and again in film and television – if you don’t think Joss Whedon drew heavily on this aspect of "Seven Samurai" for "The Avengers," then you have way too much faith in Hollywood’s originality. Sure, it’s always a herculean task in this day and age to sit down for a three hour plus black-and-white film with subtitles (assuming you don’t speak Japanese), but "Seven Samurai’s" legacy in the history of cinema and popular culture is impossible to ignore.
"Seven Samurai" tackles the themes of social integration and morality through the emotional interactions between its diverse cast of characters, each of whom brings a unique perspective that, when put together, form a complex tale that mirrored the post war identity struggle in Japan at the time. The coming together of the misfit characters to face a tremendous challenge has been a story trope that has been directly mirrored in many films since.
Elements from "Seven Samurai's" story have been incorporated into numerous films, including "Once Upon a Time in the West," "Three Amigos" and "A Bug's Life." Filmmaking techniques used in the film have influenced many filmmakers as well, including George Lucas (who incorporated elements from "Seven Samurai" in his "Star Wars" films), Quentin Tarantino (whose characters often mirror Kurosawa's) and Arthur Penn (who utilized similar camera techniques in "Bonnie and Clyde").
John Ford's wide-screen cinematography and large scale mise en scène and Sergei Eisenstein's notion of a montage of oppositions have greatly influenced the look and feel of the action sequences in "Seven Samurai."
"Seven Samurai" has been continually studied in filmmaking classes for its masterful use of various techniques including slow motion death scenes, integrating silent cinema narrational techniques, dynamic spatial compositions, the introduction of the horizon shot, use of long takes, dynamic camera movements and the use of multiple cameras and angles during action sequences.
The peasant village in the film was a complete set built about 50-100 miles south of Tokyo on the Izu Peninsula, and is now part of a national park. Although the location shoot created problems and raised the costs of production, it none-the-less provided an authentic look to the film.
Most Japanese films at the time cost around $70,000, but "Seven Samurai" is estimated to have cost close to half a million. It was the most expensive film ever made in Japan up to that point. Kurosawa remained unfazed by the ballooning costs during production, as he believed the studio was already too committed financially and would continue to find the money to get the film made in order to recoup their costs.
Kurosawa edited the film in addition to directing, and utilized a number of techniques to allow the film to flow at a rhythmic pace despite its long run time. He cut on movement, used fast, intercut pans and tracks, incorporated short and often humorous scenes throughout, connected with wipe transitions and used telephoto lenses to put the viewer very close to the action.
In its time (one of wartime Japanese censorship), "Seven Samurai" was a riveting example of the potential use of gore and violence in movies. The fight scenes in the film were shot like never before, with overwhelming amounts of kinetic physicality and motion. Many believed that violence in pre-war Japanese films was stylized, rehearsed and aestheticized. The presentation of the choreography in "Seven Samurai" was done so in a way that no viewer could accuse Kurosawa of faking the action - a feat incredibly hard to come by.
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