Criterion Sunday 2: 七人の侍 Shichinin no Samurai (Seven Samurai, 1954)

Kurosawa was the director who largely introduced Japanese cinema to Western audiences (with Rashomon a few years earlier), and that makes sense given his fondness for American genres and tropes. Seven Samurai, despite its 16th century feudal Japanese setting, has plenty about it to recall generic war movies and Westerns, so it’s appropriate that it re-entered the Hollywood vernacular a few years later as a Western, The Magnificent Seven. Kurosawa’s film concerns a small impoverished community terrorised by vagabonds, who need to hire itinerant samurai to protect them. If this is the core of the story, then its running time of well over three hours is concerned more with developing the identities of each of these samurai, though Toshiro Mifune’s over-eager youngster and Takashi Shimura’s patient elder samurai steal the show. There’s a showdown at the end, and amongst it all is plenty of solid character work and the same kind of unfashionably unshowy message about war that Renoir did so well in La Grande illusion.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • Audio commentaries: There are two of them, which is pretty extravagant for such a long film. The one I’ve listened to features a roster of scholars and critics tag-teaming one another for 40 minute chunks. Some are more technically minded, focusing on Kurosawa’s framing, camerawork and construction of the images, while others (like Tony Rayns) focus almost exclusively on the developing thematics that Kurosawa is drawing out with his characters and scenarios.
  • As we’ll see from the rest of the Criterion releases of Kurosawa’s films, there’s an episode of the Japanese TV series It Is Wonderful to Create, specifically the one focusing on this film (there’s an episode per film). It’s all fairly straightforward, featuring interviews with surviving cast and crew members, archival documents, voiceover narrative and plenty of on-screen text.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Akira Kurosawa 黒澤明; Writers Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto 橋本忍 and Hideo Oguni 小国英雄; Cinematographer Asakazu Nakai 中井朝一; Starring Takashi Shimura 志村喬, Toshiro Mifune 三船敏郎, Isao Kimura 木村功; Length 207 minutes.

Seen at Rialto, Wellington, Sunday 21 March 1999 (also previously on VHS at home, Wellington, May 1997, and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 5 October 2014).

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